Dear Neighbor: Local reading groups promoting understanding

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 25, 2024

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By Kathy Vestal

For the Clemmons Courier

Dear Neighbor, 

Since early 2021, I’ve been participating in weekly book discussions via Zoom, designed to bring together all kinds of people for meaningful conversations, particularly about race, but also any other lines that too often keep us separated from each other. These book groups and other activities have been hosted by the First Presbyterian Race Task Force in Salisbury, which formed in 2019, brainstorming how they might promote such connections within and outside our congregation. In the book groups alone, co-leader Barrie Kirby estimates that 60-70 participants have been involved in at least one of the 15-20 book and video studies, some in all of them.

The usual format has been one book group that meets on Sunday evenings (led by Esther Atkins and Elizabeth Cook) and another on Wednesday evenings (led by Monica Green and Kirby), sometimes reading the same book, sometimes separate ones. The participants usually read one chapter during each week, then come together to discuss that chapter, sharing reactions and insights. 

Most participants have been local, but, because of the Zoom format, we have had at least four participants from outside the area. The group is racially diverse, with maybe one-third of the participants African-American on any given evening, and religiously diverse, with participants who are Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian (including a moderator of Salem Presbytery and a moderator of Salem Presbytery Presbyterian Women), Jewish, Buddhist and other affiliations. There are clergy members, educators, political leaders, social workers and homemakers. There are medical professionals, writers, counselors, bankers and so many other represented professions. All these perspectives together make for some of the most interesting learning opportunities I have experienced.

Recently, for example, our Jewish participants shared some thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian War, and we were reminded of a common theme in our discussions: that all Jewish people, or Muslims, or Baptists, or white people or black, do not share the same perspective. We are all individual thinkers with diverse experiences even within our labels. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to “What do Hispanic people think about this?” or “How do Presbyterians feel about that?”

Sometimes trips or events are attached to our readings. For example, after we finished reading “How the Word Is Passed” by Clint Smith, 11 of us made a trip to Monticello for their “From Slavery to Freedom” walking tour. After our last book, “Wilmington’s Lie” by David Zucchino, an especially difficult and emotional read about the 1898 coup d’etat and massacre there, a few participants went to Wilmington for the 125th year commemoration activities. And enhancing the reading of Maya Angelou’s “The Heart of a Woman,” a few readers attended the play “Phenomenal Woman: Maya Angelou” in Winston-Salem.

Locally, the Race Task Force and  book groups have toured Livingstone College’s campus, walked Salisbury’s African-American Heritage Trail, participated in Passover Seders and Wealth Gap simulations, supported the local NAACP and Juneteenth celebrations, provided speakers for First Presbyterian Lenten breakfasts, and attended the solemn events around the dedication of the historical marker commemorating Salisbury’s lynchings.

There have also been post-book and holiday social events in homes. These opportunities, says Susan Lee, are “important supports and are balanced in such a way that the social activities don’t overshadow the emphasis on social justice.”

Lee has participated in most of the book groups and says she is strongly supported by the “ongoing weekly opportunities to discuss race and justice — and the shared commitment among members to attend regularly.” The additional opportunities, she says, like the Wealth Gap simulation and the EYES Tables, keep a flow of new people coming in and keep the groups from becoming insular and self-focused. “The overall impact is a sense of support and connection around issues that are of deep moral concern to me,” she says,

“I think a huge benefit of the studies,” says Mike Drinkard, who participated in four of the book groups and has done some deep research into the slavery history of First Presbyterian, “has been getting to know folks from different faith communities.”

Andrea Bullock has participated in almost every book group.

“I have learned so much from the reading, but so much more from the experiences of the black members who have been so open with us about the many ways they continue to experience racism, individually and systemically,” Bullock said. “I also appreciate the new bonds of friendship and the commitment we all have to working together to create change.”

Atkins added, “As a black woman, I was hesitant to join a book study related to race relations. I didn’t think that the hard subjects would be discussed. I am so glad that my spirit voice prevailed, and I joined the Sunday group. Our discussions are powerful and honest. We’ve developed a safe space to share. We began to grow closer, organically, through our discussions and end-of-book gatherings. Now my village has expanded to include folks that don’t look like me. My extended village was there to support me through a very challenging time this year.”

Catrelia Hunter has participated in all of the book studies. The groups have discussed some specific race issues affecting our community, which opened her eyes to local people who genuinely want to address racial equity.

“It is gratifying and encouraging to know that so many are courageous enough to open their hearts and minds to hearing and discussing the tough issues of race, and considering real possibilities for making the world a better place for people of all races, creeds and colors.”

Hunter said adding that she’s looking forward to continuing the “sacred journey.”

Fellow member, Betty Jo Hardy said, “The biggest impact the studies have had on me is within my soul. My understanding and empathy have grown deeper than I could ever have imagined. I learned the truth of slavery and its continuing harm. I have listened to my black sisters share their hurt and anger. The generational trauma is real and raw. It hurts my heart to know how damaging racism has been and how it continues.”

Kirby said the discussion groups have enabled her to meet people she would not have otherwise known, and to get to know acquaintances better.

“My life has been enriched by the friendships I have made and the experiences people have shared,” Kirby said. “It’s an honor to be entrusted with their stories, and a privilege to be on this journey with them.”

Mary Frances Edens has participated in four or five of the book studies and says she had read most of the books previously and had learned from them.

“However, sharing thoughts among a diverse group of readers brought deeper insight,” Edens said. “I have become increasingly aware of the discrepancies in factual history and the history I was taught. The blatant racial inequality suffered by so many is painful to admit but must be faced.” Through these groups, she says, she has learned more of the past and become better equipped to improve the future.

Susannah MacNeil is new to Salisbury and participated in the last two book studies: “Wilmington’s Lie” and “Poverty By America.”

My book group participation has really expanded and enhanced my understanding of national and North Carolina history,” MacNeil said. “The groups have also helped me feel more ‘at home’ in my new hometown of Salisbury. The other participants are thoughtful and caring, and we’ve had some very meaningful discussions.”

MacNeil finds the diversity of the groups really important.

“I learn about the perspectives and experiences of folks I might not otherwise run into in my daily life. I’m grateful for the Race Task Force and for our book group leaders,” she said.

Debbie Collins, one of the leaders of the Race Task Force, is grateful that Salem Presbytery and the senior staff at First Presbyterian are supportive of such conversations and growth in relationships across differences.

“These conversations continue to build around our history, through community programs, group discussions and trips, and social gatherings,” Collins said. “Deep friendships across multi-racial denominations and religions are enriching the lives of all participating. With the Holy Spirit’s guidance, hearts of love and acceptance are growing.”

To be added to the email list for information about the next reading group, you can contact the Salisbury First Presbyterian Church office. The next group will begin sometime after the new year.

“Dear Neighbor” authors are united in a belief that civility and passion can coexist. We believe curiosity and conversation make us a better community.