First Church to Confront Racism and White Privilege

First ChurchThe congregation at First Church Somerville.

First Church Somerville’s guiding principle is the “radical welcome”—the idea that the church will meet people of all identities and backgrounds where they are and accept them into the community.

The church tries to live up to its promise of a radical welcome both inside and outside the building, from raising a pride flag to having congregants fill out name tags with their pronouns.

But when Heather May, a congregant and former deacon of the church, looked around during Sunday morning services, she saw a slate of white faces and realized that the radical welcome was failing people of color.

“We need to start with ourselves, thinking about white privilege, how it works within us and the ways in which it might be working in our church that perhaps we’re not aware of as a predominantly white church, right now,” May says. “There are things that you can’t see when you’re living inside whiteness.”

May decided to launch a yearlong deep dive into understanding white privilege and combating racism within the church through an anti-racism task force.

Twenty congregants volunteered for the task force. All the members, including May, are white, which May finds problematic but not surprising, given where the UCC church is in terms of racial diversity—significantly behind that of the larger Somerville community, she says. About 77 percent of Somerville residents identified as being only white in 2016, according to U.S. census data.

First Church

Heather May. Photo by Reena Karasin.

“But if the task force still looked like that in December, that would be really troubling to me, that would say we’re not doing this right,” she says. “If our church looks exactly the same in December as it does right now, that would say to me, we’re missing something, because ultimately the goal is to expand the radical welcome to more people of color, more people from different socioeconomic classes, and make the inside of our church look more like the community outside our church.”

May perceived the need for the initiative through the lack of people of color in the church rather than direct feedback from people of color who attend the church or left it behind, and says that one of First Church’s problems is that there isn’t a good system in place for getting feedback when people don’t feel that the radical welcome is extended to them.

But she emphasized that it is the job of the church’s white congregants to educate themselves, rather than to rely on people of color to teach them about their problematic actions or beliefs—an approach that seems especially salient given that First Church recently welcomed Reverend Da Vita D. McCallister, a Black woman, into its ranks as its new lead pastor.

“It’s not her job to come here and diversify our church or to make us more culturally competent, or whatever it is that we need,” May says. “But maybe the fact that she’s coming is God’s way of saying, ‘Get ready.’”

Rev Day

Reverend Da Vita D. McCallister. Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

McCallister visited First Church Somerville years ago to lead a program on racial justice, and found a different atmosphere than she had at many other predominantly white churches.

“A number of the churches were primarily white and did not see the conversation around our moral or theological obligations to racism—to try to dismantle it, to uproot it,” she says. “When I would travel to churches, I would hear about difficulties getting millennials to church, I would hear about aging congregations, I would hear about the struggle to maintain a building. Because those congregations didn’t have in their midst families of color, for them, racism wasn’t a conversation that they needed to pick up. And, of course, my perspective was the opposite: The fact that you don’t have families of color here is exactly why this is a church that needs to be talking about race.”

For her, the congregation’s relationship with racism can be summed up by what she saw while touring the church before she was offered the position of lead pastor. Tucked away in storage, she found a collection of artwork depicting Jesus as a white man rather than a man of color.

“Somebody had recognized that even though these pictures are part of the heritage of this church, traditions of this church, somebody bought them, somebody took the time to hang them, that at some point in the life of the church, they had recognized if these are the only images of the divine that we post in this church, what are we saying about how we understand God’s creation?” she says. “And they had taken them down, and now they are in this corner, all the way in a part of the church that nobody comes to visit. For me, those are the deeper questions that the church, writ large, has to ask and answer.”

While First Church has a history of progressivism and dedication to social justice—from having the country’s first African American leader of a mainline, integrated church to naming the first female Christian minister in modern history, according to the UCC website—its congregants still fall along a spectrum when it comes to views on and knowledge about white privilege and racism, which is a challenge for the task force.

But many people who are not as well-versed in social justice have shown a desire to learn, according to May. When the church encouraged congregants to write a question that they would like to ask Martin Luther King Jr. if he were here today, many responses involved asking how white people could start to do their part. McCallister says she hopes during this year the congregation develops an increased willingness to have uncomfortable yet necessary conversations.

The year dedicated to “uprooting racism” was kicked off earlier this month with two weeks of programming surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Plans for the year are just getting underway, but May says the task force will hold trainings—such as how to be an active bystander in racially charged situations—and discussion groups on books that can help congregants understand the depth and breadth of institutional racism.

The task force will also emphasize how connected race and class can be, a stark problem in a city where more than a third of the people living in poverty are Black despite only accounting for about seven percent of Somerville’s population, according to the Somerville Wellbeing Report. May pointed to the Boston Globe’s Spotlight series on racism in Boston, which turned up harrowing findings including that the median net worth of Black households in Greater Boston is $8—compared to almost a quarter-million dollars for white households.

Ultimately, the task force will aim to take the progress that it has hopefully made within the church and do work throughout the city.

“How can we be that megaphone, the amplification for the voices of people of color in our communities? We don’t want to speak for them, but we want to help them be heard,” May says.