The United Church of Christ is heeding Sen. Barack Obama’s advice: In his historic March 18 speech, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee suggested that this country was long overdue for an authentic dialogue on race relations.

The Illinois senator was responding to inflammatory comments made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which became fodder for the national news, and was thought by many at the time to pose a serious threat to Obama’s presidential hopes.

The controversial remarks have become the impetus for a bold new initiative designed to get – and keep – America talking about its views, fears and hopes about race.

Bolstered by a full-page, April 12 ad in USA Today, the 1.4 million member-strong UCC said that on May 18, its “pastors across the nation offered sermons on race as an important first step toward beginning a longer-term ‘sacred conversation on race’ that will take place over the coming weeks and months in our churches and communities,” according to its web site.

In Miami, the initiative is being led by two United Church of Christ congregations – The Church of
the Open Door (COD) in Liberty City; and the Coral Gables Congregational Church (CCC).

Under the leadership of COD pastor Joaquin Willis and CCC pastor Laurinda “Lauri” Hafner, about 60 members from both churches gathered the afternoon of Sunday, June 1  at the historic St. Agnes Episcopal Church in Overtown for an afternoon of soul searching, honest revelations and tears.

Facilitated by Edith Guffey, the associate general minister of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, the event gave those who attended an opportunity to discuss racial issues in a “sacred space.”

Providing an apropos foundation for the conversation is the more than 20-year, close friendship between Guffey, a black woman, and Hafner, a white woman.

After reassigning the seating to ensure that people were sitting next to someone they did not know, Guffey broke the audience into small groups and encouraged their exchange of childhood racial memories that linger today. 

The memories ranged from a white woman’s angst at being viewed as a person intolerant of others’ racial prejudices; to a black audience member’s stubborn image of his black grandfather being called ‘boy’ by white customers, even though he was the store’s owner. Moved to tears, the white woman spoke about how painful it was for her to hear blacks called derogatory names.

Two Caribbean American women gave voice to the lingering, but often unspoken tension between African Americans and Caribbean Americans regarding race. One of the women, a Jamaican American, said that because she was exposed to little racism in her home land, she found it difficult to understand African Americans’ “passionate hatred for white people.”

“Us Jamaicans, we got our freedom and we worked hard for it…It’s hard for an immigrant to understand some of the feelings,” she said to affirmative nods from several audience members. 

To allay his fear that he and Hafner would be the only two people in the room at future conversations on race, and to create natural opportunities for blacks and whites to connect around the issue of race, Willis suggested that the two churches continue their work together on the arts.

“We’ve already been working behind the scenes. On the 18th of May we were honored to have Coral Gables Youth Orchestra to come and perform,” Willis said, explaining that, “The best way to build these types of relationships is to get busy doing something and in the process of doing it, dialogue. Work together, build trust, build relationships, dialogue.”

Guffey concluded the session by challenging the audience to “leave here with one commitment that you’re going to do to continue this conversation. We can gather periodically, but this is also personal work.’’

Hafner echoed her friend’s challenge: “This is just the beginning, but it’s a great beginning. We will continue to challenge you and pull you together.”