Elizabeth Cook: Beloved dialogue brings races together

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 28, 2021

Their interests ran the gamut —criminal justice, education, housing, jobs, mental health.

But one factor united people of different races and faiths who recently gathered via Zoom for the Building Beloved Community project: A desire to work together on local action for social justice. 

The Rev. Olen Bruner, chairman of Covenant Community Connection, says he was surprised by how ready — “even hungry” — Salisbury-Rowan faith groups and churches were for the work. 

“Getting outside of our bubbles, breaking the barriers of silence and distrust are key to getting race equity work on track,” Bruner says. “It changes us. And that, along with our commitment to social justice, changes the system.” 

The invitation went out in January. Covenant Community Connection, a subcommittee of the Salisbury Human Relations Council, was leading a virtual, faith-based dialogue. It would bring people together over Zoom on five successive Mondays, Feb. 15-March 15. 

As faces popped up on the Zoom screen that first Monday, participants could see their diversity of skin color. The goal was to build community partnerships among historically Black, Latinx and white churches. A few had worked together before; many were meeting for the first time. 

According to Bruner, retired pastor of Trinity Presbyterian, the inspiration for the gathering went back to a partnership between two other churches: predominantly white St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and historically Black Soldier’s Memorial AME Zion Church. A project they undertook together, Becoming Beloved Community, resulted in a series of videos. In the videos, several Black residents of Salisbury talked about what it was like to grow up during the days of segregation, the struggle for civil rights and afterwards. 

The videos are posted to YouTube. Search for “Becoming Beloved Community” and look for videos by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

A follow-up event the Covenant group held last March to discuss race and racial experiences in small groups went well. Then came the pandemic and George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis. Community events were put on hold, but the need for conversation was greater than ever. Organizers kept talking and eventually developed the idea for the online dialogue to be called Building Beloved Community. 

Bruner says he and other organizers knew they were asking a lot — 90 minutes of people’s time on five evenings. But more than 30 people stuck with the process all the way through, from sharing their own experiences around race to committing to next steps forward. 

Early in the process, participants brought up a broad range of concerns, including establishing equity in policing, ending cash bail, improving financial opportunities, recruiting more Black teachers, distributing scholarships equitably, dismantling systemic poverty, defending youth, and making personal and social transformation.  

In the end, the emphasis was more on getting to know each other and our cultures with events such as a multi-congregational, multicultural service and celebration on Bell Tower Green; a community Seder; intentional conversations and one-on-one dinners. Several people said they planned to spread the word in their own congregations that churches of different races were open to working together. 

The idea was not to blend congregations or change anyone’s practices. Instead, people talked about joining forces for work in the community.  

Bruner says talking about sensitive topics, especially among people who don’t know each other well, could be a recipe for disaster.  That was not the case for Building Beloved Community.

“The greatest takeaway is that often what we fear or avoid is exactly what needs to happen to create change,” he says.

Bruner praises CCC’s planning task force of Betty Jo Hardy, Mark Ritchie and Susan Lee, as well as volunteer facilitators Roberta Mahatha, Joyce Caddell, Catrelia Hunter, Carl Repsher, Mary Frances Edens, PJ Ricks, Esther Adkins Smith, Kip Mobley, Subrina Hough and Pat Roos.

What kind of change will come out of the conversations these people led? Time will tell. As the Chinese saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step. Drawing a diverse group into conversation was a promising start. 

Covenant Community Connection’s next step is scheduled April 26. In partnership with Rural Advancement Foundation International, the group will offer an online Racial Wealth Gap Simulation for up to 100 people. Details will be forthcoming.

In the meantime Building Beloved Community gave its participants plenty to think about. If we’re going to work together on tough issues, we need a foundation of trust and understanding. 

Elizabeth G. Cook lives in Salisbury and is the retired editor of the Salisbury Post.