Racial Justice

Author: Rachel H├ębert
June 24, 2020

“I believe that if we aren’t being made uncomfortable in our faith, we’re living in the all too alluring space of contentment. One propels us toward service and activism, the other invites us to sit back and let others do the work.” –Rachel Hébert

Yes, this is a quote by yours truly, Pastor Rachel. I will admit it was by no means as eloquent as such when I shared this with our Outreach Elders a year ago, nor at our meeting just last Thursday.

When I looked at the job description for Williamsburg Presbyterian, I felt deeply uncomfortable—I had zero experience working with homeless communities, not to mention international mission partnerships or environmental awareness. Yet, of all the other positions I had applied to and interviewed for, I knew with absolute certainty after my in-person interview that I was called to Williamsburg Presbyterian, to the only position where I felt the most ill-equipped. It was not simply because of age, and the lack of experience didn’t help, but was primarily because over my final year in seminary, I had been made deeply aware of my own fish-bowl of privilege that had survived for 25 years until it was shattered.

My senior year started in August of 2014, a handful of weeks after the Michael Brown shooting, when I remember the Black Lives Matter movement becoming a real presence in my life. The Association of Black Seminarians organized an evening of seminars right before classes began, a peaceful protest in October, as well as various opportunities for ABS members to share their own stories of racism both in the city of Princeton and Princeton Seminary.

I learned how everyone had multiple experiences of being pulled over by police in Princeton, and every one of them going through the process—hands on the wheel, look straight ahead, speak softly, make sure your hands can be seen at all times when you are instructed to pull out license and registration, etc. And even then, many of them had still been pulled from their cars and cuffed until everything could be verified.

But wait, there’s more, and it was the most horrifying of all to hear and learn: black students were treated as invisible by white students. Story after story was shared of how frequently acquaintances and friends who were white would make eye contact with a black student, and then pass them by. No smile, No hello. Walking right past them. Black students also only felt safe to sit at a handful of tables at the back of the cafeteria, whereas the majority of students (and all primarily white) sat in the middle of the room.

At almost every event, I was trembling from the extreme levels of sheer discomfort I felt at being in these spaces. My arms shook from holding huge signs that were too big for me to carry, and I shouted and screamed my voice raw for having been complicit in silence as I protested, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe!” I was on the cusp of tears when any one of my friends or fellow seminarians who I admired shared their stories, and it was everything I could do to not fall apart in grief and repentance of my own shame by participating in systems that have continued to oppress, and being blissfully blind to the plight of siblings in Christ for so long.

My passion for racial justice has continued to burn since then and was reignited when I attended a conference in 2018 (you can check out my “5 Minute Faith” video on YouTube where I talk about my education journey). I have been voracious in my personal education, and when UKirk had to truly confront their own racism within our group, I knew what had to be done: I needed to use my power as pastor to make sure another’s voice was heard, giving them the power and space to name to the group what was occurring. It was devastating for all of us. There was not a dry eye in the room, and I closed us with a communal prayer of repentance and grief for the wrong that had been committed against another.

To this date, it is the hardest and most painful conversation I’ve ever had within ministry, and yet, I witnessed a community allow itself to be shattered so that they could be rebuilt in stronger ways. It was the first time I had experienced what it meant to be a white ally: use my position of privilege to elevate the voice of one who truly needed to be heard.

Over the past several weeks, sermons and prayers have been ones in which there is intense wrestling as they are pushing all of us out of our comfort zones. Believe me: your pastors are deeply aware of the weight of words and messages carried, knowing that the discomfort is being notched up but believing with absolute conviction that Christ is calling us to proclaim and name these realities.

We have read your words, and we have heard your questions. It is why I, along with our Director of Educational Ministries, “A” Williams, have worked alongside each other to create a website that provides a slew of resources. Books, articles, movies/tv shows, and more span the spectrum from “Race and the Church” to “Decentralizing Whiteness” to “Personal Experiences” and more.

We recognize that the array of categories might feel vast and overwhelming, so “A” and I have created a place at the bottom of the homepage where we list the “10 Best Starting Resources.” This is not just a compilation of our own resources, but resources others have shared with us as well. Our hope is that this site will be one that continues to be updated as more resources are published. But our prayer is that you would use this site as a beginning step, not as a place where you can set up camp and sit to educate yourself. No, we hope that this is the beginning of discomfort, the beginning of education and awareness that propels you toward standing up and asking, “What can I do?” and “How can I help?”



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