By Brett Hetherington*
“You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Those words shared by the Rev. Christopher Liberati set the stage for a panel discussion that has been a centerpiece for Willoughby United Methodist Church (Western Reserve District) throughout the month of February. This panel discussion is not a standalone. It’s part of an ongoing conversation among the church and the community that has been deepening for some time now.
“The tragic death of George Floyd two years ago started a process where we needed to learn about racism and its true impact on us, the church and as a community,” said Liberati, who serves as lead pastor for Willoughby UMC. “What started out as an information gathering journey led to a transformation – an action plan on how we could be a part of the movement in dismantling racism in the local church, impacting not only our local church but our community.”
Out of that movement was birthed the Race and Religion Forum, a monthly gathering to explore books and topics such as white fragility, redlining, racism and its impact on both the church and the community the church lives in, and more. You can view an interview with some of the leadership team sharing their experiences here.
Willoughby is a predominantly white community, and as a result the church mirrors that and is a mostly white congregation. But Liberati and the leadership wanted to embrace having a core value of diversity, and to empower minorities within their community.
“This current panel discussion continues to build on the work we have done,” said Liberati. “We are constantly looking for ways to help educate the church community as a whole and I think Sunday morning worship is a great way to do that.”
With this idea in mind Liberati set to work planning a panel discussion with the goal in mind of helping to educate the congregation and celebrate Black History Month. “I didn’t know where that panel discussion was going to go until I heard back from Bishop Malone’s office and a couple others who we had invited to be on the panel. I looked at the theme for 2022 and it just happened to be Black health and welfare,” he mused.
The panel discussion ultimately lasted for 75 minutes and included three panelists: Bishop Tracy S. Malone, Dr. Walter Wynne, MD, and Dr. Lisa Richards, DDS (retired).
Liberati’s goals for the panel discussion are twofold. The first is to host the video recording of the discussion in its entirety on the church website as a resource for anyone to view at their leisure. The second goal is what has been playing out in the church throughout Black History Month. “In worship I include segments from the discussion where I would preempt the worship space to feature a question and the people who were responding. Video segments run seven- to nine-minutes on Sunday. It is just a teaser to get people watching the whole segment. It is also for those who think this work may not be important, just to help them rethink what their assumptions are.”
The panel itself is quite informative and is filled with personal stories, encounters, and even academic findings that many from a white background may not have encountered. “I have been looking at many different studies,” shared Bishop Malone. “Part of one study is how healthcare has been ‘reformed,’ and it begs the question when we talk about even who ends up in the emergency room and how that becomes the place of triage because of people not having access elsewhere. It’s like a pipeline because people don’t have access to preventative care. How much is accumulative medical issues that were preventable? You can’t talk about healthcare without talking about poverty, without talking about income inequality, without talking about food insecurity, without talking about affordable housing. It’s all interconnected.”
Richards served as a pediatric dentist for over 30 years before retiring and taking on the responsibilities of Discipleship director at Willoughby UMC. Though she is white herself, she shared her unique perspective on the state of available healthcare.
“Many children in low socioeconomic strata are covered by Medicaid which covers only about 30% of the regular dentist fee. Dentists have the option to opt in or opt out, and as a businessperson they have to consider their overhead, whether they can pay their employees, etc. It can be hard to find someone to treat your child, and so you let it go. As you let it go, disease grows, and you end up in ER. This is not the place to treat a diseased cavity, so they tell you to go see your dentist.”
Richards also took the time to point out that though not all Black families are from lower income strata, and not all families from this income bracket are Black, there is a large percentage of the population that is. This is a vicious cycle for many of these families and Richards has been advocating to the state government to improve the Medicaid program to improve dental care for families. She also contributes to Willoughby UMC’s efforts in anti-racism in her role as Discipleship director. She oversees what was once the Race and Religion Forum.
“We shifted from the Race and Religion Forum to the Beloved Community Project last October when we started working with Will Jones (EOC director of Multicultural Vitality) to examine the needs of the community. He and a gentleman named Michael Howard put together a 12-month systematic, intentional program that has us learning about the community first. They have us asking things like how big is it? What is the racial makeup? What are the economic differences? How did it form the way it did? As we research and learn about our community, we are going to learn what the biggest need and learn how the church can step in and meet that need. We are also amassing information for a resource guide to help point people toward real help that we are not equipped to offer here at Willoughby UMC.”
Liberati pointed out that the stories shared in the panel discussion presented a wealth of new information.
“Being able to hear these personal stories helps us as white people to maybe open our eyes to the truth that there’s a lot of things we don’t take into consideration, a lot of assumptions we have. How personal stories can help impact what we are doing in the local church just by bringing simple awareness and education to those things that we don’t know. You don’t know what you don’t know.”
He wants people to watch the panel discussion and be inspired by it and then go share it. He is especially grateful to share that the church has not received any negative feedback. This is encouraging, especially in a community that is home to such a small minority of Persons of Color residents. It speaks to the impact of these past two years of work the church has done, and the work ahead the church will continue to do, even when the work is not easy.
“These are difficult conversations to have, but just start. There are people to contact to help – Will, me, or groups to join like ours to see how to do things, and then break off and do it on your own,” said Richards.
Liberati echoes Richards’ urgency to get involved in this important undertaking. “We are all suffering from pandemic fatigue, I hope and pray that we are not suffering from fighting racism fatigue. This isn’t going away; we have to have the endurance to walk alongside our brothers and sisters of color so we can become more like the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.”
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at email@example.com.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.