Tendaji Talk panel asks and tries to answer: does White Christianity reinforce White supremacy?

By Harold Ford

“We have to call out bad theology when it’s bad theology.”
–Monica Villareal, pastor, Salem Lutheran Church, Flint

“Much work to be done.”

–Dan Scheid, rector St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Flint

Does white Christianity reinforce white supremacy?

Four area clerics tackled this tough topic on Zoom at the latest Tendaji Talk Dec. 8, along with nearly
40 online listeners and participants. The panelists included:

 Pastor Monica Villareal, , Salem Lutheran Church, Flint
 Father Phil Schmitter, Christ the King Catholic Church, Flint
 Father Dan Scheid, rector of  St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Flint
 Rev. Jerry Kerr, co-minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Flint

“It’s so far to go, it’s astonishing.”
While common ground largely characterized the panelists’ views on the topic of racism and
religion, nothing screamed unanimity more than an assessment of the volume of work yet to be

“It’s so far to go, it’s astonishing,” warned Schmitter.

“’Oh, yeah, we don’t need to worry about race,’” Schmitter said, sarcastically mimicking those
who don’t take the subject seriously enough. “’Phil over there at Christ of King, he’ll take care
of that stuff. Yeah, bring Phil in and give a talk and that’ll take care of it.’”

Father Phil Schmitter, Christ the King Catholic Church, Flint. (Photo from YouTube)


“That’s how shallow it is,” Schmitter warned.  “We gotta’ look at the cornerstones and the
foundations of all our traditions…We’ve got a long way to go.”

“We want to get to the promised land without doing the hard work that we’re called to do,”
agreed Scheid. “A danger in white progressive Christianity is that we’re very quick to pat
ourselves on the back for the ways that we believe we’re ‘woke’ and enlightened, when we really
haven’t done a very deep dive in who we are as white Christians.”

“There’s all this privilege,” Schmitter added,  “but a lot of people don’t want to own that, or look
at that, and see how it gets lived out in the advantages that we have. It’s just tragic to see that

“The church has to speak; the church community has to speak,” Villareal advised.  “We cannot
remain silent on this. We have to work toward change.”

Church complicity and white as normative

“Racism and aspects of white supremacy are in all institutions,” advised Kerr, “(including)
churches who don’t speak out and recognize racism in their own memberships.

“If we’re not speaking the truth…about the nature of racism, white supremacy in the church and society in general, then we’re not doing our job,”  he added. “People come to church to learn about the great truths in life…They really trust our churches and if churches aren’t helping out, being prophetic about the nature of racism that is so well documented…then we’re not doing our job.”

Scheid noted that the history of the Episcopal Church of North America, with historical links to
the Anglican Church of England, benefitted from slavery. “The church profited directly and
indirectly from slave trade,” he said, adding that the antecedents of church endowments and
construction of buildings are currently under examination.

Many of the rites developed in early Christianity emanated from the Byzantine and Roman
Catholic church cultures, Schmitter added.   For example, “Latin became the normative language.”

“White was always normative,” Schmitter continued, “so Jesus became white (as depicted by the
Renaissance artists).”

“We largely see white church as normative,” Scheid affirmed.  “If you look at much of our art
and architecture (and music) that certainly shows white as normative. The same is true in
preaching, teaching, and theology. It’s so endemic to who we are that we don’t often notice it.”

Villareal pointed out that the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020 happened in “the
breadbasket of Lutheranism,” Minneapolis. “What have we not obviously been doing to have, in
some way, tacitly or not, contributed to that expression of racism and murder?” she rhetorically
asked. “Where was the Lutheran Church?”

Redlining and white flight

“Historically, the (Lutheran Church) tradition is built in neighborhoods,” Villareal said.
“The expression of white supremacy (in Flint) was in redlining…making certain areas of our city
not a place for black African Americans to live, to reside, to get housing.”

Pastor Monica Villareal, Salem Lutheran Church, Flint (Photo source: MSU School of Social Work)

“Salem was one of the early congregations that said, ‘Housing inequity is something we want to
work on,’” she said.  “They lost a lot of membership. It became easier for white members to
not do the hard work of looking at themselves.”

Instead, she noted, many white members moved out of the city and built other Lutheran churches in Flint’s suburbs.

“It does take leadership,” Villareal said,  “to keep on keeping on even when the finances get
hard or people are at your throat.”

Missed opportunities

Schmitter lamented “so many missed opportunities” by clergy to address issues of racism. “I’m
not hearing priests and deacons talking about that very much.”

“We’re just taking baby steps,” Schmitter said with chagrin. He advised that religious leaders
need to affirm efforts to diversify white Christianity rather than “get nervous and tense and

“Often our focus is more on people of color,” Scheid added,  “but we don’t spend much time
looking at ourselves: what it means to be white; what it means to be a white Christian. And how
we have all benefitted directly and indirectly from the privilege that’s been built into our

Father Dan Scheid, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Flint (Photo source: East Village Magazine)

In his comments, Scheid cited the book Dear White Christians by Jennifer Harvey.

“Her thesis is that white Christians want to make the jump to reconciliation…without really
examining our past, without really looking at the work of repair and repentance.”
Harvey’s book “does force us to talk about reparation, about repair, about really examining
ourselves, that you cannot simply as a white person say, ‘I’m no longer racist, I have studied this
thoroughly, and I’m ready to move on’,” Scheid said.

“We stumble and suffer from the same sort of well-intentioned, but misguided, things that we
say and things that we do serving [as ministers],” Scheid reflected. “We often look to the same
people of color to populate boards so that we have diversity and representation, but we don’t
often do the hard work of looking at ourselves. We would love for people of color to come to our
churches, but we’re not so willing…to be a part of an African American congregation.”

Non-monolithic and non-shaming

“I don’t think it helps anyone to talk about Christianity as if it’s monolithic and that white
supremacy permeates all of Christianity,” Kerr said,  “It certainly does not. This gathering here
proves that that’s the case.”

Kerr also urged that any antiracism training be non-shaming in nature. “It’s been my experience,
and there is research now showing, that antiracism training often falls flat and the people who
need it most won’t even show up.”

Lynn Kerr, Jerry Kerr, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Flint co-ministers
(Photo source: UUCF website)

“It is my hope that antiracism training utilizes the Christian understanding that all have sinned,
have fallen way short of the glory of God, and that we can come up with antiracism trainings that
don’t shame people,” added Kerr. “We need to tackle racism with radical love.”

Jesus and love

“We’ve known for centuries that there were many different understandings of Jesus…” Kerr
said.  “There’s the ‘Sermon on the Mount Jesus’ who preached radical love: ‘love your enemy’;
‘blessed are those who are compassionate’; ‘blessed are the peacemakers’; ‘you are the light of
the world.’”

“Much later, 80 to 90 years, we get a Jesus that said: ‘I am the light of the world’; ‘no one gets to
the Father except through me,’” Kerr continued.  “What we really need is the Jesus from the
Sermon on the Mount, the Jesus of compassion and radical love.”

“We can’t just say the words,” Schmitter warned. “There has to be more intelligent love going
on…You have to go back and deal with the trauma that’s affected people for generations.”

Training both touted and doubted

Antiracism training for clergy and laity was both touted and doubted by the panelists.

“In our particular denomination, Unitarian Universalism,” said Kerr, “our organizing body
makes available and strongly suggests that member congregations in the United States take
antiracism training, training about how white supremacy is a part of our church, and that a lot of
times we participated consciously or unconsciously.”

“Within the last couple of generations, we have paid close attention to the notion of systemic
racism in our denomination,” said Scheid. “It comes and goes in waves. It’s a requirement for
folks who are ordained to undergo work in analyzing and dismantling racism…and very often it
is seen as a (perfunctory) box to be checked off.”

Villareal advocated for “tangible, actionable things.” She touted a community project that has
declared racism a community health crisis vis a vis law enforcement and health care in Genesee
County. “It’s not enough to put a resolution on the books…We want to see action; we want to
see change.”

Youth a source of optimism

Villareal expressed optimism about youth continuing the campaign against racism. “I’m really
hopeful when I see so many young people willing to take a stand in the Lutheran Church in
particular,” she said. “The young people will be our inspiration and our energy that will continue
to carry these conversations forward.”

Kerr wasn’t so sure. “We are now just leaving four years where many Christians have, perhaps,
damaged Christianity because they identified as Christians strongly and chose politicians who
were flat out immoral,” he observed. “As far as young people are concerned, they equate
Christianity with something that puts up with immoral politicians and protects institutions that
are racist and doesn’t call upon them to change their ways.”


Schmitter reminded attendees that Christianity is currently in the season of Advent—a time to
prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus. “Advent in the mainline Christian churches is a time of
awakening,” he said. “We need to be awakened to things about race and about justice and the
dignity of everybody and really figure out ways to act on that.”

“I do think we have the strength as a community to do this hard work,” assessed Villareal.
“I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic, but I wouldn’t say I’m pessimistic,” Scheid concluded.  “I’m
kind of realistic I suppose.”

* * * * *

Moderators for the Dec. 8 Tendaji Talk were Donna Ulrich, University of Michigan-Flint
instructor, and Erin E. Powell, nutrition educator and registered dietician at Michigan State
University’s Genesee County Extension Office.

Tendaji Talks were organized in honor of social justice activist Tendaji Ganges who died in
2014. Ganges served on numerous professional and community boards and committees. He spent
almost 20 years as the executive director of the Office of Educational Opportunities Initiatives
and assistant to the provost at the University of Michigan-Flint.

The next Tendaji Talk on Jan. 12, 2021 will feature Reggie Flynn, pastor of Foss Avenue Baptist
Church in Flint. Flynn will discuss the development of local economies to combat local racism.
The public is welcome to join a small committee that selects topics and recruits speakers for
monthly Tendaji Talks. Contact Donna Ulrich at the following email address if interested:

EVM Staff Writer and Education Beat reporter Harold C. Ford can be reached at hcford1185@gmail.com.

Author: Tom Travis

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