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Racial Justice Sunday

This is the text of a sermon preached at St Andrew's for Racial Justice Sunday on 11th February 2024 by Indira Broschat:

There are moments in life when what we think we know to be true is challenged, and we never see things in quite the same way again.

In the Gospel reading we heard today, we learn of the Transfiguration of Jesus. I am curious to know why Jesus took his most trusted disciples to the mountaintop with him that day. This awesome event, which was terrifying to witness, didn’t reveal anything new about Jesus, nor does it alter what Jesus has already said about his destiny. So why was it necessary for the disciples to be there?

The passage about the Transfiguration is full of symbolism and I believe the heart of it is about seeing and hearing things differently. And this is what I would like you to do today. See and hear things differently. You see, today is Racial Justice Sunday: a day that calls on Christians to engage in the righteous struggle for racial justice.

Talking about racism often raises complex feelings which can lead to passionate debate. We should not be afraid of this. Jesus knew his disciples would be terrified at what they witnessed during the Transfiguration but he trusted they could cope. And they did.

In 2021, the Church of England released a report called From Lament to Action. This report speaks of racism as a sin that needs repentance. The Church acknowledged through this report its failure to adequately challenge and wipe out institutional racism within the Church, and in society as a whole.

Institutional racism can be difficult to spot. It involves attitudes and behaviours which lead to unfair processes that amount to discrimination. This is not like using racial slurs that purposely attempt to degrade and humiliate a person, rather it is silent, pervasive, and often hidden in plain sight.

It is unlikely that the Church decided to create systems and processes that would purposely exclude people of colour from thriving, but this is what has happened. The time has come for the Church to take a long and hard look at how its past continues to prevent certain people from flourishing as God intended them to. The Church must acknowledge its collective failures to treat all people with dignity and respect. Doing so is not going to be easy but it is necessary that it is done as a matter of urgency because there is no place for oppression in the Kingdom of God.

I first came to St Andrew’s Church last year as part of my training to be a vicar. If I am being completely honest with you, I had quite mixed feelings about coming here because I had the impression that St Andrew’s was a white majority church, filled with middle class people who were not at all like me. Standing here and saying that I judged you so thoroughly and so harshly, without even stepping a foot through your doorway makes me feel…vulnerable. I think it is necessary that I make this confession to you because when I shine light on the darkness hidden within me, I am able to repent and move towards reconciliation.

I have been thinking really hard about why I held these views about St Andrews, and I would like to share some of my reflections with you.

I am a Bedford girl. Growing up in Bedford in the 1970s and 80s wasn’t easy and it was common for me to be called a certain racial slur. I don’t need to be explicit in explaining what that word was because I am certain you can work it out, even if you never used the word yourself.

As a child I was often taunted with the words “why don’t you go back to your own country”. This was a particularly difficult thing for me to reconcile in my own mind because my mum was from Wales and my dad from Trinidad. Which country should I go back to? I remember asking my mum about this. She told me to ignore them, they were just being ignorant. Years later, a friend helped me to understand things better: we are here because they were in our country first: we are here because they were there, and they need to remember why they were there.

My mum and dad met when they both rented rooms in a house around the corner from here. Being a mixed race couple in the 1960s wasn’t easy. They were both treated unfairly; my dad because of the colour of his skin, and my mum because she was with him. Both of my parents could tell you the names of people turned away from churches in Bedford because they didn’t fit in: for some it was because their skin was the wrong colour, for some it was because they were unmarried mothers - seldom the fathers, and for some it was because they were the wrong “sort”. This of course meant the wrong class.

There is no doubt that I have been affected by the stories my parents told, and it is becoming increasingly evident that these stories were not unique to Bedford. When I am reminded of these stories, I am wounded, and I suspect you are too. Afterall, if one member of the Body of Christ suffers, all suffer with them.

My preconceived ideas about St Andrew’s church have formed partly because of what I have been told, and partly because of the story St Andrew’s tells of itself.

I am sure that most of the congregation already know the history of this church, but for those of you who aren't familiar with it, I’ll give a quick overview.

St Andrew’s was formed to meet the spiritual needs of Christians returning from India in the late 1800s. The congregation first met in a humble tin tabernacle, but soon needed a bigger, permanent building to house their growing numbers. The development of the physical building can be tracked on the St Andrew’s website.

I can’t quite remember when I first became aware of the story of St Andrew’s being the church of those returning from India, but as a Bedford girl, it’s something that I have always been aware of.

When I am reminded of the history of St Andrews, I become aware of an unsettled feeling forming in the pit of my stomach.

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself, what the founding members of this church were doing in India? Why were they there? [PAUSE]

The legacy of the British in India is contested: some claim it gifted India democracy, the rule of law, and unity. Others claim that British Rule was steeped in exploitation, oppression and division which the country continues to struggle with today. Whatever view you take, I think it is fair to say the impact of the British in India is thorny. [PAUSE]

I can’t begin to explain to you how grateful I am to St Andrew’s for allowing me to complete my college placement with you last year. If I hadn't come here, I would never have heard the story of how someone saw the man in the moon and felt God’s presence, and I would have missed out on the extraordinary Holy Week services that deeply moved me. Being here helped my formation as a trainee vicar but also helped me to shine a light on a certain darkness hidden deep within me. Coming to St Andrew’s helped me to see how my history and your history is held together by invisible threads. I have begun the process of understanding how these threads have impacted me, and now I invite you to do the same.

St Andrew’s was founded by people in service to the Crown in India. It is important that you continue to tell this part of your history but I implore you to think about what it means to say this.

We can not change the facts of the past, but the value of these facts can be changed. The determination of those people returning from India to set up this Church is to be admired. But we must not let this overshadow that they were in India during a contested period of British history.

It is in changing the way this story is told that the past can be healed and transformed. The theologian John Maquarrie explains it this way: Easter is not the reversal of Good Friday but it's conversion. God reaches into the past, which is still present to him, and he draws out, absorbs, and overcomes the poisons of history. The facts of our transgressions don’t change, but they can be healed.

Right after the Transfiguration, Jesus told Peter, James and John that they must not speak about what they had just witnessed. Not yet. Jesus knew that the disciples did not have the capacity to properly explain what had happened. He knew this understanding would come, but for now they must wait.

Today, I have not told you anything you didn’t already know about the beginnings of this church community… but I have given you a new lens to see it through. Today, I am asking you to consider if the story you told yesterday is the same story that you would like to tell tomorrow.

You may also like to read this article from the Church Times, 'People, look East...'

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