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I first heard of the Sparrow Conference when a friend posted online: “Look how diverse the panel is for this women’s conference!” I recognized several faces on the promo and was surprised at the ratio of POC to white presenters. Their website declared, “In an increasingly divided world in which truth has become a relative term, our hope is to point to Jesus, His infallible word, and the call to reconciliation to God and others.” The text of Ephesians was to be split between and taught by the speakers.

A group of my friends, all Black women, decided to attend together to learn and support the women we knew presenting. We were all particularly excited to hear from Ekemini Uwan, whom we were familiar with from the Truth’s Table podcast.

A Monocultural Welcome

As the conference began, I quickly realized it was overwhelmingly monocultural. Though there were a diversity of leaders, the message was white-centered. Race was intentionally avoided and dismissed. Where the scriptures shared from Ephesians dug deeply to discuss ethnicity, foreigners, and exclusion – the sermons skimmed. When the first night was over, I sent a message to our group. “I’m walking away with the distinct feeling that this event isn’t intended for me, but they don’t mind that I’m here.” It was a consensus.

We debated returning the next day and agreed we were still eagerly looking forward to hearing from Ekemini Uwan and Jackie Hill-Perry; that their messages might have something to say about our part in reconciling our divided nation to Christ.

We arrived early to create a welcoming spirit in front for all of the Black faces who would take the stage that day. We listened, painfully, to a panel discussion which taught “Proximity shatters our assumptions.” I knew Black women were feeling silenced and unseen. Later, Claire Wilkinson was welcomed with thunderous applause. She spoke passionately about the work of IJM confronting perpetrators of police brutality in Kenya. The audience made tearful commitments to partner in her work, tears I knew did not extend to Black victims of police brutality in this nation.

Finally, it was time for Uwan to speak. Rather than being assigned a portion of Ephesians to teach, she was interviewed by Elizabeth Woodson. As her credentials were read, she was welcomed by a smattering of enthusiastic voices. In that moment, in a theater full of thousands of believers where we felt erased, Uwan became the physical embodiment of Black womanhood. We knew exactly what it felt like to move through time and space unknown, unwelcome, and feared.

The Offensive Gospel

In introducing herself, she shared that her parents raised her to be of conscious race and proud of her ethnicity…a direct rejection of colorblind theology. That naturally bridged to her talking about the enslavement of her Black relatives in the US slave trade, the destructive forces of colonialism, and the global reach of White Supremacy. The Black women in the audience started making eye contact across the auditorium. We knew. This was an elementary lecture our white sisters, by and large, had never been forced to hear. The audience was sitting uncomfortably straight in their chairs, note-taking pens dropped in their laps.

Uwan referenced how the lynching of Trayvon Martin jarred many to explore, for the first time, racial identity and racial politics in our country. Every time she said white people, the white woman sitting to my left physically cringed. I could feel her thigh vibrating against mine as she tapped her foot. Uwan continued, “Jesus rose, bodily, as a brown-skinned Palestinian God man.” As pockets of startled murmuring spread across the theater, she reminded us “the Gospel is offensive.”

I looked around at my friends. Some were nervous, sunk in their chairs, oppressed by the building tension swallowing the size of the room. Uwan continued, “Race is a social construct that was organized around strife, difference, and racial stratifcation. White people on the top, Black people on the bottom.” I nodded, even as I could see women shaking their heads no. She taught theology of ethnicity from Revelation 7:9 and that “Whiteness is rooted in plunder, theft, enslavement of Africans, and the genocide of Native Americans. Whiteness is a power structure. The thing for white women to do here is divest from whiteness.” That’s when I saw the first group of white woman walk out. Uwan touched on the recent college admissions scandal, the 2016 presidential election, detention camps in Texas, calling them modern day concentration camps — all products of whiteness.

Whiteness Meets Black Theology

It was obvious the audience as a group was angry and uncomfortable, but it was their very whiteness that trapped them silent in their seats. White womanhood suppresses public displays of negative emotions. White women are allowed to be happy, fine, sad, grumpy, even angry, but never enraged. Add Christianity to that mix and white Christian women know their role. In a white supremacist society, power protects white women. White womanhood isn’t meant to disrupt systems of power. That’s why we saw betrayal ripple across the faces in the auditorium. For thirty-two minutes, authority was passed to two Black women having a normal healthy conversation about Christian racial identity.

White womanhood trembled and seethed. The woman sitting next to me rose from her seat and angrily whispered, to no one in particular “Someone will hear about this.” Should the Sparrow Conference crumble under that stress? Should they apologize and assure Uwan won’t be on the stage next year? What happens when whiteness goes on without being confronted? To paraphrase Uwan, “The danger of continuing as we are is continuing to perpetuate oppression. Whiteness is wicked. It’s rooted in privilege. White, Black, and POC must divest from whiteness. Whiteness kills white people too. We must imagine a world in which our whole identity isn’t bound to oppression. We live an embodied faith. We must not use Christ as a bleaching force to strip us of our identities. Instead, we must express our Christianity through our ethnic and gender identity.”

So, what happens to whiteness when Black theology confronts its idols and takes up room in its sacred spaces? It claws for its purse in the darkness, storms quietly out of the theater, and asks to see the manager because it demands someone pay for failing to protect it from conviction and discomfort. When confronted, whiteness crumbles, falls on its face, head and hands breaking off like the statue of Dagon in First Samuel. We see it for what it really is – an idol meant to destroy us.

I left the conference unsure what the leadership of Sparrow Women thought of the interview with Ekemini Uwan and, by extension, me. Their Twitter account posted quotes and memes from the speakers throughout the conference, but there was noticeably no mention of Uwan. We were given a resource guide that gives me hope that she was a welcome voice to the organizers; though that support seemed absent when confronted with angry white women. The full interview can be found here.

My prayer in sharing is that the theology and teaching of Ekemini Uwan would forever be a sharp rock which shatters the facade of whiteness as goodness and pushes each of us to reclaim our lost ethnic heritages.

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