“Any meeting without food could have been an email.” Tanya Watkins, the Executive Director of Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, aka SOUL, said to me once. We gathered around food at an Abolition Think Tank in Chicago made up of activists, clergy, social workers, and all kinds of people passionate about de-carcerating our society, dismantling capitalism and white supremacy, and making the world a better place.
She was only kind of joking, but I have taken this advice to heart. There is something sacred and magical that happens when we gather around a table. A Holy Communion.
In one of our meetings, an activist who trained with the Center for Story-Based Strategy shared something interesting, “People’s minds are not likely to change based on pure facts and figures.”Data and statistics alone don’t transform people, especially in regard to deeply held beliefs like religion or politics. What does create opportunities for people to shift their thinking is stories.
Stories are another way we commune with one another. Stories help us to connect on a deeper level, remind us of our shared humanity, and help us to find common ground. Our stories can be containers for vulnerability and imagination. Sharing them enables us to build trust and find the courage to consider letting go of the things we once thought were true by stepping into the possibility of a new world.
We tell and are being told narratives all the time. Sometimes these narratives are so deeply ingrained or so widely universalized that we don’t even realize we’ve encountered them. They seem eternal or obvious, even if they are ultimately false. White supremacy and its co-conspiring systems of capitalism and the cis-hetero patriarchy are prevalent narratives in our newspaper headlines, advertisements, and casual conversation. White supremacy sells white people promises based on a lie: it tells us that if we swear allegiance to whiteness, in exchange, we can have comfort and security. It is a narrative I deeply internalized from a young age.
A major focus of my anti-racism work as a white person has been reflecting on my own story and identifying the narratives I have been told. It might seem counterintuitive to focus on my story as a white person as a tool for breaking down whiteness, but for me, it has helped me to untangle my story from the meta-narrative of white supremacy I was indoctrinated into and understand my stake in this work.
When reflecting on your own stake, you might ask yourself:
What keeps me up at night? What makes me angry? What am I passionate about? What feels so true to me that it could be written on my bones?
And then ask yourself:
How do these things connect to my life, my experiences, and my story?
The most obvious and important reason that white people should care about anti-racism is because our BIPOC siblings deserve to live and to thrive. And yet, white people are not heroes in this story, swooping in to rescue people. Once I understood more about the ways that whiteness hurts me too and understood that my liberation is tied up with Black liberation, I was better able to resist the pull of white saviorism and move towards more meaningful, risky solidarity.
Baptized in Tear Gas: From White Moderate to Abolitionist is the story about my transformation, spawned by the Ferguson Uprising. It’s about how a nice white church girl from the suburbs became a prison and police abolitionist when God entangled my story with the stories of the Black activists on the ground. I wrote Baptized in Tear Gas not as an expert (because what white person is really an expert on anti-racism anyway) but as a companion on the journey to break down whiteness and as a bridge to BIPOC activists and liberation organizations that white people would not otherwise come into contact with. My hope in telling this story and sharing the pitfalls and mistakes I made along the way is to invite other white people into the opportunity to question and deconstruct the stories we have been taught and to listen to the prophets in our streets calling us to imagine a better future.
I learned, too, that the prophets of today echo much of what the prophets have been saying throughout the ages.
Followers of Jesus have been blessed with an abundance of stories. Every week we gather to read the ancient stories of our spiritual ancestors, passed down to us like precious heirlooms. We sing freedom songs. We murmur blessings of peace upon one another. Through worship and the Word we are retelling, re-enacting, and taking part in a larger story that has spanned across cultures, languages, and generations.
The role of faith leaders in our own time is to connect our own stories to the wider story of God’s liberation and to help others to do the same. The stories in Scripture have often been co-opted, de-politicized, and even weaponized to oppress and repress the most marginalized among us. But they have also been used as rallying cries and inspiration. These are the parts of Scripture that enslavers wouldn’t let enslaved people read. They are the parts of Scripture, like the Magnificat, that have been historically banned in public under reactionary regimes. The stories we find in Scripture are dangerous to the status quo, especially when they are connected to the story of you and I in the here and now.
Whiteness has a stranglehold on society. It infects us, our families, our communities, and our institutions, including and especially the Church. Oftentimes once we identify the false narratives that whiteness has sold to us, breaking down whiteness seems like an impossible task. But we have powerful tools at our disposal. We can leverage our stories and shared stories in Scripture not only to challenge the lies that the demon of white supremacy has spun but also to cast a vision for a more liberated future.
Elle Dowd (she/they) is a bi-furious recent graduate of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, a current Ph.D. candidate at the Chicago Theological Seminary, the campus minister of South Loop Campus Ministry, and an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Elle has pieces of their heart in Sierra Leone, where their two children were born, and in St. Louis, where they learned from the radical, queer, Black leadership during the Ferguson Uprising. Baptized in Teargas (Broadleaf, 2021) is Pastor Elle’s story of conversion from a white moderate to an abolitionist and is available in print, e-book, or audiobook. To learn more about their ministry, please visit their website, or visit them on social media: Facebook.com/elledowdministry; Twitter/SnapChat/Insta: @hownowbrowndowd; TikTok @elledowdministry or @ELCAYoungAdults.
The Jerre L. and Mary Joy Stead Center for Ethics and Values (Stead Center) is an endowed center that draws together seminary resources, graduate professional schools, area religious leaders, and laity to address the compelling ethical issues facing contemporary society. They promote teaching and research on ethics and values by providing a space for conversation and developing resources that enhance moral communities.