Surprises in Store: Come find out at the Wild Goose Racial Justice Institute
by Kristyn Komarnicki
Last month I attended a conference called “Revolutionary Love: Tools, Tactics, and Truth-telling for Dismantling Racism,” held at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City. I was there to support Micky ScottBey Jones, my new colleague, hear some good speakers, and pick up a few insights.
I expected to enjoy hanging out in the East Village, and I did enjoy that. I expected to hear some challenging stories, and there were plenty of those there to be heard.
But I didn’t expect to be so deeply convicted about my own prejudices or to be so deeply surprised—and moved—by a series of portraits hanging on the walls of Middle Collegiate’s mezzanine hallway.
First, the prejudice. There were a lot of Unitarians at this conference. Completely unbidden, the messages from my childhood about Unitarians came creeping up from my belly and squirmed uncomfortably in my chest, like a pile of earthworms restless for spring. I had to take a deep breath, look around me, and ask God to forgive me for the reaction I was having. I don’t have this struggle with Jews, or Muslims, or Atheists. Or Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Or Catholics or Pentecostals. I didn’t grow up in any of those faith traditions either, but for some reason, I was having an emotional and physical reaction to people I had never met before, for no other reason than that they were Unitarians.
So I prayed, “Lord, please show me your image in these people. Show me how you are expressing yourself in and through each Unitarian person in this room.” That was the beginning of the shift.
Then, whenever I found myself sitting next to someone who revealed her/himself to be Unitarian, I asked, in one way or another, “What is your story? What can you teach me about God, yourself, myself?”
I discovered people who are passionate about justice. Who are willing to ask hard questions. Who are willing to be vulnerable about their own journeys. The fact that this surprised me is evidence of my prejudice. But I loved being proved wrong. I loved feeling my heart flex and swell and begin to shed the now too-tight casing it had been previously content to live in. Time to grow. Thank you, Jesus.
Next, the portraits. I’ve been in plenty of churches, institutions of higher learning, and corporate board rooms in my life, so I’ve seen lots of walls hung with portraits of the founder and subsequent leaders of those churches, universities, corporations. Middle Collegiate Church (Reformed Church of America) is no different. Exiting the elevator one story too soon, I found myself on the mezzanine of the church, where a series of typical portraits hung side by side.
Here is Archibald Laidlie (1727-1779), known as the first English-speaking pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church in America. He served Middle Collegiate from 1764 to 1779.
Meet William Craig Brownlee (1784-1860). He pastored the church in the mid-19th century.
Ernest R. Palen pastored Collegiate Church for more than 30 years, from 1932 to 1973.
Gordon Dragt led the church for 20 years, until 2005.
Seeing the portrait of Lewis, dressed in vibrant shades and framed in unvarnished wood instead of the traditional gilded border, did something to me. I had an immediate emotional and physical reaction, but unlike the initial one produced by my prejudice against Unitarians, this one was delightful, invigorating. I smiled, even wanted to shout, and I instinctively looked around to see if there was anyone nearby with whom I could share my delight.
I know what it meant to me, as a woman, to see a portrait of a strong, gifted, confident woman in that series of portraits (by this time I had heard Rev. Lewis speak several times, and had already been struck by what a beautiful human being she was, living fully into her gifts and calling). I imagined what it would mean to a young girl of color to see that portrait. And I was thrilled.
I snapped photos of all the portraits and told myself that the next time I met a female pastor of color I would show them to her. I got to do that just two weeks later, when I met Pastor Lillian Smith of St. Matthews United Methodist Church of Valley Forge. She clasped her hand to her chest and thanked me profusely when she saw Lewis’ portrait at the end of the series, and we beamed at each other and jumped a little in place as we rejoiced together in this glimpse of racism dismantling, of shalom approaching, of God’s kingdom breaking through.
So I think the Wild Goose Racial Justice Institute is important because I think it will yield the kind of unexpected gifts that God offered me in the East Village last month—some painful, some delightful, all of them good for the soul. I invite you to join us in July, to open your heart to God’s surprising gifts, to what can happen when we gather with folks who might look different from us, but who all, like us, reflect the image of God. When we seek the truth together, we get to experience being set free together, and that sounds mighty attractive to me. Will you join me?
Kristyn Komarnicki is the director of the Sider Center’s Oriented to Love dialogues on sexual and gender diversity. In addition to being on the Racial Justice Institute, she’ll be co-presenting (with Darren Calhoun) two workshops, “Crossing the Divide: A Workshop About Communicating Safely Across Deep Disagreements” and “Oriented to Love: Intentional dialogue about sexual/gender diversity in the faith community.”