In city where George Floyd died, minister emerges as key champion for justice
MINNEAPOLIS — To Russell A. Pointer Sr., feeding hungry neighbors…
Sarah Baugh couldn’t sleep.
It was late spring 2020. The nation had erupted into protests and unrest after George Floyd’s killing on May 25.
Baugh, a certified public accountant and administrative assistant for the Brentwood Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, Tenn., wanted to do something.
But she felt helpless.
She knew that she had Black brothers and sisters in Christ who were hurting. She had participated in Build the Bridge, a program that promotes awareness and healthy response to racial brokenness and systemic injustice. But she felt God pushing her to do more.
“I kept feeling God saying, ‘It’s great that you’re talking about this with your White friends, but you need to reach out,’” Baugh said.
While lying awake that night, Baugh remembered Dorcas Curry, a motivational speaker and author whom she had met at a luncheon. As she wrestled to sleep, Baugh felt God was prompting her to reach out to Curry. So she picked up her phone.
“I’m tired of standing on the sidelines, just wringing my hands and not knowing what to do,” Baugh told Curry in a text message.
The two agreed to meet. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the women sat masked at a park in Nashville, 6 feet apart. Curry, a member of the Schrader Lane Church of Christ in Nashville, wasn’t afraid to voice her reservations about what she thought Baugh was wanting to do.
“I told her, ‘If you’re looking to me to be the person to teach White people how to treat Black folks, I’m not that person,’” Curry said.
The women agreed that something should be done, and they asked God to show them. They knew they alone couldn’t change the world, but maybe they could start a ripple effect that could bring about positive change in their own congregations and communities.
Curry and Baugh decided to call some women to talk about race issues and their own experiences. These conversations led to the formation of Shades of Grace Sisters.
The group of Black and White women is interested in making the church a better place racially and setting an example of what racial unity should look like in God’s kingdom. The sisters meet about once a month on Zoom. About 25 to 45 women participate in any given meeting.
Curry said she has witnessed understanding and healing during every meeting.
“It’s because people are being so honest,” she said. “There are tears in the group when women are revealing and feeling.”
During the first few calls, participants were asked to share their own experiences with racism.
“Our purpose is to blend sisters of all skin colors for racial healing.”
“I think that was really eye-opening for a lot of the White women,” Baugh said. “There were women who had experienced racism just the month or the week before.”
Jenise Stewart, a member of the Church of Christ at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, didn’t know what to expect when she accepted an invitation to a Shades of Grace Sisters meeting.
“It was during a time where the political climate was so polarized,” Stewart said. “Protests for social injustice were widespread, and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol had occurred. The Shades of Grace Sisters forum allowed for us to express how we were feeling without judgment. For me, that was most important — to be able to express how I felt and to be able to listen to others express their anger, concern, dismay and confusion without anyone casting dispersions.”
Creating a safe environment within the group was a priority from the beginning, so Curry and Baugh established a boundary early on.
“Our purpose is to blend sisters of all skin colors for racial healing,” Baugh said. “So we don’t talk politics. We talk about what race issues mean to us as Christians and how to respond to the world around us.”
Baugh and Curry agree that the Shades of Grace Sisters’ identity in Christ has helped keep the group’s culture focused on its purpose.
“Knowing we are Christian sisters eliminates all of that other stuff,” Curry said.
Nevertheless, the group has engaged in some raw conversations.
During one meeting, Curry asked the women to share their feelings about the case of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American woman who was shot six times and killed by plainclothes police officers who had forced their way into her Louisville, Ky., apartment. After Curry asked the question, silence fell over the group.
“No one said anything, and that bothered me,” she said. “If we’re going to talk about these issues, we have to share our feelings about them.”
“If we’re going to talk about these issues, we have to share our feelings about them.”
The White women had stayed quiet for fear of offending the Black women, and the Black women were offended that no one said anything.
“We realized it’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know what to say,’” Baugh said.
Learning how to navigate these moments has led to increased understanding among the Shades of Grace Sisters, which is crucial to the group’s purpose. For Curry, understanding is a big part of what she hopes will be achieved through the group.
“Not reconciliation but conciliation,” she said. “When I look back at my folks, there was never a good time between the races. So that’s what it is for me. We’re trying to make a conciliation.”
For Leah Bradshaw of the Brentwood Hills church, striving for racial healing and unity is a significant part of her faith.
“As a Christian, I am aware of many reasons why we should come together and discuss matters of race,” she said. “First, as those who claim to love God, we are expected to love each other. … This would include celebrating with those who rejoice and weeping with those who mourn.
“We also know from Micah 6 that pleasing God requires acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with him. Listening to those who have felt hurt, taking responsibility for my part and having compassion for the injured certainly seem to be in line with this passage.”
While these principles are central to Christianity, Curry and Baugh recognize that some Christians still have a difficult time talking about race issues, including racism that exists within churches. Curry and Baugh attribute this to denial.
“They don’t want to make it real,” Curry said. “When you don’t talk about something, you can pretend it’s not happening.”
Despite the inevitable tense moments, Shades of Grace Sisters remain committed to respectfully listening to each other’s hearts. Group member Norma Burgess, a member of the Schrader Lane church, believes this is the key to healing.
“Conversations about race are difficult, uncomfortable and tend to be generally avoided,” Burgess said. “No one likes to feel uncomfortable in this way. Unless someone starts the conversation, it will not be held.”
She said the Shades of Grace Sisters are getting more and more comfortable with each other and are making an effort to hear voices that may differ from what they had previously thought to be true.
Curry and Baugh firmly believe God called them to form this group for women and to start conversations that can lead to healing and racial unity.
“Women have very crucial work in the church,” Curry said. “We have a different drive about getting things done. Mary discovered the empty tomb. Churches are still segregated, so maybe the sisters need to step in.”
Women, Baugh said, specifically those who are mothers, have the ability to view race issues in a specific way. “We think, ‘What if that had been my son?’” she said.
The Shades of Grace Sisters met just after the recent murder conviction of Derek Chauvin, the fired Minneapolis officer who pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck and ignored the Black man’s complaints that he couldn’t breathe.
The topic of the meeting was not about whether the members agreed with the conviction, but about how it made them feel.
One Black sister said, “Derek Chauvin has a mother. What is she feeling right now? What has this done to his family?”
“I believe that the ladies who participate in the group have a sincere desire to want to understand their sisters who are of another race/ethnicity.”
Baugh had not considered that before. “I believe it is easier for women to empathize and view things differently,” Baugh said.
As COVID-19 restrictions ease, Curry and Baugh look forward to more in-person meetings. The congregations the women attend fully support the group’s efforts. In fact, ministers and elders of both churches have started conversations with each other.
The Shades of Grace sisters prayerfully anticipate more sharing, listening and healing as the group and its efforts continue to grow.
“I believe that the ladies who participate in the group have a sincere desire to want to understand their sisters who are of another race/ethnicity,” Stewart said. “Most importantly, I believe the Shades of Grace Sisters want to have an open heart that will allow for God to do the healing.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION or to join a meeting, send an email to [email protected].
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