Pittsboro church works to ‘take a stand’ against injustice of racism

Posted 11/26/20

The Local Church, based in Pittsboro, has created an Anti-Racism Task Force to both address it and work to dismantle it proactively. This week, we speak with pastor Rev. Brent Levy and Katie Barnett, …

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Pittsboro church works to ‘take a stand’ against injustice of racism

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The Local Church, based in Pittsboro, has created an Anti-Racism Task Force to both address it and work to dismantle it proactively. This week, we speak with pastor Rev. Brent Levy and Katie Barnett, who serves as the facilitator for the task force.

Levy describes himself as passionate about finding the sacred in the ordinary and making space for others to experience the presence and power of God. He lives in Pittsboro with his wife, Natalie, and his daughters, Emma and Eliza. You can connect with him at brent@thelocalchurchpbo.org and learn more about The Local Church at thelocalchurchpbo.org.

Barnett has called TLC home since 2018. She lives in Carrboro with her partner, Lee, and cute dog, Juno. Katie is a coffee connoisseur and is passionate about celebrating the details of life.

Your church, The Local Church, has created an Anti-Racism Task Force in order to “take an active stand against racism.” Can you talk about how the task force came to be?

The mantra and mission of The Local Church is “love where you are,” and that is the driving force behind the creation of the Anti-Racism Task Force.

Through spring and summer 2020, like many other communities in the America, we were struck by the atrocious murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Amhaud Arbery and too many others. As a predominantly white church community, we felt it was right to take a stand against these injustices — not only because it is what our “love where you are” mission requires, but it is also what our baptismal vows call us to and what the Gospel demands of us as followers of Jesus. We believe that our commitment to anti-racism should be reflected in the culture of the community through our practices, ministries and organization as we continue to learn about the sin of racism. Through collective confession, education, prayer and action, the Anti-Racism Task Force aims to both dismantle racism and become proactively anti-racist in our faith community, in Chatham County and beyond.

Why does the church describe racism as a sin?

We describe racism as a sin because it is. We are not trying to be flippant; rather, we are working to name it with honesty and penitence. (This response likely needs much more than a paragraph. To that end, we are available for coffee and conversation!)

For some, this understanding may require a shifting of perspective or a redefining of what we mean when we say “sin.” To understand sin as something that is only personal or only involving one’s individual morality is a myopic understanding. It fails to take into account the sin of complex systems and structures that undergird so much of our life and that we are caught in — knowingly or otherwise. This includes the sin of racism woven into the social, economic, criminal justice and religious fabrics of the United States.

At its core, sin is disconnection. It’s a violation of relationship between creature and creature or creature and Creator. Racism, in the ways that it is a failure to see another as made in God’s image and a failure to see the gift inherent in another human being, is sin in that it results in disconnection and harm. And when systems and structures are in place that limit another’s ability to live fully and freely into who God has created them to be, then that, too, is sin. As followers of Jesus, we’re instructed to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). When there are systems in place that prevent this love from happening, leading to disconnect and a violation of relationship, it can only be described as sin. We give thanks that the Church is slowly starting to acknowledge our own complicity, repent, and work toward racial justice, equity and belonging for all of God’s beloved.

Chatham County’s Public Health Department has declared what it calls “structural racism” to be a health crisis in Chatham. Yet on places like Facebook and the Chatham Chatlist, there are those who rail against that declaration, saying it just doesn’t exist. What’s your response to those who say that racism either doesn’t exist or is a hand overplayed?

The Local Church wrote a letter in full support of Chatham County Public Health Department’s declaration of racism as a public health crisis. Structural racism does exist, and we’re thankful that our community health department took this step to name it, invite awareness, and begin to work toward justice. We cannot accept something that isn’t first named.

While some may cling to color-blindness or denials of racism, often because they have never been singled out for their skin color, we believe it’s vital to be color-honoring. To be color-honoring is to appreciate the beauty, diversity and particularity of God and all of creation! So our response would be an invitation to listen to the experiences of Black people, Indigenous people and people of color who can share how structural racism has impacted them personally.

It is difficult to deny someone’s experience. It’s hard to say that someone’s story “doesn’t exist” or is “overplayed.” When we listen with generosity, curiosity and love, the intangible can become tangible, and a construct can become embodied. The Local Church commits to being a community that will listen and learn and not deny the experiences of our friends and neighbors in our community. We will be an ally and an advocate.

You’ve stated that the aims of the task force are to 1) dismantle racism, and 2) become proactively anti-racist in our church and in Chatham County and beyond. How do you envision that happening?

This is a work in progress, so we certainly don’t have all the answers! But we do know that the Anti-Racism Task Force will work to this end through prayer, confession, repentance, education and action. This will happen both within the Anti-Racism Task Force and the broader faith community, and we hope that this work will leak into the community through a people empowered to love where they are in words and actions, becoming more aware of implicit biases, educating others and loving our neighbors well through acts of service.

Can you outline the steps you’ve taken already?

The first step was to create an Anti-Racism Task Force. We have also sent letters to the Chatham County Health Department in support of their declaration of structural racism as an ongoing public health crisis and to the Chatham Community Library’s Youth Services Department for their ongoing support of equity and anti-racism education. In addition, we have entered into a partnership with friends at Union Grove AMEZ Church in Bear Creek.

Together, our communities will explore friendship, reconciliation and anti-racism. Our first public event was a live streamed gathering called “Sacred Broken Ground: A Conversation on Race, Friendship, and Other Hard Things” with Rev. Charles Matthews and Rev. Brent Levy. You can view a replay of this event on Facebook.

Our Local Book Club is also participating in this work with every third book selected focusing on anti-racism. We also post anti-racist educational and inspirational content on our Instagram feed with a feature called #WithWednesdays. There, we feature local Black-owned businesses, anti-racism quotations, tangible action steps and pertinent passages of scripture. (You can follow us at @localchurchpbo.)

We are also cultivating anti-racism resources for families including children’s books, podcasts for parents, articles, blogs and other materials — with hope of also hosting a movie night post-pandemic. We seek to invite local artists, scholars and organizers to help facilitate discussions about racial justice with our congregation, and we have been working to incorporate more diversity into our worship life, too.

There are other groups in Chatham County actively working toward similar goals. Do you have plans for collaboration, or is this effort focused solely within your own church?

We absolutely plan to collaborate! We believe we are better together, and there is so much we can learn from other organizations in the community. In fact, even before the Anti-Racism Task Force was created, we were already collaborating with community partners. We hosted friends from RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International) and The Chatham Social Justice Exchange for a conversation on racial justice, and CORE (Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity) was gracious enough to help us facilitate our book club on Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped From the Beginning.” We are so thankful for these organizations in Chatham County, and we excitedly anticipate learning more from them (and others!) as we move forward.

What’s next?

In addition to what we already have up and running, the Anti-Racism Task Force is currently working on a series of check-ins with the various ministry areas of The Local Church. These check-ins are designed to view our church through a racial equity lens and better understand where we are now as we look to the future and continue in our anti-racism efforts. We will use our findings as a jumping off point for continued education, local partnerships, and further movement toward racial justice. Black lives matter to God, and they matter to The Local Church. By God’s grace and with God’s help, will be a voice for racial justice in Chatham County.

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