ODB Interview: Swedenborgians in action against racism

With an increased interest in, and awareness of the issues surrounding racism in our society, Swedenborgians in Action Agains Racism has been an initiative within the Swedenborgian Church which aims at addressing these issues from a New Church perspective.

In this interview, ODB’s Rev. Thom Muller discusses this project and the ways people can be involved, with Rev. Shada Sullivan and Lori Gayheart, who have been instrumental in getting this program started.

What is SAAR? 

L: Originally, it was the title of the newsletter, purposely focused on ACTION, and specifically action AGAINST racism (it’s not enough to just not be racist), united as Swedenborgians in taking this action together, because it’s time for our denomination to take an unwavering stand in defense of our black and brown brothers and sisters against the injustices and iniquities they face in literally every area of life and all over the world. 

It has evolved into something bigger with the Zoom series, and maybe it will continue to grow and evolve to encompass all sorts of anti-racism actions and initiatives by the Swedenborgian church…wouldn’t that be exciting?

What was your inspiration to start this project? 

S: Like many people during the summer of this year, I felt a strong desire to act in concrete ways that would support anti-racism. But sometimes it feels so overwhelming trying to figure out what actions to take, and what actions might do the most good. I knew that I needed to have a community around me dedicated to helping each other with these questions, and to staying accountable to the work for the long-term. 

In addition, I also felt a strong desire to have that community be spiritual community, grounded in the theology and practice of the Swedenborgian tradition. So, I decided to start with what I felt like I needed personally, a resource that would help to sort through information and suggest action, hoping that if it was what I needed then it would help other people too. Then, I totally lucked out by having Lori come on board, for which I am super grateful!

L: This one is all Shada, but I can speak to my reasons for becoming involved in helping with her brain child. I wanted to DO something, to be ACTIVELY involved in anti-racist work, and when Shada floated her idea for a newsletter on Manifold Angels, it sounded like a perfect way for me to get started. I spend much of my time writing – persuasively, informationally, and educationally – for my job. I am an elementary school administrator and I write grants, newsletters, parent communications, policies and manuals, etc. Right out the gate, this was a different type of writing because our intention has been to amplify the voices of those already doing the work, especially BIPOC, not to create content. 

So, the issues I am primarily involved in, what I would call the educational ones, are focused on using excerpts and links to resources to familiarize readers with the current topic, in a variety of formats so they can delve deeper in the way(s) that works best for them.

My goal is to uncover false narratives and challenge assumptions, paradigms, stereotypes, biases, and discriminatory practices and policies that continue to systemically oppress and endanger the lives of people of color, and then provide ways for readers to put anti-racist ideas into action by becoming involved in and/or supporting existing anti-racist efforts. 

What do you see as its purpose? 

L: For me, it is to educate, and give readers the tools and resources they need to grow as individuals, and a direction to go in with their new understandings, passion, and desire to do something. To inspire and support sustained anti-racism activism, and, ultimately, to make a difference.

How has the experience been so far? 

S: It’s been very satisfying, and also challenging–which is good! The response to the newsletter, and also to the discussion series, has been very positive. A key thing that I am reminding myself is that, while part of the point is to act into the moment that is before us, another goal is to create community for the work in the long-term.

How will the church be showing up to the work of racial justice in one year, or two years? I’m hoping the foundational work we are doing now will continue to bear fruit in increasingly productive ways.

L: Very educational for me personally. I’ve learned a lot from the research I have done for the newsletters. I was feeling a little disheartened by the 0 clicks on our issue on Voting Rights and Voter Suppression, and it caused me to question whether we were really reaching people, whether this really was anti-racist activism, whether we really are making a difference. The newsletter statistics at that point in time kind of got me down. The last thing I want to do is work to produce something that feels useful and appears like it ought to be from the outside, that can be pointed to like, look at this, we’re doing this really good thing, but it’s actually not having an impact and creating positive change.

Shada helped me over that hump, and I think she was right, that the timing of that issue coinciding with school (and the country) opening up after locking down since spring might have had something to do with the lack of engagement with that issue. 

Is there a uniquely Swedenborgian way to engage the issue of Racism? 

S: I think there are so many good ways to approach this work from a Swedenborgian perspective. From the perspective of regeneration, we can explore the connection of de-centering our selfhood to de-centering whiteness in society.

So much of personal anti-racism work is about interrogating our own biases and habitual ways of thinking with clarity and compassion, and as Swedenborgians, our commitment to the process of regeneration gives us a good framework, and plenty of practice (hopefully!) at doing that kind of necessary reflection.

From the perspective of usefulness and doing good for the neighbor, we can not only expect that we should show kindness to our fellow human beings when we encounter them, but also that we might put serious thought (and humble listening!) toward the best ways of being useful for our neighbor. One of those ways is certainly dismantling racism! 

From the perspective of the coming of the New Jerusalem, we are all responsible for birthing as much of that reality into the world as we can. And certainly, the holy city will never be fully manifested in a world that relies upon, is built upon, racist foundations. For those of us who firmly believe in the possibility of “on earth as it is in heaven” we can turn our eyes to seeing what in this world is preventing that from happening, and then doing our part to create change.

How does one get involved? 

L: Subscribe to, read, and share the newsletter; pick one thing from each newsletter and take action against racism – start locally, where you live and work and play; join Manifold Angels on Facebook. 

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