Morrison spoke to the Observer after Sparrow Women, an evangelical Christian racial reconciliation conference aimed at millennials, ended March 30. Earlier this week, the Observer wrote about how the conference created a bitter controversy when black theologian Ekemini Uwan spoke at it about the wickedness of "whiteness." That offended many white participants, some of whom walked out, and led the conference's organizers to scrub Uwan's comments and images from its conference information online.
When we spoke, Morrison was preparing to head to Rwanda to learn about reconciliation efforts there 25 years after the 1994 genocide.
After the Sparrow conference, what were you asked to do?
Sparrow didn’t ask me to do anything. But I do know (Sparrow founder) Rachel (Joy) … Rachel is a very sweet lady, and I think her intentions were great, but sometimes … when you have a passion for this work, it’s really good to listen and educate yourself for a while before you jump and do. (That) is a habit of dominant culture. You want to fix it.
When I spoke to Rachel, I just tried to guide her, maybe some of the right things to do. She was broken. … But at this point when you see that you’re continuing to cause harm, you have to try to address this the right way.
Who advised her to be silent?
I did not advise her — and someone said Tasha said “Let it pass.” I did not tell her that. (Laughs.) Because of no reaction from her, and because people were experiencing secondary trauma, we stepped out as an organization. I’m invested in this work, and I believe this work is a lifestyle. And so what we’re going to do is what we know to do. We’re going to offer some trauma counseling for people of color who attended the conference. So we did that online.
Even in Be the Bridge groups, people (of color) are triggered. Because you have people coming who have not done any work, and these people want to read these books … but you’re not actively walking it out in your life. Your kids are still in an all-white environment; you don’t want discomfort. You want all the knowledge, but you’re not willing to give up something. And the work of reconciliation causes you to give up your comfort. If you’re not giving up something, if you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re not doing it right.
And the thing is with Ekemini — everybody knows who Ekemini is. I know that the people who attend Sparrow are similar to the people who come to Be the Bridge as first-steppers. First-steppers are not used to hearing that language. They don’t understand the difference between race and ethnicity, or racist and racism. They don’t understand that white supremacy is a system. These are first-steppers, and Ekemini is a third- or fourth-step speaker. You would have to have a foundation to understand the concepts and the vocabulary that she’s using. So I think that they put her in a bad situation. But I think they brought her in because they wanted to attract women of color.
They told Ekemini, give us your 101 version. For Ekemini, that was her 101 version. This is the language she uses, so you knew exactly what you were getting.
The first person I called was Ekemini, to check on her. “Sis, are you all right? What’s going on? Are you OK?”
She was just like, oh my goodness. Because those of us who are in this work, we have to support each other, even though our voices are different.
What did Ekemini say?
She was kind of confused, because she felt like they knew exactly who she was. She was confused at the reaction of her images being taken down. It was kind of violent in the sense that she was erased, and nobody was talking to her. Rachel never reached out to her — she was a speaker at your conference. The other lady who interviewed her (Elizabeth Woodson) reached out to her. Elizabeth is probably in an awkward position, because I think she’s on staff at The Village Church, and Rachel’s husband is on staff. … I just know how things work in those circles. Especially when you’re in a predominantly white church, the reaction would be silence instead of exposure or talking about it, because you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing.
I’m just surprised that the right counsel was not sought out to address (Sparrow) the right way. I figured after a week, now you need to come up with a statement. “Hey, we want to own this. Maybe we didn’t research this the way that we should have. We want to apologize for anyone who has been hurt, we apologize to Ekemini, but these are some things we want to do to make this right.” The whole organization is supposed to be about reconciliation … but you failed at it yourself. That’s when you know this was a lot of talk, but the actual action of this work wasn’t in your heart.
What gets it in your heart if you’re a white person?
"It’s not just about hating racism and understanding history and the atrocities and getting black friends. It’s deeper than black friends."
Heart transformation. You can talk a good game. We see this every day in our groups. … There’s a lot of blind spots white people have as it relates to this work, even the ones who are considered well-read in this. A lot of times it has not come with application. It comes with theory. It doesn’t mean a thing if you haven’t deconstructed what it means — the construct of whiteness and how it works, and how it intersects with every other race. If you have not done this work of deconstructing this ideology of who you are in your identity and your culture, you will wound people. And that’s one of the things I feel Rachel hasn’t done. She hasn’t deconstructed that part of herself. … It’s not just about hating racism and understanding history and the atrocities and getting black friends. It’s deeper than black friends. It’s really about creating this lifestyle in yourself first.
When you talked to Rachel Joy, did you talk about the dangers of remaining silent?
I told her, you have to do something now. You have to speak out. And they did, that next day (when Sparrow posted a cryptic apology). This is the thing. … She was more concerned about the people who left — the white people — than the people of color. And that’s how they led — that the most important people in that room were the white people.
There’s a lot of white people in this position. “I hate racism. I want people to get along. I want racial solidarity.” But you’re not willing to give up something and move out of the neighborhood you’re in so your children can experience a diverse group of people. You’re not willing to shift churches and maybe go to a church that has a person of color in leadership. You’ve never been under the leadership of a person of color your entire life. You’re not willing to send your kid into a space where they may be the only one, but you want people of color to come to your church.
Sometimes it’s because you think those (black or Hispanic) churches ... aren’t as theologically astute. All of these things can start coming out when you look at your biases and why you’re choosing comfort. Those are costly things, but that is the work of reconciliation. That’s what it means to make things right. What are you making right? It’s not just in word, it’s in deed. Love requires action.
Tell me about the people who walked out.
I know exactly why people started walking out. You have to see how tight into theology partisanship is, and so when you start touching some of those golden calves, the more partisanship-aligned you are, the more difficult it is for you to do this work. It’s always an us vs. them, and you can’t see a middle ground. This work requires you to be in a third space. The kingdom of God is not like a world system. Partisanship is a part of the world system. Yes, we can participate in it, but we cannot make it an idol.
Is there hope for Sparrow going forward?
I want Sparrow to win at this, because it’s going to take white people to reach other white people. I want to see restoration with Rachel and Ekemini. I think Ekemini is ready — Ekemini’s a woman of God.
How do we go through this well? By having open arms for Rachel and Sparrow when she’s ready. Do we have to truth-tell in the process? Yes.