With the support of the Church Federation of Greater Indianapolis, congregations across the city are hosting “Sacred Conversations” this month to promote racial reconciliation.
“We think the grass-roots, face-to-face, people-to-people approach is very important,” says the Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith, executive director of the federation. “We want to get people to sit down and feel they can talk to each other and learn from each other.”
Sacred Conversations brings together churches whose members are predominantly African-American with churches with predominantly white congregants. Groups of a dozen or so participants meet for a few hours each week for some frank talk in an atmosphere of trust.
Remarks made by Barack Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, that came under scrutiny in recent months have lent an urgency to the project, Walker-Smith says. But the Church Federation, formed in 1912, has worked toward religious interracial cooperation since the 1920s, when its race relations committee reached out to historically black churches while local government was still dominated by KKK members.
“We have as one of our founding pillars the need to reach across the lines that divide us,” she explains, “and we take that as a central mission from Christ.”
Walker-Smith notes that a primary goal of the program is simple: for people who don’t know each other to begin to understand each other, and through those relationships, learn something new.
“It’s about finding, not just common ground, but the common humanity in our experiences, whatever they are. To have that kind of candid conversation where you can say, ‘I live in America, but I have had a fundamentally different experience from yours.’” Exploring questions of culture and race as people of faith can lead to new possibilities, she believes.
Some of the groups share a meal together as well, like the Coppin Chapel AME/Downey Avenue Presbyterian pairing.
Shanta Brent, a member of this group, says the participants’ Christian commonality makes it easier to build trust, though she admits to some initial nervousness at the first meeting. “People were apprehensive at first; we weren’t sure how far we wanted to go with [our sharing],” she recalls.
“But we said it with respect and people heard each other. We talked about how we had been treated by the other race. We all have open minds here, we’re not coming in here trying to bash each other.”
Brent, an African-American woman who grew up in New York City, was shocked by the racism she experienced when she moved to Indianapolis, and her anger was what drove her to take part in the Sacred Conversations. “I had to get rid of some of this hostility,” she says.
Such a motivation is in keeping with Walker-Smith’s vision for the groups, in which honest exploration is key. “It’s not supposed to be just nice talk,” she says. Trained facilitators guide the participants through a series of questions that give each an opportunity to “own their own experiences.”
In the same group is Sharon Grimble, who is white. “I don’t like seeing people not get along with each other,” she says, expressing her desire for greater perspective and understanding between the races.
This particular evening, between chatting with Brent and filling her plate with hoppin’ john and fried chicken in the basement of Coppin Chapel, Grimble is mulling over something mentioned at the previous meeting: that there is a difference between racism and prejudice. “I think I know what that means, just from thinking about it this past week, but I’m not positive,” she says. She plans to bring up the question once the meeting officially begins.
Nearby is Leo Williams, who says he felt some resistance to the idea of Sacred Conversations at first. “I thought it was not going to be beneficial,” he says. He pictured meetings for meetings’ sake, and discussions that wouldn’t lead to concrete action. Williams, who is African-American, says he decided to participate after being asked by his pastor. “Actually, she asked my fiancée to ask me,” he says, laughing. “They put the squeeze on me.”
Many local congregations already have a history of working toward racial healing, as witnessed by citywide Celebration of Hope interracial worship services, first organized by Light of the World Christian Church and Second Presbyterian Church in 1994. The federation is a partner in this effort, regularly convening community forums toward racial reconciliation.
With such a framework in place, it was natural for the organization to initiate a public dialog when Wright’s comments began to make headlines. “What the national discourse did was stimulate new interest from people,” Walker-Smith says. “We were in a position to respond widely.”
A public forum on religion, race and election politics in late March drew 500 people, many of whom were eager to talk further afterwards. Their feedback prompted the Sacred Conversations now in process, which are set up as a model for possible future replication.
For his part, Leo Williams is glad that his initial reservations about the Sacred Conversations have not been borne out. He appreciates that there is a solid structure to the meetings, and facilitators are skilled at supporting good dialog. “I also feel I’m able to give my opinion and influence to some people in the room,” he says.
What is Williams’ wish for the outcome of the meetings?
“I hope we can truly become a global community, where we do not judge anyone by the color of their skin or their religion,” he says, invoking the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King.
On a more intimate scale, the experience has had a positive impact on Williams personally. “It’s made me more aware,” he says. “I can’t stand by when someone’s criticizing someone else because of their race or gender or religion. I have to be a voice for that person.
“It’s making me a better person.”
Sacred Conversations continue throughout the month of June at the following churches:
Friday, June 19, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Mt. Zion Baptist Church
3500 Graceland Ave.
Sunday, June 22, 1-3 p.m.
St. Andrew Catholic Church
4052 E. 38th St.
Sunday, June 22, 4-6 p.m.
Light of the World Christian Church
646 N. Michigan Road
Robinson Community AME Church 4602 N. College Ave.
Tuesday, June 24, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
St Luke’s United Methodist Church 100 W. 86th St.
Tuesday, June 24, 7-9 p.m.
3201 N. Capitol Ave.
Wednesday, June 25, 7-9 p.m.
St. Lawrence Catholic Church
6944 E. 46th St.
Friday, June 26, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Pilgrim Lutheran Church
10202 N. Meridian St.
For more information, visit
or call 317-926-5371