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Thoughts About Race, From Beyond the Pulpit

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 24, 2008

Susan Shearouse can think of no better place than church to discuss the difficult topic of race.

"If not here, then where?" she said before an 11 a.m. service yesterday at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Vienna. "You can't do it at work or on the soccer field. But given that, how do we begin?"

As a white woman in her late 50s, Shearouse said she doesn't usually think much about race. "We have the luxury of thinking it doesn't exist," she said. Yet it's been on her mind for the past few days, since Sen. Barack Obama gave a speech last week calling on Americans to confront their differences and move beyond a "racial stalemate."

But the Rev. Steve Proctor, pastor of the 650-member United Methodist congregation, said he did not consider bringing the debate on race, religions and politics into his sermon yesterday. Instead he stuck to the Easter theme of resurrection on what he called "the holiest day of the year."

Although the United Methodist Church has a long history of addressing social issues, and members of Good Shepherd have done volunteer work on Native American reservations and in the ruins of post-Katrina New Orleans, Proctor and his members acknowledge that they have not directly explored the country's racial divisions -- past and present. The Good Shepherd flock believes the conversation should be had but disagrees about whether it should begin in the pulpit.

Controversial sound bites from sermons by Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., prompted the Illinois senator to take on the subject of race, which has surfaced several times during the battle between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for the Democratic presidential nomination. Obama's remarks also attempted to explain the historical role of African American pastors, who at times have used strong language to criticize discrimination against black people.

The Church of the Good Shepherd, an expansive campus nestled on a Vienna road of relatively new McMansions, has a predominantly white congregation. It draws members from throughout Northern Virginia and tries to be a good neighbor in its community. Good Shepherd is known for opening its doors to local groups, among them a Korean Baptist church, scouting troops, Alcoholics Anonymous and the Vienna Women's Center. Demand for its sanctuary and 11 classrooms outpaces availability.

Good Shepherd's congregation is socially conscious and committed to national and international outreach. For 15 years, church members have gone to South Dakota, where they have helped repair houses on Native American reservations. The church also has sent members to Haiti, where they have assisted in building health clinics and schools.

Karl Heeter spent last week in New Orleans on the church's eighth mission to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Racial differences rarely cross his mind during missions to New Orleans, Heeter said, even though 90 percent of the people he works with are black. "I won't say I've never felt fear or concern that there are dangerous black people out there," he said, referring to some of the neighborhoods where he has spent time in New Orleans. "But there are dangerous white people out there, too. It's not an area where I would send anybody wandering without a purpose."

Heeter said that he has not focused on the controversy surrounding Wright's comments and that he didn't hear Obama's speech. But he said the country doesn't need to revisit its ugly racial history. "I'm not saying it wasn't horrible, but we need to get over it," he said.

As such, he doesn't see the need to talk about racial differences in church. "I don't see any point in stirring it up in an area where there don't appear to be any problems," he said.

Frank Bertrand, the church's lay leader, said the country has been ready to have a frank discussion about race for more than a generation. Yet he acknowledged it would be difficult to bring it up without setting parameters. People are more inclined to speak openly if non-threatening questions are asked and they know "what to expect and what the objectives are," he said.

"Anytime we see a race-relations issue, we should address it as a church," he said. "I don't think the church should use Sunday to tell people how they shouldn't act but how they ought to act."

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, co-author of a soon-to-be published book, "Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words," said she is not sure Obama's speech will spark a national conversation about race.

"A political problem does not create the type of moment that leads to a national dialogue," she said. "It was a beautifully crafted speech; it is not a speech capable of transforming the environment."

Americans need to be in the right frame of mind to talk about race, Jamieson said; they are far more likely to be altruistic when they are not thinking about putting gas in their car, feeding their families and holding on to their jobs.

"Even if this were the right speech, by the right candidate, now is not the right time to have the discussion, if you want to maximize the impact on the audience," she said. "What it does forecast is a tacit promise of that conversation occurring if he becomes president. His presidency would create the moment in which the country will rethink itself."

Good Shepherd has a Sunday school class titled Faith Meets Life that examines "what it means to live out a life of faith in light of daily life in our country." Members of the class say it is a place where they can take on the tough questions and explore answers in a supportive environment. They watched Michael Moore's documentary on American health care, "Sicko," and Al Gore's documentary on climate change, "An Inconvenient Truth."

Shearouse, who attends the class, said it might be the place to begin to tackle the complex issue of race.

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