The immediately slow work of repentance

The liturgical service "A Prayer Vigil for Justice & Peace" is available at the bottom of this article as a downloadable PDF. 

“Every one, though born of God in an instant, yea and sanctified in an instant, yet undoubtedly grows by slow degrees…” — John Wesley, Letter, 27 June 1760

In May of this year, The Reverend Jim Wallis (founder of Sojourners Magazine and most recently author of, “America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and The Bridge to a New America”) and The Reverend Dr. William Barber (president of the North Carolina NAACP and most recently author of “The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of the New Justice Movement) led a discussion on race in a local United Methodist Church.

One of us (a white male) was invited to co-moderate the discussion, along with the pastor of the church (an African-American female).

As she and I planned the discussion, we thought it would be best to frame the conversation in light of our liturgy. Specifically, we wanted Rev. Wallis and Rev. Barber to help us think about race through the liturgical movement of confession, repentance and forgiveness. What would it mean to confess our racism, repent of it, and seek forgiveness? What would it mean to name our racism truthfully, to turn fully from it, and to embrace each other and a new way forward together?

Once the night arrived, a large crowd filled the fellowship hall. The host pastor welcomed the diverse gathering to the discussion, introduced herself and the panel and then, as planned, handed it over to me to frame the night with the threefold move as our collective lens.

I tried to quickly sketch out the theology and practice of confession, repentance and forgiveness. I then asked Rev. Barber to, “help us find our way to reconciliation.”

After a long pause, Rev. Barber turned toward me as if we were the only ones in the room and said, “What we are talking about took hundreds of years to make. We may not get to reconciliation tonight.”

Suddenly, the long work of repentance came into view as my own whiteness took center stage in the spotlight.

Truth be told, I wanted a cheap and easy way forward to assuage my own guilt. I wanted a quick fix to a long problem. And, while we’re being honest, what I really wanted was to be told that I was okay without having to change much of anything.

Rev. Barber reminded me that while repentance begins immediately, it is a long, slow work.

This has come to our minds as we have struggled to lead our churches in the aftermath of the violence that has most recently torn through our nation. The shootings in Orlando, of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the police officers in Dallas have driven many people to church, as the intense pain of events like these often does. The fear and rawness of these recent events understandably drives us to seek healing and hope while the fresh wounds lay bare.

While the church does triage, to be conduits of God’s salve to this trauma we must understand that these wounds are rooted in a much deeper, longer story of wounding. These are not isolated incidents, but another outworking of the long incident of a racism that is woven into the very fabric of our society.

If our confession and repentance is only episodic, only a response to events that either shake us nationally or grip us locally, we are inadvertently offering the illusion of a quick path to reconciliation.

The systems that are wounding us took hundreds of years to make. We may not get to reconciliation immediately.

But that does not mean that we don’t begin the process of repenting right now.

We offer the liturgy below to be used regularly and repeatedly as a means of ushering our churches into the practice of Holy Conferencing. This liturgy draws from the Service of Prayer for Justice and Peace from the Iona Community, an ecumenical community deeply committed to peacemaking. While it can be used as an immediate response to any given event, it is intended to be a part of a longer work of confession (naming the harm that racism does to all of us) repentance (turning away from those systems and structures in real and concrete ways) and eventually, in the fullness of time, to forgiveness (where we can embrace one another and the way of God together fully).

Perhaps this is a liturgy that is done prior to worship for the next year, as a rite of penance and keeping the conversation alive within our parish. Perhaps it is done in conjunction with dialogues on race and privilege. Perhaps it is offered at the beginning of mid-week meals, where anyone who will can come, find a seat at the table and find their truth heard, received and redeemed.

The point is not to offer a one-time vigil as a quick fix (though vigils are a good and truthful immediate response), but to invite our communities into the long, regular, and immediate work of repentance.

We encourage congregations to seek guidance and leadership in practicing repentance with partners such as the NAACP and Dismantling Racism, remembering that our call is to offer gracious space and regular practices for the long work, but not to have quick fixes and easy answers.

We may not get there today, but by God we don’t have to stay where we are.

We can begin moving toward God and each other.

As Rev. Barber teaches, we can move forward together.

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