Humility Time for the White Church and Society

The Sin of Racism and the Complex Work Ahead

Credit: Pat Byrnes,

Some years ago, Reverend Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners magazine, started writing about what he termed “America’s Original Sin: Racism.” We have not been able to avoid the matter, in our usual manner of avoidance, and either go back to sleep or find some feeble doctrinal prop for our tradition. We have had to face the fact that, like the biblical proverb, we have built our sociotheological worldview and praxis on sand. And the sand is shifting; thanks be to God!

Wallis is only one of many voices, but he is white and sometimes that matters in our dichotomized society. We have a lot of baggage that gets in the way of our apprehending and comprehending the realities in which we are so deeply rooted and entangled.

But there is good news, at least it appears so to me, because we are reading/hearing/engaging other voices; persons of color are calling us out of our lethargy, our presumptions of feigned innocence or convenient impotence. We cannot go back. And, it is our work to do — as faith communities, community groups, educational systems, all organizations having decision-making authority.

The long-established congregation I serve has been studying the antiracism literature, engaging speakers and webinars, donating to other organizations, seeking to influence legislation, and doing all kinds of other things in the hope that we can make a little bit of difference in our time with the resources we have.

We are humbled by the sin of racism and our complicity within its multifaceted systemic poison. I, for one, seek to be an ally in the work ahead.

And the work ahead is even more complicated, and urgent, as the climate crisis is upon us. Water, anyone? Cooler temperatures ahead? Not likely. And we are fortunate here, in this region — for now.

So, let us ask ourselves what antiracist environmental sustainability might look like. The President just signed an unprecedented bill that looks seriously at issues of climate matters; this will reinforce ongoing work at the local level. How might communities of faith commit to common purpose with secular groups led by young and formerly marginalized persons? I am serious about the movement of old white guys like me to the margins; we need to support the movement with whatever resources we have and get out of the way. Our enthusiasm still matters, but from the back row.

First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara has a long history of progressive service; the membership now wonders about the next few years as things change rapidly. What might such service entail? Well, we have space. And we want to update some of that space to better serve the needs of this community, just possibly through work your antiracism/environmental justice group is doing.

When groups and persons share a vision of community where equity is normative and resources flow freely, there is hope for us all.

Let us have a conversation. Let me know your ideas.

Rev. Dennis Alger MA, MDiv, is the interim pastor of the First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara.


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