Interview with Michael Blair

Decolonizing the Church

Interview with Michael Blair

Richard Topping: Recent issues here in Canada around anti-black racism, in addition to anti-Asian racism and the long-standing anti-Indigenous racism that we’ve experienced in the churches and in our culture more generally. How is the church responding to anti-black racism?

Michael Blair: I think the church, like society, is all of a sudden woken up to the reality of anti-black racism. In many ways the circumstances around black lives is not new, but for some reason there is a new appreciation of the struggle. I think there is a sense of how can we do something? how can we fix this? what is it that we need to say? I feel like there’s a busyness to try and respond to a reality that is, as some would say, over 400 years old. Now seems to be a time that folks are saying, “okay we got to do something.” It’s interesting that all [of a] sudden it’s become a major focus. I think there are a number of ways in which churches are trying to respond. There is initially, what I call, a kind of liberal white guilt. People are feeling guilty, “how did we not know or how could we?” There’s an initial beating up on ourselves to say, “what’s going on?” Folks are now trying to find a way beyond that liberal guilt to say, “what can we practically do?”

RT: You’ve been involved with other denominations in statements on anti-black racism. Why is it valuable for the church to make common statements on racism at this moment?

MB: [Lets] back up. In 2015, the United Nations established the International Decade for People of African Descent. The United Nations identified the fact that there are over 200 million people who self-identify as African descent in the Americas. Among those 200 million folks in the Americas, there are systemic barriers and issues to their lives. The UN declared this period of time to say we need to focus on what is going on in the lives [and] for the lives of people of African descent in the Americas. It is not insensitive to the reality of people of African descent beyond the Americas, but this particular focus is around the Americas that has created a framework to begin some conversation. The UN has certainly given strong leadership to it. One of the things that the UN keeps saying is the voices of the religious communities are absent.

Through [the United Church of Canada’s] relationship with the World Council of Churches, we’ve begun to engage with the UN instruments to begin to address some of the issues of the cause of people of African descent. You may or may not know, through this decade period there is a UN rapporteur looking at anti-black racism and in fact, has done two reports on anti-black racism in Canada. The UN decade has given us a framework to begin conversations among the churches. Initially, the United Church of Canada has been working with our full communion partner, the United Church of Christ in the US. A joint staff team has been working at identifying resources, finding ways to engage in the decade, and to engage our communities of faith in that decade. One of the hopes of the joint work between the United Church of Christ and the United Church of Canada is a possibility that there may be an apology offered by both the churches for our complicity in the issues of exclusion of people of African descent. In doing that work, we recognize that we also needed to do it within the context of Canada and the US. The conversation in the US is more rife than it is in the Canadian context, so we approached the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada about the possibility of doing some joint work together around the International Decade. This led to a joint statement that came out in March [2020] on the day of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. I think that got lost within the COVID challenges and when the anti-black racism conversation started, we came together again and said it was important for us to engage collectively in response.

I don’t think any one of us can do the heavy lifting that needs to be done. All of us need to do it together in the sense that the Christian Church has been one of the places where racism lives in our system. When you think about the fact that a number of our established black churches started because black folks weren’t welcomed within the confines of white churches here in Canada. Union United Church in Montreal, that’s part of its story, was not welcomed so it created a space for itself. And other black churches across the country were not welcomed and so they had to find a place, [that’s part of its history]. You may remember a time when it was considered sinful for a black man and a white woman to be married, the church frowned on that and excluded that. The church has a history. A lot of the church wealth comes from its role within slavery, transatlantic slavery, and it was important for the churches, these churches who have some history, to come together and make a statement.

Our starting point in the statement was to own the fact that anti-black racism was a challenge within the Canadian context, within the churches in Canada. We will talk about racism as if it’s not related to people, and because of our work in right relations with the Indigenous peoples we tend to think about racism in the context of the Indigenous community. We don’t think about racism within the context of other marginalized groups. It was important as a starting point for us to say something about the reality of anti-black racism and that gave us a framework and foundation to say, “what are we going to do about anti-black racism?” That’s a starting point.

RT: How can the church be a leader in addressing racism that brings real change for the future, as it accepts its responsibility for its role in our present reality?

MB: I think there are a couple of things and I think it goes both for local churches, and for church as an institution, and church in terms of the theological schools. I would say that the first starting point is that we need to lament. We need to come to terms with the fact that we have been complicit in shortening the lives of black folks in this country and across the globe. In many ways we want to fix something without lamenting. Lamenting is not just about confession, although confession is part of it. We need to sit with the discomfort and the pain that we have contributed to, not always necessarily as individuals, but part of a system. Part of the way in which we’ve contributed to it is our inability to see exclusion and oppression, and our silence in seeing it. I think lament is an incredible starting point.

The second thing we need to do is we need to name anti-black racism. In a way we are struggling because there’s a moment in time where we have to say in order to resolve this particular challenge we need to name and focus on anti-black racism. It doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge and recognize that racism exists in other ways, but we need to name it and say for this moment we’re not talking about racism as a kind of abstract principle, we’re talking about anti-black racism with all the implications of that, so that’s an important starting point.

It creates a problem where we don’t have black folks in the pews because they don’t see themselves. The third thing we need to do is begin to look at our policies. We need to keep in mind that racism is structural; it’s not all individual. There is individual racism, but there’s a structural reality to anti-black racism. What is in our policies and our procedures that enable us to continue systemic exclusion. If I may use the United Church as an example, Toronto is one of the largest communities of black folks. Subtract [Toronto’s] migrant church ministry; we have a Uganda, a Guyana, [and] a couple of Zimbabwean groups. Subtract those groups and take the core [of Toronto], not the fringes of the GTA, there are no black ministers serving in any congregations within the City of Toronto. You look at Montreal, and again, Union United is the only black church that existed in Montreal. You go across the country, in pockets of areas where there is a significant population of black folks, black folks don’t see themselves in leadership in the life of the church. It creates a problem where we don’t have black folks in the pews because they don’t see themselves. Look across most of the denominations, the Anglicans probably are a wee bit better in some sense, but you look across our churches, we don’t see a model of black folks in leadership that says to black folks there’s a place for you in the church. It’s [the] system of how we call ministers that creates that [sic].

Part of it is, how do we think missionally? The way in which we do church we are not sensitive to who is in our community, we don’t ask the question, “do the folks who live in the community, where the church is, need to see themselves reflected in the church to be part of that church?” If we’re not thinking missionally around that, that’s a problem.

Just to begin to kind of tease out one of our policies [as] a good example. I came here after having completed high school from Jamaica. I was automatically put back a year because the system said that my education in Jamaica was not as good as my education here in Canada. I had to do an extra year because I came from outside of the country. It’s built into the system and we do that when we welcome ministers from overseas. We do that in all kinds of ways, how does the church look at some of those policies? We have a different set of requirements for somebody who is trained outside of the country, who is trained in a different system, than we do [for] somebody who comes from the UK or from the US. That’s how, in our system, there is this kind of racism that exists.

For both theological schools and the church as a whole, we need to decolonize our theology. The whole theological enterprise, it seems to me, is very white-centered. Folks don’t get exposed to writers from other traditions. I think of Anthony Ready who writes a journal on black theology in the UK, very prolific, and most folks don’t know him. They’re not exposed to people like Peter Paris who is a Canadian from Nova Scotia. When Peter completed his theological training, no school in Canada would touch him with a ten-foot pole. He’s done most of his theological imagination in the US, not because that is where he wanted to be, but he needed to be employed and none of the [Canadian] schools would have [him]. A woman like Mitzi Smith who is black feminist New Testament scholar in the US, is she part of any of our curriculum? Are folks invited to read her? There’s a centering of what shapes our theological imagination that is very white. Even as we train leadership for the church, they’re trained in a context of whiteness. It’s not surprising they can’t see the reality of what’s happening to black folks.

RT: In addition to the sources you have already mentioned, what references do you recommend that will help resource the church to be astute as it responds to this cultural moment?

MB: That’s a good question. I think partly, reading some of the black writers. One of the things that’s important to think about is, there’s no such thing as a black community, there are black communities. In some ways the folks in the Caribbean are writing stuff. The folks in the US, we tend to be more familiar with the James Cone’s and those folks from the US. The folks in in the UK are writing quite prolifically. In some ways part of it is that we need to be attentive to the fact that we [need to] read in other contexts, as they help us read the scripture. I think that’s something important.

Part of the other theme is that our classic understanding of mission is, we go from a place of richness to places of poverty, we go from places of light to places of “darkness.” This is a challenge because our notion of church is rooted in a colonial enterprise. That sense of our history, the colonial project, is still what shapes our understanding about how we do church. How do we begin to help each other think about a different way of being church?

The other thing to keep in mind is that the center of global Christianity has shifted. It’s no longer in the white Anglo frame, it’s elsewhere. The places where the center of the church is, those folks are coming into a Canadian context. But we tend to see these folks as less than us. We don’t value the leadership skill, wisdom, experience, and understanding that they bring. They are not seen. The critical thing of de-centering whiteness, decolonizing our imagination, and how we begin to do that, is important.

I think a second piece I find lacking [from] theological formation, is a piece around community development. How do we help folks understand and discern the community and what’s going in their community? We need to be introducing not just pure theology in our formation of people who serve the church, but we need to be integrating social analysis, that is a critical piece. How do you read community? What’s going on in community?

When I worked in Regent Park, a neighbourhood in Toronto — one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country at the time — we discovered that 57% of the kids in that community never completed high school. There was a whole host of factors about them not completing high school. You could blame and say, the kids were lazy, or their parents weren’t encouraging, but when we stripped that away, we began to see a whole bunch of systemic things that [stood] in the way of these kids achieving. We had to address those systemic issues in order for kids to achieve.

It is not the Church of God as a mission in the world, but the God of Mission as a church in the world.A critical part of the conversation [is] reading the signs of the time. Where is God at work in our world now? And how do we get close to what God is doing and to partner with God? Out of the work that was done in the UK a statement was [formed], “it is not the Church of God as a mission in the world, but the God of Mission as a church in the world.” How do we help folks understand that God is about what God is doing in the world, and God is inviting us as church to be part of [it]. To begin to think around those missiological themes of God’s activity in God’s world, and with God’s inviting and prompting us to do. One of those places is for us to create [a] space of welcome for folks who are coming from the places where Christianity is growing, who come formed as leaders and want to offer their gifts and abilities in the church, and we need to find ways to celebrate that.

RT: As the Vancouver School of Theology is becoming an increasingly international school, as we discuss the narrative of the church in decline, we realize that there is also flourishing of the church. To understand our differences, we see that decolonization helps us ask questions which enable new understanding without being assimilated into history, yet keeping the gift of learning and discovery together. Have you experienced this as well?

MB: We have ministers serving in communities that don’t look like the community. There’s something about the gift of diversity, but there’s also something to say that seeing somebody that looks like me, helps me understand that there’s a place for me. I remember as a thirteen-year-old sitting in church, I grew up in the Anglican tradition, the bishop arrived for confirmation. In that particular moment, seeing the bishop all dressed up, I remember saying to myself, “one day, that’s me.” Now that’s in Jamaica and everybody looks like me. But in some ways, seeing somebody at a moment when I was conscious, seeing somebody who looked like me gave me the sense to say, “ya, I could be.”

Another quick story. When I first came to Canada I was part of a particular congregation. When I was finished [school], I went to Ontario Bible College and I did a Bachelor in Theology. Then I went on to University of Waterloo and did a BA in Psychology. When I was finished, my eyes weren’t quite as open as I had thought, I remember going to the leadership of the church saying, “I’ve completed my studies, I’m looking for opportunities to serve in this church.” I was told there was no place in the church for me because I was black. Two things happened for me. Initially there was a sense of the-penny-dropped and I realizeed that in all my years of being part of the church I hadn’t seen anybody in leadership that looked like me. I hung in there because I’d seen somebody in the past who looked like me, I knew that I could be. I realized, and to-date in this particular congregation, there’s only one white minister. The other interesting thing was this minister who told me that, pastored a congregation that was 99.9 percent black. In the back of my mind was, in all these years that you have pastored this particular congregation, what have you said to the young people in that congregation about God’s call in their lives and the possibility of them serving in ministry? We send a loud message when we aren’t able to think about who is in leadership and how those people in leadership inspire others to hear and respond to the call. If I didn’t have that experience of seeing somebody who looked like me in significant leadership, I might not be in the church today.

We can’t diminish that. We’re not necessarily creating those people, then when these people come to us, we need to honor and respect that it’s a gift that God has given upon us. God [is] still sending us gifts of people who can assist in our leadership.

To come back to the theological schools, when I think about most of the theological schools in this country, there are very few of them, if any, that have a full-time black faculty member. What do we communicate when I come to a theological institution and I don’t see anybody that looks like me offering leadership in that context. When I look at what I’m invited to read, I don’t see anybody who reflects me. I have to negotiate with a faculty member to add somebody that I think I should be reading and reflecting on.

I think that’s the work of the church today. It’s not to wring its hands, it is to say, “okay we have not been attentive, now we need to be attentive.” It has to be practical. It can’t just be a matter statements; it has to be more practical to receive the diversity that God actually is giving us as a gift.

Rev. Michael Blair is a member of the Order of Ministry in the United Church of Canada and currently serves the General Council of the United Church of Canada as the General Secretary a role he began, November 1, 2020.

In his time at the General Council Office, he has served as Executive Minister for Ethnic Ministry; Executive Minister of Communities in Ministry and Executive Minister, Church in Mission. Before joining the General Council staff, Michael served as the Executive Director of the Toronto Christian Resource Center (CRC), which was a ministry of the then Toronto South Presbytery, now Shining Waters Region. Michael was admitted to the Order of Ministry in 2010 and has previously served as a congregational minister of a number of Baptist churches in Toronto and St. Catherine’s, Ontario; a staff member with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship at the University of Toronto, and as a community chaplain with the Ontario Multifaith Council’s Reintegration Program.