Participants of the online conversation

One of the positive consequences of the pandemic has been that many people are now comfortable in joining online discussion groups in various formats. Making the most of this development, the Britain and Ireland region of Church and Peace recently hosted an online event to discuss the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and why racism must become a priority for peace churches and peace groups. We were happy to have over forty registrations and speakers from the UK (Anglican and Quaker), Germany (Quaker), Russia (Quaker), Belgium (Roman Catholic) and Switzerland (Mennonite).

Sharon Prentis, the Intercultural Mission Enabler in the Church of England in Birmingham, introduced the event. She reminded us that BLM affects all of us in our call to work for peace. Her own church has looked into its soul and found out that as a People of God, they are falling short. BLM has become a mechanism to confront aspects of systemic racism with which we are all only too familiar. The slogan “No Justice – No Peace” has been spoken by a range of people from different backgrounds. If we are to be credible advocates for people who are experiencing marginalisation, we will have to change. We are all created in the image of God and we need to ask what God is calling us to be, to do, to say at this time. We have to lament and repent, to take action rather than just being comfortable where we were. Intentional solidarity means seeking out examples of injustice and being pro-active –working to embody our intentions to be an inclusive and diverse community. Martin Luther King said that Injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and we need to find the courage to look at the root causes of systemic inequality and find solutions which will transform how we live collectively.

Davorka Lovrekovic, a German Quaker, will be familiar to many Church and Peace members from her time as General Secretary. She started by showing us a photograph taken at a demonstration near a monument to murdered Jews – “White silence is violence”. The juxtaposition of the place and the message reminded us that these topics are interwoven. There are black people who have been born in Germany and who have lived here all their lives, descendants of Turkish and Arab immigrants, who experience a lot of structural racism e.g. racial profiling in the street, discrimination in schools and in all aspects of their lives. Young people brought a lot of energy and anger to the streets – it is not easy for us to hear but we need to listen to these voices. Do we as a church have relationships with black people, do we join in discussions around racism and structural violence? We intentionally need to go to places where we can listen to the experiences of young people. John Woolman connected wealth and power – issues of simple lifestyle, justice and peace.

Natasha Zhuravenkova is a Russian Quaker and works at the office of Friends House in Moscow, a Church and Peace member organisation. She pointed out the complex nature of national and racial issues in the contemporary Russian Federation. Historically Russia was always multi-national but the power structures were mainly based on the ethnic Russians who made up more than 70% of the population. Other nationalities and religions apart from the Russian Orthodox Church were treated as subordinate. The 1917 Revolution brought in religious tolerance but then any religious ideas quickly became forbidden. While proclaiming internationalism, the Russian authorities persecuted whole nationalities. Many Soviet citizens, however, were internationalists. After the fall of the Soviet Union, tensions between different nationalities became apparent, with numerous outbreaks of violence and military conflicts. Refugees e.g. from Chechnya fled to other cities, mostly in European part of Russia. Quakers had experience of relief work in Russia in the early 20th century so when Friends House Moscow was founded in the 1990s, it was natural to turn to supporting marginalised groups. One of first projects was a refugee school for children in Moscow whose parents had no official status. After the end of Chechen wars, the refugee school became a centre for refugee and migrant children, “Kids are Kids”, It is mainly supported by Quakers and helps families from former the former Soviet republics in Central Asia as well as from other countries such as Nigeria, Congo, Philippines, Cuba, Syria, Afghanistan, Tajikistan. The Centre helps with Russian language and other subjects, life skills, humanitarian support, expenses for school attendance and cultural activities. Because of the pandemic, the situation is different so lessons are now given online. Hundreds of lessons given by volunteers. In response to a question, Natasha confirmed that devices such as laptops and smartphones are donated by other organisations and distributed by the Centre.

In answer to the question about whether the women and children suffer racial harassment on streets of Moscow, Natasha told us that it is difficult to feel safe – although Moscow is a multi-national city, there are groups with very diverse views which can make the lives of minorities dangerous.

In the discussion in this first part of the evening, the question was raised about how we can hear people’s stories without seeming voyeuristic and invasive. Both Sharon and Davorka emphasised how traumatic it is to be constantly asked to recount stories of racism and discrimination – there are many narratives available in the public domain which can be used instead. The church needs to teach – the stories are examples of structural violence, which we need to be made more aware of.

In answer to a question about what the churches were actually “doing”, Sharon told us about the Church of England’s “unconscious bias” training and what it means to exist in a context which is so saturated in privilege. The first century church was multi-cultural in the midst of an empire, so we need to go back to our roots. The German churches, because of the country’s recent history, have a good record on speaking out against racist violence and awareness is growing that there needs to be a structured inter-religious dialogue. In Russia, although the doctrine of the Orthodox Church does not include racism, many people have anti-Muslim views and suspicions against people from Asian part of Russia who come to work in west of Russia. There are hostile feelings not imposed by mass media or authorities – those are hidden feelings in people’s minds Friends House Moscow is hoping to arrange ecumenical events.

In the second part of the meeting we addressed directly the question: Why is racism a concern for peace churches and peace groups?

Rosemary Crawley, a Quaker from Staffordshire Area Meeting, part of Church and Peace member Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network and “one of a tiny minority of black Quakers”, asked how there can be justice and peace when black people still can’t breathe? She identified three aspects of racism – the daily micro-agressionss of racist behaviour, systemic institutionalised racist abuse, and the racism inherent within the causes of climate change and the global responses to it. She highlighted the fact that everyday racism is as common within faith organisations as it is anywhere else in our communities – but it is much more hurtful and damaging, because it severely compromises what is potentially a place of refuge. Structural racism, perpetrated through the criminal justice system and the asylum and immigration systems of many European countries including the UK, reflect a system which is built on hostility towards people from the global south. Popular support for this racially biased legislation has gone largely unchallenged by faith organisations. Recent immigration legislation in the UK has recruited health workers, landlords and employers into its enforcement framework. And finally, climate change – still discussed largely as a future event which will have an impact on our comfortable lifestyles while ignoring that its impact is already with us and has been for many years, manifested in extreme weather now regularly experienced by communities in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. Rosemary said that it is absurd to believe that churches can work for peace without attention to the racism underpinning our structures. (Read Rosemary’s contribution here.)

Isabelle Eliat-Serck is a Roman Catholic individual Church and Peace member from Brussels; she has been a nonviolence trainer for over 30 years and describes her life as a “multi-cultural adventure”. She told us stories from her life which make racism visible and reminded us that, as human beings, we find differences more difficult to accommodate than similarities, because it takes more of an effort. We need to create constantly a new reflex and can be inspired by Jesus for example in the way we share food and mix with people who are not like us. She quoted a refugee who said plainly: “We are fed up with charity – we want people to appreciate us for what we are.” As white people, we are unconsciously paternalistic – we think we want to serve others, but are not committing ourselves to equality. Like Jesus, we have to be hosted as well as being hots.

The final contribution came from Church and Peace veteran Hansuli Gerber, who is part of the Swiss Anabaptist Forum for Peace and Justice and active in various advocacy and care projects.

Hansuli was first confronted by the issue of racism in the USA about 40 years ago, when his then employer, the Mennonite Central Committee, which making racism awareness training a priority for all its workers. In Europe, the discussion was new at that time. Nowadays in Switzerland it is a difficult topic – there is not much physical violence, but there are assumptions which are repeated over and over again. Hansuli showed us a chocolate cake which in the past went by the name of “Negro head”, and told us about a chocolate pudding with the traditional name of “Moor in a shirt”. There have been discussions about these names, and also about the use of the image of a black man to identify tailors, as the black saint St Maurice was the patron saint of tailors. People in Switzerland are now beginning to ask what is wrong with the general assumptions in society.

For Hansuli, racism is clearly a priority for peace churches and peace churches for three reasons: (1) Racism is intimately related to colonialism, slavery and capitalism. Capitalism is built on inequality, injustice and racism. People who look different form us are inferior and don’t have a right to share our privilege. (2) White privilege – there are some groups who have an ideological commitment to white supremacy but besides that, there is an assumption that white people naturally have privilege – we need to change the images in our minds. (3) Churches must work towards just and inclusive communities. Swiss research shows that black Swiss citizens often experience that others insist and assume that they are from a strange place. This does not necessarily lead to violence but we need BLM movement to help us to move forward and overcome the images in our minds.

When asked how Church and Peace might take this concern forward, Hansuli pointed out that there have already been new members from the Balkans, which is in itself a challenge because of different identities and backgrounds. There is the challenge of working with people outside our own little circle. We might want to move in direction towards being inter-religious rather than ecumenical. We need to talk with and be friends with people of other faiths. On a recent visit to a Muslim youth camp on Ecology and Faith. He discovered that there is a significant overlap. Will we find out that there are Muslim Anabaptists, Muslim Quakers?

Responding to a question about how people could be educated to be “properly brought up” as a member of a world family and thus feel comfortable anywhere, not just in “our own village”, Davorka felt that one answer was to be (e.g. in her case) “the best Davorka you can ever be” – your identity can be very closed or can be one which is open and curious about others. You can expand your notion of your own identity in a way which enhances the person you really are. Know who you are, and who you are in relationship to God. Isabelle thought that we also need to be ready to accept some discomfort – sometimes differences are insoluble, but we can work together as believers. We can cultivate meaning from discomfort. A participant from Leicester told us that this year’s Conscientious Objector day in May included Buddhists, Jains, Jehovah’s Witnesses, which not only led to a group twice as big as in the past but opened a dialogue with others who are committed to peace. And finally a staff member from Friends House in London pointed out that active engagement with other faiths can possibly initially be combined with a specific issue such as conscientious objection or climate change.

So why should racism be a priority concern for peace churches and peace groups?
The final word from Sharon was, that it’s about “inhabiting the message”, about incarnation. We model what we are saying. There is a clear affinity bias – we gravitate towards those like us – but we are called to inhabit the zone of discomfort, dis-ease. We meet God in another person when we move out of our comfort zone. (Download Sharon’s list of resources here.)

Report by Barbara Forbes, Board member of Church and Peace