Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday – by Rev. Dr. Joan R. Harrell / @DrJoanRHarrell

Rev. Dr. Joan R. Harrell
Rev. Dr. Joan R. Harrell – Public Health Communications Practitioner

Upon observation of this historical day, I ask: is there an intentional plan of implementation for every church and community of faith in America for the days following this “one day” worship service to deliberately work to end the systemic sin of racism in the American church and society?  What happens after the praying, singing, confessing and repenting?

God and racism. Hmm, God and colorism. God, colorism and racism. When I say out loud and/or read this alarming language — God, racism, colorism, fear and hatred — the phrase sounds and looks like an oxymoron. However, this disturbing syntax describes the contextual reality of the systemic oppressive environment for people of color and persons identified as “the other” in the American church and society. “The other” includes human beings created in God’s image identified in social and racialized categories such as African American, Native American, Haitian American, Latina, Latino, Asian, Inuit, LGBTQIA, poor, immigrant or not Christian.

I was taught by my parents to believe in God as the sacred spirit of love, comfort, liberation, joy, peace, transparency, trust and justice. As I matured into adulthood, I chose to continue to believe in God, our Holy Parent, and I answered the call to ministry. However, as a dark skinned woman of African descent and an ordained minister of the Gospel, I have experienced colorism, sexism, and racism by people in general and Christians in particular. I am sharing my voice in this blog because I am concerned about the systemic practice of racism in society and in the church, particularly in America. In his book, The Shaking of Foundations, German American Paul Tillich, an influential existential philosopher and theologian of the 20th century, wrote: “sin is separation from God.” I believe racism and all the fears and hatred of “the other” separates us from God. I believe racism is a sin.


Let me share three particular instances of my first-hand experience with racism, inflicted upon me by persons who said they were Christians. My first experience was as an eight-year old child living in Fort Greely, Alaska. Perhaps it is fair to say that maybe my friend, whom I considered my best friend, was White and believed in God, did not actually believe what she said to me but unfortunately repeated what she was taught by her parents. After leaving chapel service one Sunday, my best friend said to me, “Joan, how do you feel about how God does not love you because you are a nigger?”  God and nigger? God and racism? 

Now fast forward to the year 2008. While working at Trinity United Church of Christ during the 2008 Democratic primary and U.S. Presidential election, one day I answered my office phone and the caller said, “we are going to bomb your church, you Black Christians.”

I also encountered a White male minister who told me, “Black people are descendants of Ham which mean all of you are cursed. What do cursed people know about God?”  Really? Did God curse me because I am Black? If I am made in God’s image, does this mean God is cursed too?

Historically in the United States of America, the Black Church was born not solely out of Christian theology but in the contextual need for justice and liberation from the crucible of slavery, lynching, hatred, murder and racism.

southafrican stained glass

There has been a binary structure in the American Christian Church. There has been a “White Church” and a “Black Church” in the United States for more than three hundred years because of racism.  The renowned Black American systematic theologian and ordained clergyman of the 20th and 21st century James Cone wrote, “Race criticism is just as crucial for the integrity of Christian theology as any critique in the modern world.” 

Cone’s presupposition is chilling when we think about the fact that months ago, a White self-proclaimed racist who attended an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA) church, shot and murdered nine of his Black Christian sisters and brothers while they were praying during a Bible Study that he had participated in at the Emanuel African American Episcopal Church (AME) in Charleston, SC.

God and racism?

The AME Church has declared Sunday, September 6thConfession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday, and the ELCA has answered the AME Church’s clarion call and is participating in this planned effort to begin shattering the structure of racism in the American church and community. In a press release, AME Bishop Reginald T. Jackson said, “This is an effort which the faith community must lead, and be the conscience of the nation. We will call upon every church, temple, mosque and faith community to make their worship service on this Sunday a time to confess and repent for the sin and evil of racism, this includes ignoring, tolerating and accepting racism, and to make a commitment to end racism by the example of our lives and actions.”

AME red-black-green Sheild

Within the context of our real-lived experience of God and racism in America, I ask: is there an intentional plan of implementation for every church and community of faith in America for the days following this “one day” worship service to deliberately work to end the systemic sin of racism in the American church and society? What happens after the praying, singing, confessing and repenting?


The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Announcement by the AME and ELCA churches and their commitment to end racism worship materials for this Sunday, September 6, 2015.

4 thoughts on “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday – by Rev. Dr. Joan R. Harrell / @DrJoanRHarrell

  1. Trent Robinson

    A large percentage of people believe God only exist for them instead of all. How can you worship God and burn crosses? Anyway, the question you ask is complexed for those who have been raised to be ignorant white, black, Asian, etc. I say this because if you truly believe and understand God the problem can be solved!


  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on God and Racism- what a dichotomy that phrase is! It is interesting that you write about the need for an intentional plan of implementation to work to end the sin of racism. I absolutely agree that it is a sin.
    As I consider the sin of racism I am confronted with the strange reality that so many people in American culture deny that racism even exists and others that do acknowledge its existence deny its pervasiveness in our culture. Thank you for sharing the story of your earliest experience of being confronted with racism. I believe that more of us must tell our stories and that in doing so we will be taking steps to end racism. This in itself can be troubling though because it requires those of us who have been and continue to be the recipients of racial oppression to educate those who oppress us.


  3. Esther D Young

    It is such a SAD and unfortunate state of affairs that racism and bigotry occupy SO much of our collective and individual being. This is absolutely exhausting, frustrating, disheartening, and disappointing. Life (i.e. raising a family, caring for ailing parents, maintaining a household, going to school, working, etc.) offers its own set of challenges which prove more than enough for any person to navigate without the added debilitating effects of such evil social constructs as racism.

    I don’t know what the universal church is going to do. It has yet to do enough. But I am going to ask my neighbor about the significance of the rebel tag that he displays on his vehicle in the hope of creating honest, respectful and enlightening dialogue.

    Dr. Harrell, thank you for the motivation to move. ~esther


  4. lindahunt566217061

    I appreciated Dr. Harrell’s candid stories of her encounters of racism as a child and adult, especially within the Christian church. Although I was grateful our local Episcopal church participated in the AME call to preach on the systemic sin of racism, her words reinforce how much we need faith communities to go much further. One national day is clearly only a start.


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