When I agreed to join the Dismantling Racism Within People’s Church Steering Team last fall, I had a very specific idea of what the work would look like and be, relative to my experience as a former Board of Trustees member, Religious Education Committee member and volunteer, and my 20-year tenure as a participant and member of the church. I have an understanding of our church’s recent history with diversity and inclusion visioning, everyday experience in my paid work advancing community development investment in our most under-invested neighborhoods in the city, and a personal moral conviction that we all need to be part of the work to bring equity, inclusion, and fairness to all the places in our lives where we “show up” be they home, church, or broader community. I thought I could bring that understanding, experience, and conviction to help to combat oppressive systems that prevent us all from sharing in prosperity equally. All of that to say, I came to this invitation to our shared antiracism/anti-oppression work with our church community with what I thought and hoped was a clear understanding of what was being asked and needed, and how I could bring my gifts, experiences and knowledge to bear to provide at least some of the answers. I also believed that I understood how I would show up and “help” others in our congregation to show up as well.

I will say, four months into this role, I have far more questions than I have answers about how our congregation can move forward to answer some really hard questions on how we present as a congregation to our community and how we show up to ourselves and each other. And I am hopeful that my “aha” that I don’t actually know what I thought I knew, speaks to a willingness to admit that I daily question my own assumptions about how systemic racism/oppression shows up and pervades many aspects of our congregation and the broader Kalamazoo community. I hope it also means that I am willing to explore where my discomfort and resistance to admitting to my own flaws and mistakes comes from. This realization popped up for me on a recent Sunday, and caused me to catch myself in a “huh, isn’t that interesting” moment about my reaction to being called (out) in* on a mistake I made. In short, I misgendered a congregant in an offline, private conversation with another congregant after church. It was not intentional, it was more of a passing comment, in which I used the wrong pronoun and didn’t even realize I had done it, despite knowing what their preferred term was. When it was pointed out to me that I had not used the correct pronoun, I had a rising internal feeling of defensiveness (“I didn’t mean to”…”it was an accident”…”that was the gender identity that matched their name and the one I have always used for that person, who I have known for a very long time”…”was my ‘oops’ really that bad, worthy of being outed on it?”). I took a long pause and a deep breath, and observed my reaction to being corrected and thought “huh, isn’t that an interesting response I am having?” before speaking outloud. Why did I feel like I had to be right/correct/justified? Why was I embarrassed to be called (out) in* on my mistake? Why wasn’t my initial response to say, “Yes, I made that mistake and that could have been very harmful to someone I truly appreciate and adore. I am going to be more mindful in the future to make sure I use the correct pronoun when speaking about that person”.

We are all faced with opportunities for self-reflection every day in what feels like an increasingly more complex world where experiences as white, cis-gendered, economically middle class people are the “norm” and other ways of being and identifying in the world are seen as “other”. We cannot always control our initial responses to being called (out) in* when we are wrong, but we can be open to the possibility that our responses are not normal, or the way that will be most conducive to forging the inclusive, antiracist and anti-oppressive communities that we want to foster, grow, and cultivate in our congregation and wider world.  I challenge us all to continue to be reflective, to dispassionately question how we respond to being questioned/corrected, and to remain soft and open to the possibility that we can and will grow as people and as a church community the more we question our assumptions about what is true, real and honest about ourselves and our community.

Sonja Dean

*call-in is when you talk with someone privately about their behavior (or, you wait to talk in person), and is considered a less reactionary route to work through conflict than calling people out. Calling in is a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes; a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do is a unlearn many things that we have been taught to believe are normal.

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