That doesn't mean, though, that that safe space doesn't sometimes get violated. When that safe space gets violated, it can be really difficult for everyone involved.
There has been a case where a white male really took issue with what I was saying about stereotypes and our need to recognize when stereotypes are happening so that we can erase them and correct them and develop new stories about people. (He) just really, really took issue – not just with what I was saying, but I realized he was taking issue with the fact that I was a black woman leading this class. He kept saying over and over again, 'Well who's really in charge?' And what he meant was 'Where's the white man who should be leading?' Like, who's your authority figure? It just so happened, that I had a white male co-worker with me. The guy immediately turned to him, assuming that he was my supervisor. And my co-worker had to say, 'Actually, she's leading this class, she is the final authority on this. If you would like to go talk with me because you're more comfortable with me, that's fine. But recognize that this isn't a fluke or a trial for her. She's the teacher.' So that hurts.
But the truth is, when we're not creating safe space for everyone's story to live, somebody gets hurt.
I've certainly had the case on the opposite side where a white person who has had some sort of racialized experience, like getting beat up. I've actually had a couple of people come up to me and say that they were jumped by African American men. For them not to be able to sit in a circle and say 'my fear comes from a very real experience,' you know they have to be able to say that. There is so much hurt in this conversation, and just because I'm leading it doesn't mean that I'm exempt from the hurt. I have to go through it and I have to feel it right along with everyone else in the room.
One thing that we do in our first class is called the "Privilege Walk" (a common exercise used by many organizations and universities)… Essentially what happens at the end of the walk is we have a series of questions just about race, socioeconomics, have you ever been called a racial slur, those types of questions. And you either take a step back or a step forward. Every single time I do this, what happens is, all the white people are at the front and all the people of color are at the back. I've done this more time than I can count at this point, and I do it every single time I lead the class. The reason I do it is because I don't want to opt out of the pain of being in the back of the room every single time. Even though I'm leading it, even though I'm training, even though I'm smart and educated and have a Master's degree in social justice, I still don't get to opt out of the pain.
I'm really grateful that Willow has allowed me to lead this effort, and I'm really grateful that Willow trusts me to lead this class, but it doesn't stop painful moments from happening.
CP: What are your thoughts on Willow Creek possibly inspiring other churches and communities to do similar racial reconciliation programs?
Brown: I am really so, so glad that Willow Creek has created the space for these initiatives and for this conversation. I think that a lot of churches get stuck at 'what' – like, 'what should we do, what can we do about this?' I am so glad that Willow Creek decided to do something, instead of putting our heads in the sand and pretending it doesn't exist. I'm just glad that Willow has made the decision to participate. I am really proud of this church for doing that, and I hope that if anything, other churches would just be inspired to get started. Whatever that looks like. If that's a class, then that's great. If people are doing Justice Journeys, fantastic. If it's just preaching on MLK, like…but just to get started. If Willow can be an inspiration to get started that would be pretty amazing. I'd be really pleased.