Preaching about Racism: Three Tools (A Guest Post)

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The Rev. Dr. Carolyn B. Helsel is author of Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism and Preaching about Racism: A Guide for Faith Leaders, both published by Chalice Press in 2018. Together, both books received the 2018 Book(s) of the Year Award from the Association of Parish Clergy. Helsel weaves together stories, biblical texts, theologies of sin, and racial identity development to help preachers and lay people recognize racism and commit to the long-term work of anti-racism. Helsel is Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.



If you are a weekly preacher, how many times over the past year do you think you have addressed the subject of racism?

How many times has the word racism appeared in your sermons?

How frequently do you tell stories that feature persons of a different race from the majority of your congregation?

How regularly do you see the implications of the scriptural text for the racialization of our society?

If you answered rarely, occasionally, or never, then this blog post is for you.

Maybe you come from a congregation that feels that racism is not a problem it deals with, or perhaps you know members of your congregation who consider talking about race to be “political” and may object to your mentioning it.

Or perhaps the subject of racism seems to be too challenging of a subject to cover in a single sermon, so you stay away from it completely.

What do preachers need to preach a faithful sermon that names the depth of sin known as racism that is experienced across the United States and elsewhere?

And how do I, as a white person, talk about something that I’m complicit in?

These are questions I asked myself.

In order to answer this question, and after serving in ministry for six years post- seminary, I moved to Atlanta so I could complete a PhD at Emory University. From my research, I wrote two books: the first being Anxious to Talk about It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism, and the second being Preaching about Racism: A Guide for Faith Leaders, both published by Chalice Press in 2018. 

Anxious is written for laypeople, since I discovered along the way that it was not just preachers who needed help talking about racism, but all of us. Preaching is written specifically with preachers in mind.

I’ve been around the country talking with churches and pastors about these two books, and they seem to have helped jump start the conversation for many people, both white people and people of color. 

There are a few important take-aways from these two books I’d like to highlight here: understanding our own emotional reactions to these conversations, the importance of storytelling, and the role of gratitude.  

Understanding our Emotional Reactions

The first realization—that our emotional reaction can often get in the way of our ability to talk about racism—came out of my own experiences and also from reading the work of developmental psychologists Beverly Daniel Tatum and Janet Helms.

Tatum’s book ‘Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria’ and Other Conversations about Race is widely accessible and currently in its third edition. Tatum writes about the stages of racial identity development for whites and people of color, and helps us understand our emotional reactions as part of our own process of coming to see ourselves as racialized in this society.

Understanding these stages can help us take a step back when we see ourselves reacting strongly and negatively to these conversations (reactions that Robin D’Angelo has labeled as White Fragility), and instead realize we are on a journey and have the capacity to stay engaged.

The Importance of Storytelling

The second insight, that storytelling is important, may seem like a no-brainer, especially for preachers.

Persons are less likely to interpret what you are saying as a threat if it comes in story form, and they are more likely to be open to new ideas and learning.

Storytelling is hopefully something you practice on a regular basis. But in talking about race and racism, it is crucial. Persons are less likely to interpret what you are saying as a threat if it comes in story form, and they are more likely to be open to new ideas and learning.

Our listeners are able to hear stories differently than they hear lectures or ethical mandates. Telling stories about how persons today experience racism helps expand listeners’ own ability to recognize racism in their own lives. Also, listening to parishioners’ stories about how they’ve come to recognize racism can help them reflect on their own journeys and how they may still be learning.

The Role of Gratitude

Finally, how can gratitude play a role in this work?

I suggest that practicing gratitude can help preachers engage these hard conversations with openness and humility. Looking for the gifts in these conversations means recognizing that preaching about racism can bring up tough discussions and the sharing of stories that may reveal painful experiences.

Gratitude also reminds us that we preach a message of grace and good news, that in spite of our mistakes and complicity, God is continuing to work on us and in us and through us. Finding the grace of God in scripture as God works through unlikely heroes can remind listeners that they, too, have been invited to this work. 

If you haven’t preached about racism recently, I encourage you to do so, and regularly. Unfortunately, it’s not going away any time soon. Help your congregation see how anti-racism can be part of its road to discipleship.

The Rev. Dr. Helsel will be our next guest lecturer in The Collective+ on August 13th.

She’ll be talking about preaching on racism, and it’s sure to be an instructive and insightful time. If you haven’t already, join us in The Collective+ to participate not only in this lecture but also hear other preaching leaders, participate in long-term, seasonal sermon planning, gain access to a preaching planner designed by preachers for preachers, and more.