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Christian Church congregations encourage racial sensitivity

Friday, June 12, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Pastors at Columbia's Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregations are encouraging their members to take part in a workshop in Jefferson City this weekend to learn about race, society and the role of the church in racial sensitivity.

The Pro-Reconciliation/Anti-Racism training weekend aims to give church members necessary tools to implement racial sensitivity in everyday life as well as the means to train and educate others about racism.

“We all live in a racist society, and that’s one of the things the training will teach people,” said the Rev. John Yonker, pastor at First Christian Church.

Yonker said the way society is constructed gives advantage to the racial majority, while hindering minorities. “Those of us who have white skin are the beneficiaries of it. Very often most of us are not aware of that, and we take the advantage — the privileges of it — for granted.

The workshop will include exercises designed to bring to light nuances of racism that might not always be obvious to someone who does not come from a minority background. In this sense, the trainers, members of the denomination's national Pro-Reconciliation/Anti-Racism team, hope to convey the message that racism is still a prevalent and debilitating issue.

“For many people, the first time they see this it’s an eye-opening thing,” Yonker said. “For some folks, it’s very threatening. And some people get angry about it. We don’t understand the advantages we’ve had.”

Last summer, Yonker attended the same conference, which caters to all Christian Church congregations in mid-Missouri. In turn, those who attend the summer training leave equipped to lead similar workshops in other regions. First Christian Church hosted a workshop in February to educate the congregations of northeastern Missouri about the issue of racism. About 40 people from several congregations including Rock Bridge Christian Church and the African-American congregation of Fifth Street Christian Church attended the training workshop.

The relationship between Rock Bridge and Fifth Street Christian churches extends beyond such training. According to the Rev. Maureen Dickmann, Rock Bridge Christian Church pastor, the churches have events every year to encourage fellowship and relationship between the two congregations. 

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The congregations take turns attending each others' services each year on Race Relations Sunday, usually the second Sunday in February. During Holy Week, the churches also hold a joint Maundy Thursday service, and each September they meet for a picnic after Sunday services.

“That’s been an unusual partnership, and it’s a good thing,” Dickmann said. She said the churches continue their joint efforts throughout the year by supporting events and fundraisers together.

The issue of race reconciliation is one that became a mission of the Christian Church  denomination beginning in the 1960s, Yonker said, and most Disciples of Christ congregations across the country practice similar awareness and efforts. 

“The purpose was to help and do what we could and can to address the issues of racism in this country,” Yonker said. “For us, it is a biblical mandate to be involved in the process of reconciling, of bringing people together, recognizing the whole history of racism and slavery in this country and how it has affected life for people of color, particularly African Americans, and what can we as a church do be a reconciling force in this society.”

When clergy and church members established the Pro-Reconciliation/Anti-Racism regional team  in 2001 as an effort to raise awareness throughout mid-Missouri, Dickmann was eager to take part.

“It was a lifelong kind of passion, doing something about racism,” Dickmann said. “I used to fight with my dad. He had prejudices and I would fight with him when I was a little girl. He’s sending me to the Catholic school and Sister Mary Antonio was saying we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ, and then he’s talking about people. I was like, ‘But Daddy, aren’t we all brothers?’ It must have driven him nuts.”

As part of the regional team, Dickmann attended special training in Nashville, Tenn., and Daytona, Fla., and helped facilitate other training to raise racial awareness in mid-Missouri.

“Out of each of those, new energy comes, new people are involved,” Dickmann said. “It’s so hard to keep on because it’s hard to find measurable progress.”

Congregations in the Christian Church denomination are encouraged, in addition to raising awareness, to give yearly offerings towards reconciliation that benefit various causes involving racial issues, helping minority churches and providing scholarships for minority children to attend church camps.

In an effort to raise funds for the offering, Yonker plans to bike from Columbia to Indianapolis, Ind., to attend the General Assembly of the Christian Church in July. To raise funds, Yonker is taking donations as well as pledges per mile.

“I try to live to be sensitive to the issues that other people face, the struggles that they have and to encourage other people to be aware of it too,” Yonker said. “That’s why I’ve always tried to raise funds for this yearly offering.”


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