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South African diocese rolls out programme to get people talking about racial divide

Posted on: January 16, 2018 10:15 AM

The Diocese of Port Elizabeth is embarking on a programme to help people to tell their story in a bid to ease racial tensions in South Africa. The initiative has been dubbed a “story-telling” revolution, and follows a speech at the diocesan synod meeting last November by Trevor Jennings, of the Transformation Christian Network. “I believe the reason we’re in the state we’re in is simple: we’re not talking to each other,” he said. “We are becoming more and more polarised as we struggle to find solutions to the challenges we face.”

He said that “desperate politicians” were using race, “a hot, divisive favourite”, as a means of separating people in the community, and “fast turning it into a game of who can kick the racial ball the hardest to win cheap political points. . .

“White and black South Africans don’t appear to know how to talk to each other,” he said. “The ‘What’s your Story’ approach is designed to get people talking – you may know my name but do you know my story?”

In April, 32 Anglicans from the diocese – eight from each Archdeaconry – will take part in a two-day workshop at Carmel Guest Farm retreat centre near the coastal town of George on the Cape’s Garden Route. After training by the non-profit organisations Heartlines, they will roll-out the programme to parishes in their area.

“All of us played a role in the past in South Africa. . .”, the Dean of Port Elizabeth, Mark Derry said. “All of us played a role of either perpetrator, victim, bystander, resister and / or beneficiary in the past, and have to decide what role we are going to play in the future.

“It is important that we accept that in order to shape the future we must understand the past.”

Writing in the current issue of the diocese’s iindaba newsletter, he offered a story for those who were “sceptical that ‘just talking’” could help to tackle the issue. He explained that he was part of a group of 34 senior church leaders from all the mainline and large independent churches from the region who spent three days at Carmel last year at a workshop exploring how to unpack racism, privilege and prejudice.

The facilitators asked the participants to stand in the middle of a field in a straight line. “Then they instructed us to take two steps forward if for instance we had books in our homes when growing up, two steps backwards if we had none,” he said. “Two steps forward if our family went on annual holidays, two steps backwards if you stayed at home. When the exercise stopped my black Christian brothers were standing on one side of the field and myself and my white Christian brethren on the other.

“There was simply no denying the divide between us. Thereafter we were invited to tell our stories, with the field in mind there was no waffle, we couldn’t stay within our comfort zones, we spoke, we spoke to our truth and we started a journey of joint discovery. Each of us had a story to tell, but we had to open ourselves to listening to the stories of others before we could get anywhere.”

He said that the “storytelling revolution” was one of the outcomes of that workshop, as the church leaders agreed to work with Heartlines to get “three million South Africans sharing their stories with each other.”

Following the workshop, Heartlines will produce a template “so that we can get to know each other better – even if we find ourselves in churches which are not yet integrated,” Dean Derry said. We need to share our stories and get to know each other better.”

He said that as part of the process, “we each have to examine our own journey. We need to deal with the question of whether our past has made racism part of our ‘DNA’”.

He said that the churches want to use the process to discover “how we can move forward and build social cohesion? How can we move the tipping point away from anger and hatred to goodwill, healing and reconciliation?”

Heartlines is taking its What’s Your Story campaign across South Africa.