Pastor advocates truth process
Packed into the pews of the cavernous First Baptist Church on Sunday hundreds of Greensboro residents of Christian, Jewish, Islamic and other faiths participated in a prayer service that highlighted three community projects and stressed overcoming racial division, repairing present-day inequities and loving your enemy.
The prayer service brought Mayor Keith Holliday ‘— who spoke about the Mosaic Partnership ‘— into the orbit of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and allowed many residents to hear for the first time about the Partnership Project, an initiative to correct disparities in health care delivery between black and white residents of Greensboro.
The Partnership Project is aligned with the New Orleans-based Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond, whose ‘Undoing Racism’ workshop teaches that people of color tend to act out internalized oppression and white people tend to act out internalized privilege which together perpetuates a racist system. Monica Walker and Kay Doost spoke about the Partnership Project, while the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission was described by commission member Cynthia Brown.
Although leaders of all three projects were given the opportunity to talk about their work, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was presented as first among equals due to the inclusion of ecumenical prayers for ‘reconciliation,’ and the billing of Rev. Peter Storey, a Duke professor, Methodist minister and former anti-apartheid activist, as keynote speaker. Storey was appointed by then-President Nelson Mandela to help select South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission, and his speech hammered away at those two themes. Storey has also advised the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project.
Storey posed his country’s truth and reconciliation process as a series of difficult and courageous decisions by individuals, which were critical to South Africa moving past the bloodshed that engulfed it over a period of 30 years. ‘“Without truth, there is no healing; without forgiveness, there is no future’” was the truth commission’s slogan.
‘“One of the non-negotiable steps of reconciliation is that there has to be a prime mover,’” Storey said. He told the story of a black mineworker who was caught up in sectarian fighting between black ethnic groups in Johannesburg, who risked his life to reverse the cycle of violence. He presented himself unarmed at the doorsteps of leaders of opposing groups.
‘“He said; ‘I know that you will kill me, but promise me that you will take my body back to Transkei and allow my family to bury me,”” Storey said. ‘“’But first let ask you: how many more of us must die?””
Storey said the apartheid system created deep divisions between South Africa’s churches. Towards the end of apartheid, he helped organize a conference of churches to determine how religious leaders would help guide the country through the transition to black majority rule. Many of the churches had been active in the anti-apartheid movement or had stayed on the sidelines, but one, the Dutch Reformed Church, had supported apartheid.
‘“The leader of the Church stood up and said: ‘I confess, on behalf of myself and my congregation, that we have been deeply implicated and collaborated with the horrors that occurred to black people in South Africa,’” Storey said. ‘“Most of us were like ‘It’s about time,’ but this little black man named [Archbishop] Desmond Tutu bounced up to the stage and said: ‘I don’t know about the rest of you, but in my faith when somebody confesses I don’t have any choice; I have to forgive them.’”
Mayor Holliday also hit on themes of taking personal risks to reach reconciliation. He noted that a ‘“social capital survey’” conducted in Greensboro a couple years ago ‘“showed us that we are extremely low in interracial trust.’”
In promoting the Greensboro Bicentennial Mosaic Partnerships ‘— in which leaders of different backgrounds, races and religious faiths are paired off with each other for a series of 16 meetings over a year’s time ‘— he said: ‘“Stepping out of your comfort zone is sometimes risky and scary. But I ask you to step out of your comfort zones.’”
Holliday, who has stated his opposition to the Greensboro truth commission’s work, took pains to give a generally positive response to Storey’s message but to avoid embracing its specific implication that the city should fully support efforts to uncover the truth about the 1979 killings and reconcile the antagonists in the matter.
‘“While a lot has been focused on the 1979 horrible event, what I take away from Peter Storey’s message centers around the many opportunities for reconciliation,’” he said. ‘“I don’t completely understand all the aspects of having to have truth to get reconciliation. How many times have you had a falling out with a friend, and you come back together and say, ‘We both made mistakes; let’s just move on.””
The Greensboro City Council is expected to discuss the truth and reconciliation process and take a vote on whether to support it on April 19. Rev. Mark Sills, a member of the truth commission, spoke to Holliday at length after the prayer service about what language might be acceptable to a majority of the council members in a resolution of support.
The event was organized by John Young, clerk for the New Garden Friends Meeting and a member of the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project, as part of an effort to engage Greensboro’s faith communities in the truth and reconciliation process.
Young said he approached Rev. Ken Massey, the pastor of First Baptist Church, to discuss what kind of event he would feel comfortable hosting. Massey, he said, suggested the prayer service be focused not just on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but rather on a number of projects related to healing and reconciliation.