The conference helped churches engage in their multicultural ministry context in New Jersey; it focused on white privilege and giving voice to the voiceless.
On a sunny Saturday in November, pastors and church members made their way to Ramapo Reformed Church in Mahwah, New Jersey, for a one-day conference, “Speaking Truth to Power: Giving Voice to the Voiceless.”
The conference, sponsored by the Regional Synod of the Mid-Atlantics Multicultural Ministry Committee, was originally going to focus on indigenous rights in the northern New Jersey area. (Over the past several years, tensions have risen between the Ramapough Lenape Nation and state and local governments over a proposed oil pipeline on the tribe’s land in Mahwah.) But as the committee fleshed out the details of the conference, it became clear there was a need to speak truth on a broader scale.
“Finding ways to recognize, speak to, and work through what we now call ‘white privilege’ in our churches has always been and continues to be important,” says Larissa Romero, chair of the Multicultural Ministry Committee and pastor of Pascack Reformed Church in Park Ridge, New Jersey. She adds that a recent synod survey revealed the need among churches to learn how to connect with people who are not sitting in the pews on a Sunday.
“Our church communities are happily diversifying around us. How do we engage that diversity without reacting from a fearful or threatened place?” she says.
So 27 people gathered to learn how to speak truth in a politicized world and better engage with others. The keynote speaker was Vanessa Wilson, senior pastor of Magnolia Road United Methodist Church in Pemberton, New Jersey, and chair of the United Methodist Church Commission on Religion and Race of Greater New Jersey. Speaking on radical hospitality, Wilson urged everyone to do a self-assessment to uncover individual biases and privilege.
“Before speaking truth to outside powers, we must speak truth to the power in us,” Wilson said in her presentation.
George Montanari, pastor of Middlebush Reformed Church in Somerset, New Jersey, was inspired by Wilson’s message, especially the idea that truth-telling doesn’t have to be confrontational. He says the conference also gave him “fresh language” to use when engaging with others in his community—a community that has become increasingly diverse. Within the bounds of the local school district, 57 languages are spoken.
“We have four languages spoken in our congregation,” says Montanari. “We are not really reflective of the diversity in our community.” He hopes to help his congregation better reflect its community.
The conference also included several breakout sessions that explored groups that are often silenced in the church. One such group is young people. When the voices of young people are respected, they can teach adults many things, says Darryl Redmond, pastor of Faith Chapel Reformed Church in Paterson, New Jersey. He believes one of the ways young people can help adults is by demonstrating the courage to take risks.
Another breakout session featured Joanne Van Sant, who spoke on giving voice to “uniquely abled” people. Van Sant serves as pastor of Friends to Friends Community Church in Ridgewood, New Jersey, where on any given Sunday more than 80 people who have a disability come to worship.
“That tells you something, doesn’t it?” she says. “There is a need for a welcoming community and worship for those who just don’t feel welcomed in a traditional church because of their special needs.”
Van Sant reminded people that if we are made in God’s image, then the way a person was created by God is not deficient—“it is our societal norms that are deficient,” she said.
Van Sant also gave suggestions for simple ways congregations can include all people. For instance, church staff might push a wheelchair around the worship space to see where the facility is accessible, and where it’s difficult to navigate.
The conference also included opportunities to hear stories of churches that are reaching out beyond their sanctuaries to build relationships with others. A common thread throughout these stories was the reminder to take small steps and to celebrate the little victories.
“The kingdom building we are called to do as Christ’s church is this transformational work that takes us out of our spirits of fear—the parent of phobias such as xenophobia, homophobia, [and] Islamophobia,” says Romero. “We can rejoice every time we take a step in that direction.”
The Multicultural Ministry Committee plans to hold more “Speaking Truth” seminars in the future.