by Elizabeth Vice
One of my atrium guides made the most arresting comment the other day. She said when BIPOC folks (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) come into the atrium they should know that they haven’t been erased. I began to ponder this comment. I couldn’t wrap my mind around this statement. I couldn’t empathize. I had never been erased because I wasn’t the dominant culture. I began to ponder the subtle pain of never seeing someone like you in church art or officiating communion. I began to ponder what it was like to be erased – never hearing the cadence or dialect of my community from the lectern nor hearing the songs my grandmother sang as she rocked me to sleep. I couldn’t imagine the loss of possibilities and comfort.
As I pondered further, it struck me that often our carefully prepared environments are carefully prepared for people who are culturally, ethnically, and linguistically like ourselves. How does someone prepare an environment where a person of color is not erased? We live in Charleston, and we have a huge hospitality industry, and on top of that, our Charleston culture values hospitality deeply. Hospitality requires a planned infrastructure, being empathetic enough to place yourself in the position of the other, and a willingness to place the other’s needs above your own. What if we turned our minds in the construction of our atriums to focused hospitality with the aim to minimizing erasure?
I wonder what would we need to do to provide cues to BIPOC folk that we see color and rejoice in it?
I wonder how this kind of preparation would alter our images, music, materials, and leadership?
I wonder if we are willing to pray, read, and listen enough to decenter ourselves and create this type of hospitality?
I recognize that these questions are contextual. In our context of the Lowcountry of South Carolina answers will look very different than in another area of the country. Our context gives us our areas to research, to sit and listen to overlooked voices, to pray, and to lament our unknowing and our uncaring. Your process will be equally thoughtful, I’m sure.
The conclusion for us was that before a BIPOC person arrives, our atrium has planned for them. We don’t expect them to “fit in” or be comfortable on our terms. We believe hospitality dictates that we meet our siblings with a space that is comfortable for them. How does that look, sound, smell, and feel? A friend told me one that if “you are 100% comfortable in a space,” you aren’t doing hospitality well. We strive to be authentic to our vision of a Christian Montessori pedagogy recognizing that that in our context that doesn’t look or feel like 1950s Rome.
For our community, this comfortable space is symbolized by Gullah language scripture booklets and songs; by the art on our books and on the walls weaving cultures and eras equally; and by hiring, training, and empowering our staff to lead. Two Rivers Church’s leadership recognized that this would take thought and expense. They encouraged this process.
Another area we felt was of particular importance was the kerygmatic aspect of the adult within the atrium. We are to be the prophet-servant to the atrium community proclaiming the essential points of the Christian message. One of the essential points is that God loves each person uniquely and the whole world universally. We pondered how a BIPOC person would know that we were occupying the role of the prophet-servant and recognize the gospel that the Kingdom is here in our midst. We realized that in our context often BIPOC folk are seen as the “help” so the servant image was culturally entrenched. If we wanted to be hospitable, our BIPOC staff must be truly empowered to be full leaders with visibility, agency, and authority. This includes making sure they have access to the training needed to be amazing catechists.
How is this working for us? We are a work in progress. We are moving forward to being more aware of words we use, images and music we embrace, and people we elevate.
One of my leaders said, “Two Rivers sees color – and celebrates it.”
Another leader said, “Of course we have painted our sheep. Two Rivers is not about erasure.”
This discussion happened with one of most favorite images behind me. It was drawn by a White three year-old and is of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd is a very chocolatey shade. When the child drew this, it was the first time I knew we were making a difference in how our children perceive the love of God.