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Congregations Doing Racial Justice

In October, we published our second issue in a series on DOING Racial Justice. This issue featured a deep dive into the partnership between Calloway United Methodist Church and Rock Spring United Church of Christ in Arlington, Virginia. (Calloway is a predominantly African American congregation and Rock Spring is a primarily white congregation.) In this blog post, we lift up the interview between two lay leaders who have played a key role in this effort, Christine Purka and Leslie Atkins. Their interview describes some of the key steps that their partnership team took to help both congregations move from educating members about racism to taking concrete action. We hope this may help inspire and guide other congregations intent on impacting systemic racism! Here's the interview:

Pat Jackson, Interwoven Congregations Quarterly (ICQ): Leslie and Christine, could you share how you came to be involved in the project for racial justice between Calloway UMC and Rock Spring UCC?

Leslie Atkins: I've been a member of Rock Spring UCC for five years. I first got involved in issues of racial equity through Arlington’s Challenging Racism program. Until then, I had no real understanding of structural racism. To understand for the first time in my late fifties that the government played a huge role in the racism that we see today in housing made me want to be involved in changing things.

Christine Purka: I've been with Calloway for five years now. The impetus for these racial justice conversations came during Covid, when we were starving for connection and struggling with racial equity issues. I was at an interfaith event and started chatting with someone from Rock Spring. They spoke about the work they were doing in racial equity and I had the idea of bringing the two churches together. I'm very mindful that you can't just match up a white church and a black church. You need a white church that has been doing the work and understands systemic racism. They're not learning about their whiteness for the first time. And Rock Spring had done their education, but they wanted to move into action. So we built this Courageous Conversations program to move people from education to action, to come together and dive into the criminal justice, housing and education inequities in Arlington.

ICQ: How did you decide to focus the initial Courageous Conversation program on those three areas?

Christine: The NAACP of Arlington was a real anchor for us. Our pastor, Rev. Davis, is the chair of their Religious Affairs Committee and Calloway is a member. So we knew that the NAACP has their own committees on housing, education and criminal justice, which got us to focus on those three topics initially. When we moved into the second phase of our work, participants said “What about environmental justice?”

Leslie: An important thing we had to do at Rock Spring as a white congregation was take the lead from the black community. During the Courageous Conversations program, the chair of the NAACP was in my small group and he was very firm in saying, “The most important thing you can do, once you've done this learning, is to come out and help us advocate for these issues.”

ICQ: How did you run the six month Courageous Conversations program?

Christine: Leslie and I had a fantastic Planning Committee from both churches, including both pastors, and we met regularly to support each of the six monthly sessions. We were very disciplined in having pre-work. We would send articles, podcasts or videos on the systemic nature of the session’s topic. Then, when they came to the program, we always had a panel of local experts like the Commonwealth Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti for criminal justice or Michael Hemminger of the NAACP for housing. Small breakout discussions [8 groups with 10 per group] followed the panels. We tried to make the small groups as diverse as possible and keep them together throughout the six-month program. Each group had two leads, one person of color and one white person, one from each church. We'd conclude each session with a bigger share.

Leslie: We had slots for 100 people to join on Zoom, 50 from Rock Spring and 50 from Calloway. Because Calloway's congregation is smaller, they opened it up to NAACP participants and the neighborhood around the church. We always had 80 participants or more.

ICQ: How did you decide what to do next after the six months of Courageous Conversations?

Leslie: People didn’t wanted this to be the end. And it's a huge step to move from education to action. So we came up with these “Racial Equity Action Groups (REAGs).” It naturally flowed to pick what we had discussed in our sessions: criminal justice, education and housing. Let's start with that. We felt it was important that these be self-led groups. We wanted to set up the structure and see how things could evolve.

Christine: We did a participant survey to ask people which of the topics had the most resonance for them and whether they would be interested in taking this forward in an action group and leading those groups.

ICQ: So the Action Groups formed. How did the people in those groups decide what steps to take?

Leslie: We trusted that the people involved would find their way. A lot of them started with more education to help hone in on an issue. So the action groups developed very organically.

ICQ: What do you see as the most significant accomplishments and challenges thus far for the REAGs?

Christine: After our Courageous Conversations, Temple Rodef Shalom came to us and said they wanted to do a program across Arlington, Fairfax and Alexandria, VA. They used a lot of our format and speakers – so I love that we inspired that to happen through the Jewish community. I also am proud of the work that the REAGs are doing. As an example, members of the criminal justice group are attending sentencing on Friday in court to help make sure judges are treating people fairly. As for challenges, I think it's just hard to keep it going.

Leslie: Another impact that we've seen is that all of the Racial Equity Action Groups have access now to leaders in the community. If they ask for a meeting with the chief equity officer in the schools, the chief equity officer meets with them. We had people, including myself, who had never testified at a county council meeting, testify on why zoning for housing needed to be changed to deal with systemic racism. I had the information and was able to amplify concerns in the community. White people need to say the truth that they see. I think part of the challenge is expanding our leadership and continuing the work with the limited time that people have. We want to embed this work in the congregations so that it continues even if the pastors move on to new positions in their denominations.

ICQ: What keeps you going?

Leslie: For me it's helping create a better world for my children. I want to be an example to them and others in my congregation so that they go out and continue this work. We have to take what we've learned and do something to make that difference.

Christine: Racial inequities are deeply embedded in all of our systems and institutions, so it has to be intentional work to undo it. We just can't look away. We can make progress one conver-sation at a time, changing hearts and minds. But there is the white privilege of being able to go to sleep at night and not live it every day. It's harder work for people of color who commit their life to this, who live it in their day job, in their personal lives and through their children. Engaging people in these conversations, particularly through our faith communities, is that common ground where we can all share in these conversations and turn to action.

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