Fargo church among faith communities to talk about sin of racism in online discussions
Roxane B. Salonen's "Faith Conversations" feature explores how Bethel event aimed to raise conversations, awareness.
FARGO — Bethel Church connections pastor Jonas Bundy opened the “Conversation on Racism and Reconciliation” online event June 24 with prayer and a confession. “I’ve been a little anxious today, and I think it’s good for us to acknowledge that upfront.”
Bundy said he wanted the discussion to foster appreciation regarding living as a minority, as experienced by the two panelists, both Black, that all might “grow in empathy for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
“Maybe we could model something here that others can try,” he added, saying it’s important to “embrace the tensions that are there.”
Jagila Minso, a native of Nigeria, said she was both “honored and terrified” to be part of the discussion, “Not because I think this is overwhelming,” she clarified; she’d just never been involved in such a direct, public conversation on the topic.
“But I believe it’s an important conversation, and that, as part of the Body of Christ, this is what we should be doing.”
Minso, a pediatric intensive care physician, joined co-panelist Shontarius Aikens, originally from Arkansas and now a business instructor at Concordia College in Moorhead. Both attend Bethel.
Aikens said he’s spoken to students before on the topic of racism and appreciates chances to “bridge the gap” between the major and minority cultures.
Each shared difficulties of being a Black person in this country and region, as well as the positive aspects of the Fargo-Moorhead community.
“My mom always taught me to not be so concerned about being ‘the only one,’ and if that’s your motive, you won’t do anything,” Aikens said.
But he admits that being a large black man with a commanding voice, he’s had to be extra vigilant at times. When he travels, he has “checkpoints,” locations where he texts his mother to let her know he’s OK, because she worries.
And Minso said when traveling out of the area, she keeps her work identification badge handy; her physician status brings a level of comfort she wishes she didn’t need.
Given the resurgence of the topic of racism following George Floyd ’s death in Minneapolis in May, including local peaceful protests and a riot, Bundy asked the panelists how they’ve been faring.
Minso said her profound grief mirrored the loss she experienced in miscarrying a child, but that “having the chance to sit in the presence of God” and cry out her sadness has helped. “It’s a release of the heart, and important not to be entrenched in anger.”
She hasn’t been able to view the video of Floyd’s death, she admitted.
“There’s a sense of this hidden pain that I never talk about, except in the setting... with friends.” Now, suddenly, it’s something “I have to wear on my face wherever I go... I'm feeling very vulnerable.”
At work, Minso said she has to “shut this door of emotionality” until she gets home, but there’s also a safety net of sorts in her occupation. “The moment I walk out those doors, I’m a black woman.”
Her ongoing prayer has been for unity, and that those who don’t believe racism exists will “see God’s face” on the issue.
“This requires the work of the Holy Spirit,” Minso said, to “recognize sin” and then “to walk in redemption... with forgiveness. Unless we incorporate all those things... we can’t go forward.”
Aikens said he was traveling at the time of Floyd’s death and was dismayed.
“When injustice happens, it does something inside of me — I can’t even describe that raw emotion,” he said. “I think some of that has to do with the fact that my mother grew up in the Deep South in the Jim Crow era. She has experienced more of these things firsthand.”
But both contend the path forward can only happen with God’s help.
“I struggle to look at it from a higher perspective,” Aikens said, noting that he asks God frequently how he can be part of the solution. But even while trying to be objective, he’s a human being with feelings.
“No matter how many college degrees I might have, I’m still a person underneath. I still hurt.”
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“Grace” is a word that keeps coming to him, he said, but it’s almost impossible to access in our social media-saturated culture.
“I’ve had to shut down watching social media. It’s a really negative energy that’s there, and it’s going to have an effect on your mindset and on your heart," he said.
He also cautions the desire by some to paint all police as racist.
“This is casting a shadow over all of them,” he said, adding it's not any fairer than when a Black person does something bad and others try to categorize all Black people as bad.
“We have to be fair in principle,” he said. “At the same time, there are a lot of feelings and emotions, because people lost lives and you can’t get those back.”
Bundy said that in the Christian framework, all are “created in the image and likeness of God,” and that God “is not Norwegian with blond hair and blue eyes.”
“Ethnicity is beautiful,” he said, whereas “racism is very unhelpful. And it seems to be the fruit of prejudice gone wrong.”
“Interrogating those prejudgments,” he suggested, benefits the whole Body of Christ.
Aikens said we don’t often know another’s motives or heart, but God does.
“I say, ‘Lord, this person is doing this to me, so have your way with them,'” he said of handling hurtful situations. “It’s taken me a while to learn this.”
Ultimately, it helps to remember that Christ died for everybody, he said, including those who pre-judge or misunderstand others.
“That’s not just race-related,” Aikens added, noting that some find this approach too passive. “But I can’t change someone’s heart... all I can do is treat people with respect and honor and be the best I can be.”
Minso said everyone carries prejudice in their hearts, whether from an experience “that caused a sour taste” or something built in. “That’s basic human nature, and the key is surrendering it. Otherwise, I’m prone to becoming bitter.”
Her own mother warned against this, she said. “When I hold onto the disdain people show... it goes in and takes root.”
Rather than internalizing injustice and hurt, she said people can offer it to God “for his glory.”
“As Christians, everything in our lives is meant to be used” in that way, Minso said, including our “whiteness and blackness.”
She recalled a fitting Scripture verse she memorized as a young girl: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
“The lie of the enemy is not mine to hold onto,” Minso emphasized, noting that when people react to her in a negative way based only on the exterior, she recognizes it as their problem, not hers.
“I have to lay it down at the altar. I don’t want to make the excuse that anger made me act in a way that made me not glorify my savior.”
Both panelists agreed this topic takes discernment and the right environment to feel safe enough to discuss.
“If you have this difficult conversation with someone whose heart is not tender for the Lord, you will get ‘eaten,’” Minso said. “It’s important to talk about this within the church, where we can speak to each other in psalms... We’re meant to build each other up.”
Find the full conversation on the Bethel Church website at www.bethelfc.com.
In addition, Moorhead's Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd held a discussion of a similar tone on June 25 that's available to view on the church's Facebook page, www.facebook.com/gsmoorhead.
Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.