by Tiffany Vail
I don't often write blog posts about my personal experiences. In the 20 years I've been doing Conference communication work, I've put most of my energy into telling the stories of others, or empowering them to tell their own stories.
But I am on the train returning from my first United Church of Christ General Synod, and I feel the need to share my own perspective.
What struck me the most at Synod was how hard everyone tries to live out what it means to be a multicultural, multiracial.church. They – we – try SO hard. And yet, we still stumble.
Newly elected UCC Justice and Witness Ministries Executive Minister Traci Blackmon shared a story at the southern New England conferences caucus about using the phrase "differently abled" instead of disabled while preaching, in an attempt to be more inclusive. Advocates for the disabled asked her to stop. Blackmon confessed to having changed her language without first speaking with the people she was talking about.
At plenary, some missteps led to a background photo showing two people of color being displayed when debate on a resolution on gun violence was brought to the floor. It was quickly removed when delegates – in person and on social media – cried foul. The image, they said, reinforced the stereotypes of who is most involved in gun violence.
Then, a group of Youth@Synod participants testified as to how school shootings have impacted their lives: active shooter drills at school, classmates making threats online. Hearing that inspired two teenage delegates from Chicago to approach the microphone to share their own, personal experiences. Makayla Purvis had three friends who were shot to death, Kyle King had to literally "duck and dodge" bullets during a drive by shooting while he played football at the park. But before their turn came at the microphone to tell these stories, someone made a motion to end debate. The youth were understandably upset that they had not been given a chance to speak their truths.
As a church, we make so, so many mistakes.
We also try really, really hard to fix them. When other delegates saw what had happened with the Chicago teens, they jumped into action. Most didn't know how to help. But they knew they had to try. One person from the Illinois Conference approached me. As a volunteer for the Synod newsroom, I had been assigned to write about the gun violence resolution. Can you interview these teens, and at least include them in the story, he asked? Of course, I said. When I heard how powerful their testimony was, I sought out the UCC videographer. Can you record them, I asked? Of course, he said. While that was going on, another delegate (whose name I did not get) did the only thing she could think of: she sought out Traci Blackmon. Traci and Parliamentarian Libby Tigner came out of the hall immediately, and offered the teenagers a chance to speak to the plenary the next morning.
"We do want to hear your stories, and we’re sorry that happened," Blackmon told them, asking them to chalk the mistake up to "our heads, not our hearts."
"It takes so much courage to get to a mic, and I hate that we didn’t catch it in the moment," she said. "But the moment you said something, everybody started running around. There was no hesitation. Everybody wanted to fix it. Because we want you to be the church. Do you forgive us, this time?"
So we'll keep trying. We'll keep making mistakes We'll keep asking forgiveness. Maybe that's what it means to "Be the Church."
See the video with the teens, and read the article about the gun violence resolution, here.
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