Rev. Kathy Dwyer of Rock Spring United Church of Christ (left) and Rev. Dr. DeLishia Davis of Calloway United Methodist Church (right)
Rev. Pat Jackson, Interwoven Congregations Quarterly (ICQ): Rev. DeLishia Davis and Rev. Kathy Dwyer, thank you, and all your congregational members and community partners in Arlingon, VA, for sharing in these conversations about the racial justice partnership between your congregations. How did you personally come to this work of antiracism? And how did you find each other?
Rev. Dr. DeLishia Davis: I think Kathy and I were destined to meet each other and for our congregations to be joined together at this time. Long before we arrived at our congregations, there is history of our congregations meeting together 60 years ago, 42 years ago, and about 11 years ago for racial justice and reconciliation. Kathy and I did not set out to look each other up; there were people in our congregations working behind the scenes who brought this to us.
Rev. Kathy Dwyer: I went back and checked Rock Spring's history book which talks about 1963, the march on Washington and the movement for desegregation. That year our two congregations worked together to hold an integrated vacation bible school that attracted 150 kids. I think that memory inspired our congregations to come back together, because members of both of our congregations were seeking to do more than educate about racism, but come together for some kind of action. DeLishia is right -- we had people from both congregations setting up this partnership, telling DeLishia “You need to call Kathy” and “Kathy, call DeLishia. We want you to meet so we can take a next step.”
ICQ: That speaks to the power of champions in a congregation!
Kathy: Yes! But you asked about how we personally came to the work. I grew up in a home that talked about the importance of civil rights, equity and inclusion and people of privilege using their voice to help lift other voices and make changes. So it's always been in me. But in 2014, with the murder of Michael Brown, I remember standing in my kitchen just weeping, and that really activated in me a desire to do something. And so in 2014 our congregation began an intensive learning process to understand history that wasn't taught in schools and our own white privilege and biases. We kept going deeper, culminating in a course I led with Professor Beverley Mitchell from Wesley Seminary called Challenging White Supremacy. But there was a burning desire to move beyond education to some kind of action, and Calloway was a natural partner.
DeLishia: I'm part of a clergy family so I grew up thinking that speaking about injustice was the norm. In 1991 in Baltimore County, a young man, Roy Mason, was driving his parents’ car and was stopped by the police. He was reaching into the glove compartment to take out the paperwork, and he was shot. That event put a righteous determination within me to speak out, to unite and educate people and stand together. So if you see an African-American male pulled over by the police, stop your car and just be a presence there. If I see that happening, no matter what's going on, if I'm late to church, I will stop and wait because it's a way of showing people that they're not by themselves. I have a tremendous respect for the police department, but we can all fall into stereotypes and make assumptions. Today I look at my responsibility as pastor as being not simply for members of Calloway Church, but for the entire community. So when social injustice happens, regardless of where, I feel called to speak up about it.
The Zoom interview.
ICQ: What would you say is the significance of a black congregation and a white congregation coming together in partnership for racial justice?
DeLishia: I think we have a bond in understanding that we are all created equal. Also, I think it was important from the African-American community side to see that there are other cultures that are willing to sit down to learn, to embrace, and to grow together, because all of us have cultural biases.
Kathy: I serve a congregation that loves to learn and for me there is a big difference between learning from reading and learning from experience. We can read about implicit bias and stereotypes. But I think bringing difference around a table together is one of the basic keys that will bring healing to community – being in conversation not just for one night but again and again and then elevating that learning model to an action model.
DeLishia: I think one of the key parts of what we did during the initial Courageous Conversations was to create a safe space where people could say “I've experienced racism,” or “I have implicit bias or white privilege and I didn't realize it.” We were able to share openly, without judgment, and be heard.
ICQ: If the Courageous Conversations education program was the first step in your renewed partnership, then a second step was forming these “Racial Equity Action Groups” to get at systemic racism. How did you get from Courageous Conversations to the Action Groups?
DeLishia: During our Courageous Conversations we lifted up particular topics – education, housing, etc. Towards the end of that, there were signups for people who wanted to continue the conversation. Those groups decided the direction they're going in. They brought in guest speakers to talk to them about current affairs in Arlington and they made decisions about where they're going to take action.
Kathy: The initial conversations with our steering committee for the Courageous Conversations emphasized that we don't want this just to be “What is racism, what is white privilege, what’s the history?” We wanted to focus on issues that we can understand and have an impact on. So there was some brainstorming and four action groups emerged on criminal justice, housing, education and environmental justice.
ICQ: What do you see as the specific role for you as pastors in this partnership?
Kathy: The gift of a faith community is that we get to practice -- we get to practice agape love and forgiveness. So I think part of our job is to provide ongoing vision and encouragement for practicing love boldly, practicing using our voice to speak truth to power. The more we practice, the more powerful and effective we’ll be.
DeLishia: I think the involvement of our members allows us to shift to providing spiritual support, undergirding the work that's being done. That includes preaching, teaching, bible studies, the Pastor's Word in our newsletter which all revolve around us being courageous and working for social justice. We have people who asked us “What does this anti-racism have to do with the Bible, with who we are as believers?” It's a special time when a congregation actually wants to grow more in a particular area, and it pushes you as a pastoral leader to study more, to know more, to encourage more. We have to be very careful that we are hearing from God, so that we are able to share and direct people in the path God wants us to be on.
ICQ: What do you think is the significance of your personal relationship, DeLishia and Kathy, for the broader partnership?
DeLishia: I think the bond and friendship that Kathy and I have is essential because it has helped us to be able to work together. And our team was able to move forward because they knew we were going to be in agreement, that there was unity.
Kathy: When you're doing work that takes people out of their comfort zone, I don't think it will go forward without that relationship of pastors and the support of pastors. I strongly feel that learning, change and growth happens through relationship. Then there is how this goes beyond our congregations. When either of us are engaged in the community, we can text one another, find different resources, and come together with one voice. I think that's added richness and breadth, and made us stronger because we have one another.
Celebrating worship together in September 2023.
ICQ: Lest our readers think you're in racial justice Nirvana, can you speak about the challenges that you have encountered as you’ve sought to take action against systemic racism with your congregations?
Kathy: This has gone more smoothly than anticipated. I wouldn't call it racial justice Nirvana, but we really have come together well. We had trainings for facilitators from each congregation so that they felt confident wading into these waters. It took time and intention to help set that up. In the initial Courageous Conversations, each program dealt with a different community issue. I think there was angst and frustration that, “Yes, we're talking about racial justice and housing, education, and criminal justice, but how do we have more action and impact?” Out of that process came the Racial Equity Action Groups, and those are much more organic. As with any organizational structure, the challenge is communicating, getting people all on the same page, figuring out together the best action steps and keeping the momentum going.
DeLishia: I think the work that the Racial Equity Action Groups are doing continues to motivate others. This has not been Nirvana, though. When we started this work there were several questions of me, “Why is that important in Arlington?” So there was a little pushback initially, because not everyone sees the value in that. But we'll see it in the long run and that’s what’s happening in our community. We're all in this together to make our future a lot better — for ourselves as well as our children and generations to come.
[This interview was a part of the October 2023 Interwoven Congregations Quarterly on "Congregations Doing Racial Justice." Catch the full issue here.]