Last fall, Trinity College students Yohan Dumpala and R. Susan Smandych proposed to the Toronto School of Theology (TST) Roundtable that it was time to hold a conversation about racism and inclusion within their diverse theological community.
“The conversations we were having at the Trinity College Task Force on Anti-Black Racism and Inclusion were so compelling and important that it inspired us to bring the idea to the TST Roundtable,” said Susan, who is a third-year student whose Master of Divinity dissertation focuses on white privilege in the Anglican Church of Canada. “We wanted to put racism on the table across denominations so we can look at it from broader church perspectives and theological discourse.”
Susan and Yohan, Trinity’s Faculty of Divinity Co-Heads for 2020-2021, were members of the Trinity College Task Force on Anti-Black Racism and Inclusion. And along with Dean of Divinity the Rev. Dr. Christopher Brittain, during this academic year, they have also met regularly with representatives from the Black Anglicans of Canada to explore opportunities for collaboration, in terms of theological education and awareness raising.
“Although we still have a long way to go in this journey towards a more inclusive Faculty of Divinity and TST, we have taken significant steps this year to confront the problem of white privilege and to embrace diversity,” said Dean Brittain, the Margaret E. Fleck Chair in Anglican Studies at Trinity. This process has included engaging with members of the Black Anglicans of Canada as guest lecturers, as well as with a Trinity Doctor of Ministry graduand, who now serves in Barbados, and Archbishop Mark MacDonald for a new course Prof. Brittain is teaching this winter term – Race, Theology and Diversity: Theological Challenges and Opportunities. “This is a period of real self-examination and humility for us and our churches, but it is a process that is also charged with positive energy, and open and collegial dialogue,” Dean Brittain added.
“Anti-Black racism and racism affect all populations, and it exists in the church – the last place it should,” said Yohan, a 2nd-year Master of Divinity student who has lived in several countries and has experienced the ways racism manifests differently in various cultures. “We need to increase awareness – the intersectionality of racism – and take action.”
Yohan and Susan brought the idea to hold a discussion on anti-racism to their counterparts at the TST Roundtable, a student organization led by the student leaders from each of seven member colleges of the Toronto School of Theology; and there was unanimous agreement that the conversation needed to happen. And amid COVID-19 pandemic, the TST Roundtable also had the opportunity to hold a virtual forum, bringing people from different geographical areas together to be part of the conversation.
“This conversation is the starting point. We need to acknowledge and examine the ongoing effects of racism, and to act with intention. It’s a moment for each church to look at what can do to combat racism,” said Susan, noting that they hope this is the first of many more conversations on anti-racism and inclusion.
“As individuals and parishes, we need to ask ourselves what we are going to do to examine racism, privilege and institutional bias. It’s a moment to self-reflect. The first step is to look inward,” Yohan added. “We are the future leaders in the church. It’s our responsibility to tackle this head on, it’s long overdue.”
On January 21, 2021, a panel discussion “Christian Unity and Anti-Racism” (audio recording) was hosted by the TST Roundtable during Christian Unity Week. The Zoom event was moderated by Dr. Pamela Couture, Director of the Toronto School of Theology, and included panelists from a wide representation:
At the virtual event, each panel member addressed the following question: “How can your particular denomination/congregation use John 15:5-9 as a foundation in working towards anti-racism in your denomination/congregation? How do we overcome denominational, congregational and theological differences to address anti-racism together as a Christian community?”
Speakers interpreted the text – through historical context and lenses, analogies with scripture, and lived personal and shared experiences – and talked about how Christians should approach anti-racism and unity today.
“I think the biggest takeaway from this event is something that was re-iterated by several of our panelists. We cannot be anti-racist by ignoring or erasing the differences between our communities, our churches, and most importantly, our races and cultures. Our unity and our strength in Christ comes from appreciating, respecting, and honouring our differences. It is from this foundation that we must address racism in our institutions and communities,” said Amber Tremblett, a Master of Divinity student at Wycliffe College. As Co-Presidents of the TST Roundtable and organizers of the event, Amber and Andrea Nicole Carandang, a Master of Divinity student from Regis College, compiled a summary of speakers’ remarks (PDF), of which, passages are provided below.
Alison Hari-Singh: “Today, the Anglican Church is no longer just a British or a White church, but a global church; however, the power structures still keep the power dynamics… I truly believe that, if we want to thrive as a church and not just the Anglican Church, but our churches more broadly, we have to do this really, tremendously important work… Nonetheless, things are changing, though with some difficulty.”
Alvyn Joys: “Today, whenever we see any forms of injustice, including racism as Christians, we must not let anger consume us and let it turn into hate… We can only combat injustices in the world by comforting the afflicted and standing up for the truth… Working towards anti-racism means working toward the conversion of hearts… If we allow theological, cultural or spiritual differences to alienate us, we cannot begin to deal with the division that we see racism cause.”
Bill McCormick: “It’s not enough to not be actively engaged in racism. We have to recognize the way that we are quite engaged and complicit in all sorts of structures of sin… There is no substitute for encounter in the work of anti-racism and the work of Christian unity. There is no substitute for heart speaking to heart, for faces seeing faces and recognizing the dignity of the human person in another.”
Kate McCray: “Today, the mission of young Orthodox scholars is to represent this history of assimilation and champion non-colonial Christianity. Unity does not represent a mythic past of people who all share the same ideas and the same culture, the same language or belief. Unity is the work of cherishing one another in our difference.”
Nestor Medina: “Being anti-racist means we need to ‘uphold diversity as the central criteria for church building, the central criteria for understanding Christianity and for understanding each church dynamic and structure… Questions of racism, our social issues, are also denominational issues, they are also institutional issues, and they are also ideological and theological. A crucial step is figuring out what made it possible for racist structures to make its way into theology.”
Vernal Savage: “Racism is a sin that has been accepted and normalized by the church… Immediate action is required to ‘dismantle anti-black and all forms of exclusion and oppression from the church’ and this work cannot be done without recognition, reconciliation and healing… All churches have a connection to anti-Black racism and, consequently, have a moral responsibility to engage these issues in various ways…. every church should ‘act with the hope that their interests can be coordinated with other well thinking churches to organize action to serve the common good.’”
Following their remarks, a group discussion was held among panelists and attendees. The panelists then provided closing thoughts based on this question: “What one action should your denomination do first to begin to dismantle racism?”
Alison Hari-Singh: “The Anglican Church needs to form, mentor and lift up racialized young people within the church in order for them to become leaders within the church, which might mean investing in better education. Clergy need to take anti-racism training. The final thing would be that the Anglican Church needs to make reparations, and firstly, figure out what those reparations would look like.”
Alvyn Joys: “The Catholic Church needs to get to know diverse community organizers in order to combat the unknowing or lack of understanding, which allows us to see Christ in the other. They need to appoint people with personal experience with racism to leadership positions to help teach and lead meaningful change.”
Bill McCormick: “We have to acknowledge racism, examine our own participation in it, and then act to change. Listen to the people whom we have injured by our actions in the church.”
Kate McCray: “We should read histories outside of our own histories and outside of your norm.”
Néstor Medina: “People of diverse ethnic and cultural groups need to hold leadership positions at the highest levels in our denominations. We need to stop telling the church what the church should do because we are the church, so we need to do something. There should be more training for people of other cultural groups.”
Vernal Savage: “Reparations are necessary. There should also be mandatory educational training on anti-racism. We need a public apology. We need to take a further look at the relationships between first world and third world countries and why first world countries and understand how these relationships encourage racism and white supremacy.”
Moderator Dr. Couture thanked the TST Roundtable for organizing the event and for everyone’s diverse array of responses, comments and conversation around a difficult topic. She expressed that the event was a great demonstration of the type of ecumenical event that TST hopes to hold.