Conference to examine its institutional racism

By John W. Coleman

Let’s talk about racism. Many in the Eastern PA Conference have been doing that for years, and even more intensely the past few years. From Healing the Wounds of Racism and Changing Racism interactive training events, to Annual Conference guest preachers and presenters, from district and church workshops and dialogues, to cross-racial/cross-cultural appointment forums. Even interracial worship and pulpit exchanges added for good measure.

But now, thanks to efforts to fulfill the *Call to Action resolution endorsed by annual conferences and bishops at the 2016 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, our talk about racism is about to go deeper, further, and become more intentional and evaluative. The NEJ resolution calls on each conference to make “efforts to address, confront, and otherwise demand systemic fundamental and institutional change both within the church and the world…”

Dragonfly senior partners (from left) Sara Joffe and Amadee Braxton describe their firm’s institutional assessment work.

The Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware conferences have co-employed organizational consultants Dragonfly Partners to conduct structural, or institutional, racism assessments with each conference separately. They will use candid, in-depth discussions with groups of racial-ethnic members and also key conference leaders. The two conferences are sharing the considerable cost of the consulting service to make it affordable.

When most people think about racism, they think of prejudicial actions of individuals that offend or discriminate against members of a different racial-ethnic group because of their race or ethnicity.

“However, racism can also be embedded in the institutions and structures of social life,” according to one source on the sociology of race. (, “Structural or Institutional Racism”) “This type of racism can be called structural or institutional racism … and it is significant in creating and maintaining the disparate outcomes that characterize the landscape of racial inequality.” (**See another, more detailed definition below.)

Work on racial diversity and equity issues

Dragonfly Partners’ website says it “helps changemakers … get ‘unstuck’ and work through strategic, organizational or interpersonal challenges.” The firm works with clients on public policy and social change, offering services in negotiating and managing strategic campaigns and interpersonal conflict.

“We work with racial diversity and equity issues in organizations, helping them to look inward and address systemic racism which can filter in from society,” says the group, which was referred to the conference by the regional grassroots social justice organization POWER, headquartered in Philadelphia.

The Revs. Susan Worrell (left) and Anita Powell discuss the Eastern PA Conference’s goals for the Butterfly Project.

The conference’s Connectional Ministries Office and Commission on Religion and Race, serving together as project managers, have named Eastern PA’s assessment effort the Racial Justice Transformation Project, or the Butterfly Project for short. Dragonfly senior partners Amadee Braxton and Sara Joffe will facilitate the groups’ discourse and develop a report with recommendations.

Three racial-ethnic constituent groups and then conference leaders with key, decision-making roles will engage separately in five half-day discussions from April to June. The invited groups of clergy and lay members, and the dates of their discussions, will be:

  • April 28: Latino/Hispanic-American members
  • April 28: Asian-American members (of Korean and Indian descent)
  • May 5: Members of African descent (including African and Caribbean Americans)
  • May 21: Conference leaders in key, decision-making roles—that is, executive staff, Cabinet members and chairs of major boards and councils.
  • June 9: Combined gathering of these four groups to engage in a more comprehensive discussion.

Conference staff and Cabinet members will not be present at the racial-ethnic groups’ discussions, and individual comments will be considered confidential to encourage candor. The guided dialogues may cover current as well as historical institutional policies and practices that have present-day ramifications, which may include treatment of racial-ethnic clergy and churches.

Moreover, in response to concerns raised in the Call to Action, the gathered members of African descent will include black members of conference boards, councils and other key groups who, while not officially representing those groups, can nonetheless offer their perspectives gained in conference leadership settings.

Examine conference structure, systems and behaviors

“While the Call to Action may be the impetus for this initiative, we want to expand our assessment of racism that may affect all racial-ethnic clergy, laity and congregations in our conference,” said the Rev. Anita Powell, the Eastern PA Conference’s Executive Director of Connectional Ministries. “We’re taking on the challenge to examine conference structure, systems and behaviors that have long affected people in different ways. So, we want to have candid viewpoints expressed that can get to the heart of these concerns in order to forge systemic change and attempt reconciliation.”

At an initial meeting, the two Dragonfly consultants learned about some of the conference’s difficult racial history. That includes expectations, outcomes and resources from the 1965 merger of clergy and churches from the former, all-black Delaware Annual Conference into the former, all-white Philadelphia Annual Conference. The subsequent fate of black church facilities—including closures and mergers—and clergy appointment opportunities are key parts of that history, in which the past is still present for some.

Krystl Johnson (right), of BMCR, asks a question, as (from left) Sara Joffe, Amadee Braxton, the Rev. Alicia Julia-Stanley of CORR  and Conference Lay Leader David Koch listen.

The conference today has 28 predominantly black congregations—located in Philadelphia, Chester, Darby, Drexel Hill and Trevose—as well as eight Latino congregations and two outreach ministries, and four Korean-American congregations. There are also six active Indian pastors serving in cross-racial appointments. But there are no identified Native American clergy or churches in the conference. Five congregations in Philadelphia are identified as significantly multiracial: Arch Street, Calvary, St. James, Good Shepherd and Crescentville. Church of the Open Door in Kennett Square is also multiracial.

“We have a richly diverse racial-ethnic presence and history in our conference, but that diversity comes with a prevailing challenge to dismantle foundations of structural racism while building a more equitable, redeemed, beloved community,” said the Rev. Susan Worrell, co-chair of the conference Commission on Religion and Race (CORR).

Call to Action goals: more racial awareness, justice, reconciliation 

Connectional Ministries and CORR, also co-chaired by the Rev. Alicia Julia-Stanley, are joint stewards of the conference’s Call to Action 2016-2020 work, along with Philadelphia Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR), the caucus representing black United Methodists, co-chaired by the Rev. Shayla Johnson and Krystl Johnson. Together, they monitor a broad range of racial awareness education and justice and reconciliation efforts involving the conference Cabinet, districts, boards and committees, and local churches.

Dragonfly will prepare a report during the summer, with strategic recommendations from its study. The Butterfly Project’s managers will seek to implement the recommendations beginning in the fall, aided by the Rev. Giovanni Arroyo of the General Commission on Religion and Race, who has consulted with the conference and taught Cross-Racial/Cross-Cultural Ministry workshops here in the past. Arroyo credits Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware with being the only conferences he knows of across the denomination to undertake institutional racism assessments.

“This conference’s vision is to be ‘United in Christ, Committed to Transformation’” said Bishop Peggy Johnson, leader of both conferences in the Philadelphia Episcopal Area. “We know that vision requires righting wrongs, healing wounds and establishing a foundation of trust. There may be some anger that surfaces, but if it leads to wisdom, healing and reconciliation, if it leads to repairing the breach, then it will have been worth the struggle.”

John Coleman photos.

* Northeastern Jurisdiction Call to Action Resolution & Response

** Institutional racism (also known as institutionalized racism)  is a form of racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions. Institutional racism is also racism by individuals or informal social groups, governed by behavioral norms that support racist thinking and foment active racism. It is reflected in disparities regarding wealthincome, criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power and education, among other things. Whether implicitly or explicitly expressed, institutional racism occurs when a certain group is targeted and discriminated against based upon race. Institutional racism is mostly implicit in our ideas and attitudes, so it is often unnoticed by the individual expressing it.  Wikipedia