Striving for inclusion at racial justice church

By JACQUELINE COLE

Monitor staff

Published: 06-03-2023 10:00 AM

A photograph of a stained glass window that depicts a Black Jesus Christ hangs on the wall of South Congregational Church in Concord. The original glass adorns the walls of 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where six decades ago four young girls lost their lives in a bomb attack instigated by the Ku Klux Klan.

As he walks through the pews of his church, Pastor Jed Rardin asks himself, “Would a person of color feel at home with all that you have up there?” If the answer is no, he will take it down.

Rardin is white and leads an overwhelmingly white congregation. “Chances are pretty good that Jesus was not white,” said Rardin.

South Congregational Church is proud of its stance on issues of injustice and inequality. Its sign boasts rainbow panels with the words “An Open and Affirming Church.”

In 1996, South Congregational Church was the second church in New Hampshire to become “Open and Affirming” — one that welcomes and includes congregants regardless of their sexuality or gender identity. 

In 2007, Carlos Jauhola-Straight, an openly gay pastor, was the top candidate for an open position at South Church. Though their exterior told an explicit story of the church’s values, a vote to welcome Jauhola-Straight would prove it. The congregation successfully voted for him to be their pastor, to the dismay of about 10 to 12 members who disaffiliated after the decision. 

“We don’t just put up a banner in June,” said Nancy Brown, congregant and member of the church’s Racial Justice Action Group. “We live it all the time.”

Just two weeks ago, the church voted on another declaration of inclusion— whether to become a Racial Justice Church.

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This means that the church will engage in an ongoing process of being learners, interrupters, and allies, according to its official declaration.

LEARNING: For three years prior to the vote, a 15-person committee educated themselves on the issue of racial justice in America through podcasts, literature and videos, including White Like Me by Tim Wise and Waking Up White by Debby Irving. As an all-white committee, their goal was to recognize and understand their privilege while approaching— not reaching – enlightenment. 

INTERRUPTING: Last November, armed white nationalists protested a “drag queen story hour” event at Teatotaller cafe in Concord, holding signs that said “Stop Grooming Kids,” while counter-protestors held signs that said, “Love Is Greater Than Hate.”

According to Rardin, “That would be the kind of event that people who are in the interrupter category would want to go to in a peaceful, caring way to say we stand with people who are transgender.”

ALLYSHIP: On the day of the vote, Rardin preached these words: “We will clumsily navigate our way through ever-changing terminology and always have the willingness to say ‘oops, we goofed.’” He reminded the congregation that allyship is to be earned, not declared.

The Vote

With about 70 people in the sanctuary and 20 participating online, the vote was almost unanimous in favor of declaring South Congregational Church a Racial Justice Church.

“I looked around and everyone was standing,” said Brown. “I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.”

This standing ovation seemed to include the entire congregation except for one: Thom Bloomquist.

Bloomquist and his wife got married in South Congregational Church, a place that used to inspire him. Now, the conversation of racial justice has driven him to leave. 

“This is not why I go to church,” Bloomquist said to the Monitor. “I go to church to be inspired. To build up my spirituality. I don’t go to church to receive messages that are essentially socialist programming.”

With the exception of Bloomquist, South Church is united by its values, but still, there are currently no Black congregants. 

The church will wear this not as a badge of honor, but “as a badge of obligation and desire,” Rardin wrote to his congregation a few days after the vote.

“In a way, it’s confessing that we’re sorry,” said Rardin. According to him, this decision should have been  made decades ago.

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