By Drew Page
SHARON (05/25/2016) – Conference leaders are calling for a renewed focus on combatting racism following an incident at the Silver Lake Conference Center, where a Black Lives Matter banner was intentionally defaced by an individual attending a weekend retreat.
The incident was outlined in a letter released Monday by Connecticut Conference Minister The Rev. Kent J. Siladi, and the two Board of Directors Racial Justice Ministry co-chairs, Ms. Persephone Hall and the Rev. Dr. John A. Nelson. In the letter, they call on churches, church leaders, and all Christians to use this moment to raise awareness of the urgent work required in our society to eradicate racism.
"No matter the motivation, the vandal acted in a way that is painfully, brutally familiar to persons who identify as Black: assaulting their race, denying their history, dismissing their pain — and thereby intending to diminish the image of God in them," the letter states.
The incident at Silver Lake took place sometime at the end of a weekend retreat. Silver Lake Administrator Jennifer Kronholm Clark had an unpleasant shock when she pulled into camp early Tuesday morning, after a couple of days off. The Black Lives Matter banner, which had been hanging on the Welcome Shack at the bottom of the entrance hill at Silver Lake Conference Center for over a year, had been vandalized.
"I was angry," Kronholm Clark said. "I took the banner down and brought it inside."
Someone had scrawled "All Lives Matter" in red permanent ink underneath "Black Lives Matter."
One of the weekend staffers who was greeting on Friday night reported being questioned about the banner. The staffer stated that the woman was very confrontational about the banner, though the driver of the car appeared quite embarrassed by the passenger's behavior. When that staffer left for the weekend, the banner was untouched.
Kronholm Clark said that guests have commented on the banner before, but they had always been supportive.
"We've had several people of color comment on the banner and tell us that it really made them feel welcome at Silver Lake," Kronholm Clark said. "'Black Lives Matter' is a statement that we very much support. We are actively trying to be more welcoming to more diverse groups. It was very disturbing to me to see this display of intolerance when we've been working so hard to create a safe place for all of God's children to gather."
"This came home to a place the we considered to be safe," said Siladi as he reported the incident to Conference staff. "The illusion of that has been shattered."
Silver Lake's banner is not an isolated event. Late last fall, a Black Lives Matter banner was taken from the fellowship hall at Bloomfield Congregational Church. Office Administrator Andrea Mercer discovered the missing banner as she arrived one morning. At first, she thought someone had moved it somewhere else. When she contacted Carolyn Delgado, chair of the church council, they realized it had been taken.
"We have had spirited arguments with friends and colleagues who fervently believe that 'All' lives matter, and that to single out some lives seems to diminish the worthiness of others," the Conference letter states. "We disagree with that analysis, although we welcome the conversation about this."
The letter calls for churches to use the Silver Lake event to raise awareness of the "urgent, ongoing work to expose racism in ourselves and in our midst." Raising the issue of racism and having that conversation are not easy. Not everyone is prepared to respond to questions like "Why not 'All Lives Matter'?" But other staffers at Silver Lake have reported being questioned about the banner and said they felt prepared to respond because they have been involved in Racial Justice Training through the Conference.
Churches and church leaders are encouraged to visit the Conference's Racial Justice ministry website for resources to help start or continue conversations around racism and the response to which God's compassion calls us. One opportunity for action is to attend the Racial Justice Conference Training July 25-29. Another is to participate in a series of webinars in June on the new UCC Curriculum on White Privilege, including one hosted by Associate Conference Minister The Rev. Da Vita McCallister, who was one of the curriculum writers. Information about that webinar is here.
Members of the church group that visited Silver Lake at the time of the vandalism were shocked when they discovered one of their own had defaced the banner. They are using the event to broaden their own understanding of racism in our society. The Racial Justice Ministry team has reached out to the church, offering their assistance with the conversation.
At Silver Lake, a new banner has been ordered to replace the defaced one. Executive Director Ryan Gackenheimer is also reviewing the training part-time and summer staff receive in efforts to prepare them for questions and conversations like the one encountered at the Welcome Shack, and to develop responses to those questions.
"As difficult as it may be for some to imagine, this moment in time reminds us that racism exists everyone, even in the beautiful natural setting of our Christian community we call Silver Lake. We seek to offer an extravagant welcome at Silver Lake in the midst of being a safe place for all God's people," says Gackenheimer. "That means we must have the difficult conversations of hate and discrimination as we gather with our siblings in Christ so that we truly can move toward being the safe and inclusive space we so desire at Silver Lake."
Read the full Letter to the Conference here.
Drew Page is the News & Media Editor for The Connecticut Conference UCC. Jenn Kronholm Clark contributed to this story.
CORRECTION 5/26/2016: This article originally stated that #BlackLivesMatter originated in response to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The phrase originated in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, but became widely used after the Ferguson shooting.