“Racism was bred in my bones. I will be working the rest of my life to learn more about what made me who I am and to weed out the behaviors that perpetuate the injustices of racism in our world. In this Zoom community, I find levels of compassion and honesty that support this journey, and I am grateful.”
Those are the words of one of the participants in a weekly Racial Justice Study group that has now been meeting via Zoom for almost four years. I wondered whether this sensitive subject matter could be dealt with effectively through online media but am now convinced that Zoom relationships can experience depth, connection, knowledge, and growth, even on the challenging topic of racism and racial justice.
In June 2020 as we were all adjusting to on-line church and Zoom Coffee Hours, St. Luke’s in the Meadow Episcopal Church listened to a sermon Bishop William Barber, The Poor People’s Campaign. He preached at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. and called for moral revival and racial healing. The response of St. Luke’s parishioners, a diverse, but significantly Caucasian congregation was, “We’ve got to do something. What can we do?” We decided to start by learning more about racial injustices and racism.
Meeting on Tuesday evenings via Zoom, we started reading and discussing books together. The subject matter was challenging as many of the white people had the privilege of living siloed from the experiences of our black neighbors. One of the attendees said, “I started out saying, I am not a racist. I have black friends. I have worked with black people all my life. But after reading the first book, I began to see in writing things I have thought or said. I decided, there are things I need to learn about racism and how it shows up in and around my life.”
During the first year, we had one black parishioner who attended. We offered assurance that we did not expect her to teach us white folks but to just be on the journey with us. The first months were challenging as we had to learn to talk through delicate subject matters, be vulnerable with each other, and build trust to make it a safe place to learn, to move from ignorance to insight. The one black woman in our group said she wanted to be with us because she could see that we were sincere about learning more and doing better. She said, “This group is willing to take on hard issues and to learn and grow. Even though the subject is difficult, we
continue to meet and discuss events past and present, and their effects on people of color.” She frequently quotes Maya Angelou, “You do the best with what you know; when you know better, you do better.” This woman has remained a faithful attendee the entire time we have been doing the study. Her mother even joined our group over a year ago, Zooming in from a distant city.
Attendance in the Zoom group has varied from 9-14 people and now includes people who do not attend St. Luke’s, but who have heard about the study from friends. There are currently three black people and eight white people who meet weekly, and because the meeting is on Zoom, we are able to accommodate people who want to meet from afar.
At the end of year two, one of the women hosted a high tea in her home and invited all who were able to attend. We were thrilled to be together in person for the first time since COVID and to meet one of our attendees in person for the first time. There were hugs and joy all around.
To celebrate our third year together, one of the members scheduled a special outing that included brunch together, followed by going to an art exhibit on The Great Migration. She was able to contact the artist, Emmanuel Gillespie, and arrange a private conversation with him as we enjoyed his art.
Our outing included a stop at a Latin Café for coffee where we could visit comfortably with each other. This was our first opportunity to meet another Zoom member in person. The friendship was already built after spending time with her on Zoom the previous eight or nine months. We all expressed our affection and regard for each other. There was laughter, hugs, and expressions of gratitude for the richness of the group.
The person who arranged the outing expressed the importance of the group and its Zoom-based nature, “The vulnerable state that our group is in, inspires me to recognize that we all have work to do, and every race has racism–it is how we face it. Being involved in Zoom creates, for me, a safety net, because I am in my own home. As a stranger to the group, I found them to be very accepting, loving, and wanting to learn and understand what is happening in America and what racism is and how it is everyone’s responsibility to be an active anti-racist, and not just say, the next generation will solve it. Once everyone acknowledges that we all bleed the same, put
our pants on the same way, then we will begin to recognize our sameness more than our differences.”
As the facilitator of the group, I wondered if after almost 4 years the time had come to conclude the study. Visiting over coffee, I asked the group what they would like to do. It was unanimous that they wanted to continue our study together. There were even a couple of books raised as possibilities. I told them I was awed by their commitment to learn and grow and that I was surprised they had so faithfully prepared for our discussions and kept showing up. It isn’t a feel-good topic and has brought us to tears on more than one occasion, but they keep showing up.
One of the attendees stated that it was the community that she valued. She said, “I feel a deep connection to the group. Meeting via Zoom forces us to pay attention to the person speaking and not get distracted by the person sitting next to you if we were meeting in-person.”
Others agreed about the depth of community and connection that was built around a challenging topic that required trust, honesty, and vulnerability. One even wondered if the study would be as successful meeting in person, saying that it might be easier to say some things or ask certain questions via Zoom than if the study had us sitting side-by-side.
An 80-year-old woman who has faithfully attended said, “When we started this study three years ago or more, I don’t think any of us realized that we would still be eager learners for this amount of time. I still feel committed to this group because every week I learn something I didn’t know before—and because I value being with every person in our group (former acquaintances and strangers are now dear friends). Getting together in person to experience museums and visual and performance art that I would not have sought out on my own has increased my understanding of Black art, history, and joy.”
The lone, brave man that attends the study group stated, “Personally, I am one of the white guys (category: old white guy at 80+) and have learned so much. I was raised in a family that did not have much and had to struggle to raise me and my family to higher economic levels. I never felt I was racist nor made any gains on the backs of black people. In this group, I was insulted that ‘they’ thought I had benefited from ‘their’ disadvantages. They were right. In my youth, I was in contact with few black people. When I applied for jobs, I didn’t know who my
competition was. Now I realize there were probably few, if any, black applicants, either because of lack of education or their applications were rejected because they were black, even though they may have been more qualified. Now rather than being non-racist, I am striving to be an active anti-racist. It is not easy, but I am hoping this old dog can learn new tricks. I have found the black participants to be so loving and patient with us as we learn how we, even though we have felt we were not racist, have nevertheless benefited from society’s overt, and sometimes not so overt, actions to hold black people back in education and the workforce. As we have grown in our understanding, we can identify these same actions in other marginalized groups in our history and in our current lives and governmental actions.”
He ended his reflection stating, “We feel we know each other and are now close friends. We have been to art gallery and museum exhibitions, and we have gone to plays that have dealt with racism, all produced by talented black artists.”
The books studied in the Zoom group are chosen by the participants. They are books by black authors or about black persons experiences; about white privilege, or how to be active anti-racists. Frequently, in our meetings we watch and discuss a Ted Talk or some other pertinent video clip. We may suggest movies, TV shows, or documentaries that are relevant, which we can later discuss with the group.
As a clergy person, this Racial Justice Zoom Study is one of the things for which I am most proud. This study was requested by a parishioner and has grown deep roots. As we approach our 4th anniversary, one of the lay members is taking on the facilitator role. It is beautiful to watch relationships form, trust develop, and growth happen. I could have never predicted that a Zoom group could become such a solid circle, especially on the given topic. After years of offering a variety of in-person classes and finding attendance dwindling after 3-4 weeks, I have discovered that Zoom offers a means for people to easily attend without making the drive to a location, after dark, or in inclement weather, and from anywhere in the world. All the attendees participate actively, offering insights, sharing experiences, asking questions, and demonstrating a willingness to learn, grow, and change. What was at first a Zoom-only study has organically evolved into a Hybrid Ministry Model where most of our gatherings are virtual, but with quarterly in-person get-togethers. The solid foundation created in our virtual meetings makes our in-person time a truly beloved community.