Special on MLK Day
By Marivir R. Montebon
Humanity has struggled tremendously with the issue of discrimination. I believe that we need to help people become aware of what Whiteness is and how to dismantle, change or challenge this attitude and mindset. It is about what all of us bring to the table equally. And it is about trying to correct the imbalances and inequalities that have been in existence for far too long. At heart, it is about living according to that divine image, that imago dei that is in all of us. – Dr. Kathy Winings
New York City – Although largely unknown, the US is leading the way in the interfaith peace building efforts worldwide. For 2018, the traditional annual meeting of the Religious Education Association (REA) will take the theme “Dismantling Whiteness: Creating Brave Spaces through Religious Education” which is chaired by a woman leader, Dr. Kathy Winings, vice president for academic affairs of the Unification Theological Seminary will take place in early November.
In November 2016, Dr. Winings was elected the vice president for the REA, the mover of this international interfaith conference. REA is an international organization with members in a wide range of countries and representing diverse faith communities. For 2018, it is able to draw participants from Europe, Turkey, Korea, Oceania, Israel and South Africa. This past year, there were participants from Nigeria because they are students at an American university.
The largest percentage of members of the REA live in North America because of the large number of seminaries, divinity schools and universities with programs in Religious Studies, Religious Education and similar courses.
Having personally and collectively developed the theme ‘dismantling whiteness’, Dr. Winings shared that such decision came as a result of the many years of being molded into the ‘paternalistic’ view of religion as opposed to her current consciousness of ‘parentalistic’ (parent) view that acknowledges the other as valid, as having value and integrity and someone worthy to love and to be loved by.
Dr. Winings has been in the helm of leadership in interfaith movement for the most part of her career and mission. She finished her bachelors degree in Media Studies in Fordham University and was the Campus Minister of the Columbia University. She is Director for Ecumenical Relations at the UTS and belongs to the National Honor Society for Education, apart from holding leadership responsibilities in REA.
Excerpts of the interview:
1. Please tell us who can participate in this REA interfaith conference.
We have three types of members and participants. One type of member includes the professors and researchers of Religious Education/Christian Education.
The second type of member are practitioners. This category includes clergy, Sunday School teachers, Directors of Education for diverse denominations and faith communities, CCD staff and those who may teach different age groups within their faith communities or congregations.
The third category is the student category. While most students are on the doctoral level, there are also Master level students who participate as well.
2. How did the timely theme on brave spaces come about?
First, some background. The theme came to me after much prayer. I have a passion for social justice and I have always believed that those of us teaching in a theological school have the greatest opportunity to open our students’ hearts and minds to connect with God’s hope and vision for us and for the world.
Humanity has struggled tremendously with the issue of discrimination, the inability to love others and self-centeredness due to our fallen nature and our separation from God. We have seen and practiced discrimination on a variety of levels including age, gender, race/ethnicity, culture/nationality and religion. Our challenge is to be able to go to the core of who we are as men and women of God – as children of God – and learn to see and treat each other with the respect, integrity and love that God intended.
When I began to think about what the theme would be for the REA conference, I initially framed it as racism. After conversation with my colleagues in REA, the larger issue became more clear. I came to see that if I used the term “racism” then this might limit the discussion to the binary relationship of Black and White. While that has been a major issue facing our world and more importantly, the United States, it would not enable participants to step back and look at the bigger picture of discrimination – discrimination that takes place beyond Black and White. I am referring to discrimination experienced by all Asians, First Nations people, Aboriginals and others. That meant that I had to look at the issue of Whiteness.
3. Having the thought “dismantling whiteness” is brave. Did you personally think that white supremacy reigns in the world and suppressing equality for growth?
I am not sure that I would go so far as to say that white supremacy reigns completely. This is because for one to call it the reign of white supremacy really requires that the White culture as a whole is consciously and intentionally seeking to maintain their dominance, control and favored status and I do not believe that all Whites are aware of the problem of Whiteness.
There are some who genuinely strive to live a life of love and respect for all and who have just not had the opportunity to really understand that such a concept as Whiteness exists and is a real problem.
But I would say that for decades, the White culture has been in a privileged position of control and of determining what is what and to benefit from the inequality and discriminatory behavior and attitudes that have resulted. I do believe that such a thing as Whiteness does exist and that it is one of the most serious problems that we as religious people need to change. I believe that we need to help people become aware of what Whiteness is and how to dismantle, change or challenge this attitude and mindset. Nor is it about reverse discrimination or denigrating any one culture or people. It is about what all of us bring to the table equally. And it is about trying to correct the imbalances and inequalities that have been in existence for far too long. At heart, it is about living according to that divine image, that imago dei that is in all of us.
4. Brave spaces sound better than safe spaces. How can religious education provide brave spaces?
I learned about this concept of “brave spaces” from a colleague. For many years, in education and social justice work, we have sought to create safe spaces for people who are suffering. Those who have been victims of injustice, violence or discrimination of any kind needed to initially find a safe place just to survive. It was a matter of preserving a life. So this became the focus of much of the work of social justice. But we have learned that we need to move beyond just surviving. We need to be able to thrive, to contribute and to live toward doing what we feel God has called us to do. That requires a certain amount of courage. We need a space in which we can feel brave enough to work beyond the injustice and to thrive and to change things for the better – we need brave spaces.
I have always defined education as creating a space for learning to take place. So in light of creating brave spaces, as religious educators, we have the opportunity to challenge our students to consider what a brave space might look like, how it can be created and how a brave space can transform people. We can also bring to the classroom the content our students need to know in order to create the brave spaces that will be needed to dismantle whiteness.
5. Religion has been an instrument for colonialism by the white race. How can religion free people from such mindset?
Unfortunately, that has been so true historically. Part of the problem was the controlling force of governments that led most of the colonial drives. Colonial powers were not altruistic. They sought wealth and power – forces that the church was afraid to speak out against. The larger problem, though, was the mindset of the church and the missionaries. The missionaries were white and those whom they were teaching were from non-white cultures and were viewed as lacking – lacking in a valid faith, lacking in physical wealth and lacking in education. Of course, faith, wealth and education were being defined from a white, Western perspective. This set up a paternalistic mindset. It is this mindset that has dominated humanitarianism and missionizing. We have fooled ourselves into thinking that paternalism is just another way of saying I love you. But that is not true. In reality, it is another way of maintaining relationships that are based on inequality.
Early in my work in social justice, I experienced this first hand. In taking “gifts” from a group of Sunday Schools to Haitian children in homeless camps, while distributing the supplies to the children, I saw myself through the eyes of the children for the first time. Here I was, the nice white woman, giving out relief supplies to the “poor” black children. This was paternalism at its best and I hated the feeling. It felt wrong. At that moment, I had the realization that I had to change my mindset. I had to change from a paternalistic view to that of what I call parentalism or a familial mindset that is anchored in the genuine love of God.
That is what religious education can do. Through religious education we can seek to challenge students to learn to genuinely see others as part of our “family under God.” That we reach out to another not because they are without and so need us and what we are choosing to give to them. That we reach out to another because this is what one does in a family. Because we love, we seek to make that connection with them. And as in our own physical family, it is a two-way street, when we reach out to our “brother” or “sister” – the “other” – the love flows in both directions. They too have something to give and to share with us. That is the mindset that begins to create a dynamic relationship that acknowledges the other as valid, as having value and integrity and someone worthy to love and to be loved by, if you will.
This means we need to teach students how to be open, vulnerable and humble. We also need to learn who are – our essential identity. And we need to learn how to listen to the other as well. This is the beginning of changing our mindset. This is the work of religious education.