I once read a story about a woman named Linda Tarry Chard, who after traveling to South Africa in 1995 and seeing the suffering of children there met with another woman, Diane Steiman, who was trying to collect and distribute 15,000 black dolls for children in the townships, children who had never held a likeness of themselves in their hands because none was available in their country. Within a year, Linda was able to collect all 15,000 dolls and see that they made their way to South Africa, but that dream soon morphed into a totally different vision.
The Black Doll Project evolved into Project People Foundation, which ended up creating work with a doll factory and women creating black dolls in the townships/ghettos of South Africa for retail sale there as well as export to this country. And in this country they were marketed as a “doll giveaway” – a charitable program where for every $20 donated, the organization buys a doll and gives it away to a child in need. The doll giveaway is happening in countries all over the world, to Ethiopian children in Israel, South African children in the townships, and to needy African-American children here.
The program was so successful that Linda decided to replicate it in impoverished areas of the United States, both rural and urban, calling it Crafting Social Change. One afternoon, Linda was speaking about Project People at Syracuse University. An affluent white woman from Arkansas was on campus visiting her son and heard her. She was so moved that when she went home she immediately went to purchase a few black dolls to donate.
When she arrived at the cash register, the person at the counter was baffled by her choice and asked if she really wanted them. In her entire life as a consumer, no one had ever asked her such a question before. She went back to her church and shared this story with the women’s group, who as a response, all wanted to go out and buy black dolls. And what they found out was that there weren’t that many available. As they began questioning why there were so few black dolls and so many white dolls available, they began to look at their lives and their children’s lives. Eventually that woman became the volunteer coordinator for Project People.
And the story goes on, of one person doing one thing, and touching someone else’s life, changing their life, inspiring them to want to do something to create change and the vision grows bigger and grander and more universal. What started out as a project about giving dolls to children in need, becomes a project to end poverty and racism not just in our own country but around the world.
My experience of coming to terms with my own white privilege is much the same. A conversation leads to an invitation. An experience leads to transformation. Relationships with those who are of a different race or background from me, helping to open my eyes to realities I might not know or experience without their generous gift of time and patience pushing me outside of my comfort zone and challenging my world view.
As we have begun dreaming about Becoming Beloved Community in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, I have found myself thinking about the way a vision grows bigger the more people it includes. I first heard about Becoming Beloved Community from my friend Tom Brackett. He told me about meeting Dr. Catherine Meeks, chair of the Beloved Community Commission for Dismantling Racism in the Diocese of Atlanta, and how she was challenging the church to think differently about the racial healing we are called to as followers of Christ. I later had the opportunity to meet Dr. Meeks myself, first at the Absalom Jones Symposium here at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati last year and then later in Atlanta at a church-wide gathering she hosted to discuss racial reconciliation in the church. Listening to her wisdom makes me sit up a little straighter and dig a little deeper. I am reminded of my baptismal commitment to seek and serve Christ in all persons.
We started this journey just wondering how to expand the anti-racism training in the diocese to reach more people. But as we began to talk to people across the diocese and across the church, the vision grew. We applied for and received a UTO grant to create Beloved Community Centers around the diocese as places of practice and transformation for people seeking experiences of the journey toward beloved community. We then began dreaming about sacred listening circles and cross-racial dialogues. We wondered about formation opportunities to learn more about the way bias works in our lives and how we as a church might learn from the early Christian communities found in Luke and Acts.
And it’s still growing, I am hearing from people across the diocese with ideas for how their church might get involved, about dreams of a shared pilgrimage or neighborhood gatherings all working toward becoming beloved community. The vision grows bigger and we keep striving for the dream of God together. I invite you to share with us how you might work on becoming beloved community in your local context. We would love to hear your stories and your struggles as we journey together.
The Rev. Canon Jane Gersen serves as Missioner for Fresh Expressions and Praxis Communities in the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Connect with Jane at firstname.lastname@example.org.