Comments about ‘Whiteness’ prompt controversy at Sparrow Women conference

Comments about ‘Whiteness’ prompt controversy at Sparrow Women conference

A Christian organization whose mission is to equip women to be peacemakers has been accused of trying to erase comments by a black Christian speaker about white supremacy.

During an onstage interview, Ekemini Uwan, a Nigerian-American public theologian, told an audience at the recent Sparrow Conference for Women in Dallas that their concept of race was incompatible with the Bible.

In response, several women walked out.

Uwan said organizers tried to downplay any sign of her presence at the conference.

While the Sparrow Women social media accounts published photos, excerpts and highlights from several conference speakers, no images or quotes from Uwan’s comments appeared on its feeds. A video of the interview that had been published to YouTube of her remarks was removed for copyright violation.

Uwan told RNS that she had to hire an attorney to force Sparrow Women to send her photos and video of her interview.

On Friday, Sparrow Women apologized for “content shared during the testimonial interview at the 2019 Sparrow Conference,” held March 29-30 at The Music Hall at Fair Park in Dallas, Texas.

”We publicly apologize to both Ekemini Uwan and the conference participants for not handling such a complex subject with more care and therefore putting everyone involved in such a difficult place,” the statement reads. “That is not the heart or mission of Sparrow Women and we take responsibility for what happened. We want to be peacemakers and see gospel reconciliation and we fell short of our goal here. We will learn from this and are praying for healing and peace for everyone that participated in this year’s conference and those that have been affected by this.”

When asked for more details about why they apologized, leaders at Sparrow declined to elaborate.

“Thank you for reaching out, at this time we are unable to say anything beyond our statement,” Director of Operations Kristen Rabalais said in an email in response to a request for further comment.

Uwan, a co-host of the popular “Truth’s Table” podcast, dismissed the apology as a “PR cleanup job.” Uwan and two other Christian black women who host “Truth’s Table” routinely address white supremacy, racial justice and other related issues.

Uwan said that Sparrow’s founder, Rachel Joy, told her she was a fan of the podcast, so Joy should have known what to expect during her talk.

“If you listen to ‘Truth’s Table,’ my interview was standard ‘Truth’s Table.’ There was nothing there that was like completely new, or mind-boggling,” Uwan said.

Sparrow Women started more than seven years ago as a church homegroup and attracted women who were “African American, Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, and from different socio-economic backgrounds,” according to the organization’s website.

The organization described the recent conference as “a catalytic event for over 1,500 women” to learn about racial division and social justice.

Uwan, a Westminster Theological Seminary alumna, was interviewed at the conference by Elizabeth Woodson, Sparrow Women’s resources coordinator.

“Race is not a category in the Bible. It did not exist because it is not something that will be redeemed — it was meant to hold and hoard power,” Uwan told Woodson, according to a transcript of the interview provided by conference attendee Carmen J. Caccavale.

“Because we have to understand something — whiteness is wicked,” Uwan said. “It is wicked. It’s rooted in violence, it’s rooted in theft, it’s rooted in plunder, it’s rooted in power, in privilege.”

She told the audience they should give up whiteness and “recover” the ethnic identities “your ancestors deliberately discarded.” Rather than thinking of themselves as white, they should try to rediscover their immigrant cultural ancestry: “Are you Italian, are you Irish, are you Polish, are you Turkish?”

“Celebrate that,” she said.

Uwan, who said she saw about 10 women walk out during the discussion, mentioned the term “whiteness” more than two dozen times throughout the 30-minute talk.

Sarah Humphries, a 30-year-old white woman from Denton, Texas, attended the Sparrow Conference for the first time, specifically to hear from Uwan and another black speaker, Jackie Hill Perry.

In a phone interview, Humphries said audience members near her seemed upset by Uwan’s remarks — especially when she said the word “whiteness.”

“I was really surprised at how angry the people in front of me and the people from my left were during Ekemini’s conversation,” Humphries said.

In an essay at The Witness, freelance writer Deedee Roe said that most conference attendees were white and that they were “angry and uncomfortable” during Uwan’s interview. She said that after Uwan told audience members to “divest from whiteness,” people began to leave.

“That’s when I saw the first group of white woman walk out,” wrote Roe.

Michael O. Emerson, who is a sociologist and provost at North Park University in Chicago, Ill. and author of “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America,” said that it’s often difficult to discuss “whiteness,” especially in church circles. He said whiteness was “invisible” to white people and that it is often “cloaked in simply being American.”

“Whiteness is talking about a system,” he said. “It’s not just people, but a system of dominance that happened since the U.S. was founded, and even before that.”

Humphries, the 30-year-old white woman who attended the conference, was sitting left of center stage and said she saw “at least five to 10” women walk out during Uwan’s interview.

Humphries admitted that her “old self” might have identified with some of their negative reactions before she learned more about racism.

“We really need the Lord to do a big work, because we are completely missing it on the whole as white people, just in a general sense,” she said. “There is not enough desire on our behalf to pursue this as a group, like as white people. There’s not enough people who are wanting to engage with the sinfulness in our hearts that has led to all of this racial discrimination and violence and harm.”

When asked why he thinks white Christians have been so slow to catch up to Christians of color on confronting race, Emerson suggested that it was intentional.

“They either choose to ignore the damage done by race, or they know about it, but the benefits that come from whiteness are simply too great that they’re not willing to make the necessary changes,” he said.

Uwan took to social media to share her concerns. She said she felt as if Sparrow Women was trying to erase her presence at the conference.

“I’m just telling the truth, which in and of itself is controversial,” she said.

Nuns in Africa create social enterprise startups to help communities

Nuns in Africa create social enterprise startups to help communities

Sisters in Kenya handle chickens while learning about social enterprise opportunities at a poultry farm. Photo courtesy of Santa Clara University

Sister Christine Imbali of the Assumption Sisters of Eldoret, in western Kenya, has been working to help low-income women and families end their reliance on her small community of Catholic religious women and other charitable groups. Instead of a charity, she wants to give families in the country’s fifth-largest city the option to be self-sustaining and to contribute an important aspect of a healthy city — nutrition.

Her idea: chickens.

“You cannot evangelize to people who are hungry, who are dying, who are not getting an education,” Imbali said. In April, she hopes to introduce poultry farming to her families in hopes that social enterprise, as these kinds of helping businesses are known, will take off in Kenya.

The notion of do-gooding chickens originated in July of last year at the third Vatican Conference on Impact Investing in Rome. The conference was part of a series intended to “serve as a vital, long-term, global platform around Pope Francis’ vision of ‘placing the economy at the service of peoples,’” according to the conference’s report.

It was there that Sister Eneless Chimbali, secretary-general of the Association of Consecrated Women in Eastern and Central Africa, met Thane Kreiner, executive director of the 22-year-old Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, an “accelerator” of social enterprise startups at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school in Northern California. The center focuses on poverty, climate change and social inequality and works with a diverse range of industries.

Thane Kreiner, left, addresses a Sisters Blended Value Project workshop in early March 2019. Photo courtesy of Santa Clara University

But just eight months later, in early March 2019, Kreiner found himself more than 9,500 miles from Silicon Valley addressing 35 Catholic sisters from Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe at a social enterprise workshop in Kenya.

The meeting was exactly the kind of unexpected partnership the planners of the Vatican conference had envisioned, said Beth Collins, Catholic Relief Services’ managing director of impact investing.

For Miller Center and the sisters, it meant the start of a whole new movement.

Chimbali said she had long been asking herself how the sisters would remain relevant in their home communities as resources dwindled. For Kreiner, who knew that social enterprise worked best when it came from those deeply invested in their communities, the lightbulb went off when he heard Chimbali tell the Rome conference: “Sisters are always there. Others come and go, but the sisters will always remain.”

The only remaining problem was funding.

Back in California, John Ottoboni, chief operating officer and senior legal counsel at Santa Clara University, had been waiting for the right way to honor his wife, Nancy, who had recently died from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

As a young woman, she had stopped short of making her final vows as a Sister of the Holy Cross but continued to stay close to the order, and the friendship has continued through Ottoboni.

He saw Miller Center’s workshops as a meaningful way to keep alive the memory of a woman he describes as “the soul of kindness.”

“To continue to honor her memory is a joy, one that tempers the profound sense of loss that surfaces from time to time,” he said. “In a small way I felt like we were walking with (the sisters) on what may prove to be an expanded journey for them.”

The project, now known as the Sisters Blended Value Project, has generated ideas for social enterprise startups ranging from Imbali’s local poultry farming to health care programs. Miller Center hopes to replicate the March workshop at other ACWECA congregations. There are more than 400 member congregations, comprising some 30,000 sisters.

Kreiner expects that if he can reach 10 percent of the congregations over the next three years, the movement will spread through the sisters’ network to grow the number of social enterprises.

“Our idea at the end of this project is for you to transform your social ministries into social enterprises,” said Sister Cecilia Njeri, ACWECA’s president, in her opening remarks at the March workshop.

At the workshop, the sisters began by discussing the problems in their communities, then moved to how they could fix them. By the end of the workshop, the sisters each had a 90-second elevator pitch.

Some of the sisters had previous experience in business. Sister Juunza Mwangani of the Religious Sisters of the Holy Spirit in Zambia has a business degree, but prior to the workshop she had never blended her charity work with her business experience.

“I think in a lot of people’s minds there’s been this artificial distinction between doing good and using business strategies,” Kreiner said.

At the hospital where she works, Mwangani hopes to create a system where those who want private rooms, fast-tracked service and other accommodations can get them by paying more. The extra money will then pay for those who can’t afford to visit the hospital at all.

Another program will establish a school for middle-class girls, whose tuition will subsidize the fees of children from low-income families.

Sister Juunza Mwangani, center, participates in a Sisters Blended Value Project workshop with fellow nuns in early March 2019 in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Santa Clara University

Mwangani also hopes to teach the rest of her community the things she learned at the workshop.

“I was tasked with coming back to teach everyone else in my community,” Mwangani said. “And I’m ready to do that.”

For many Africans, the most difficult adaptation will be to the idea of the church asking them to make their own way. In some communities, Mwangani pointed out, it has become expected that whatever the church offers is given out for free. With the social enterprise model, mindsets will have to change.

“The approach we have taken will meet a bit of resistance in some communities,” she said. “But we are not going to leave them behind. We are going to get them on board.”

Another hurdle is the slim success rate of startups, 60 percent to 90 percent of which fail.

But for these sisters, failure isn’t new. If a sister’s original idea fails, Chimbali said, the sisters will “be quick to start another direction.”

And together, they will learn from each other’s failures and successes — hoping to start a movement that could change their communities for generations to come.

“It’s my prayer that it does not end with this generation,” Imbali said. “But a foundation laid down to change the face of the community.”

10 Things I’ve Learned from Homeschooling

10 Things I’ve Learned from Homeschooling

It has been six months since we started on this journey with our 14-year-old son, who began a home-based high school curriculum last fall. I’m no expert by any means, but you’d be surprised how much several trials by fire in a short amount of time can teach you. I know there’s a lot more knowledge to grasp with each year, but here are ten things I’ve learned so far.

1. You can’t just go with one curriculum.

Even though my son is enrolled in an online accredited high school, there are still gaps I need to fill. For example, Khan Academy has been vital for him (and me!) to understand Algebra. Also, it can be challenging to find Christian history, literature, and other educational materials from an African American perspective in a mainstream homeschooling curriculum. I’ve posted a few history resources here on UrbanFaith.com, but you can also check out  Store.UrbanMinistries.com.

2. Think nontraditional.

The main reason we’re going through this journey is that the structure of a brick and mortar school was not working for our son. So why repeat the exact same schooling structure at home? I’ve learned that sometimes he works better at night. He doesn’t necessarily need the weekends off. He’d rather do a little bit seven days a week instead of a normal five-day week. You can learn anywhere —  for example, we’re going to learn Spanish vocabulary in the grocery store.

3. You do need some structure.

Every kid is different, but I can’t leave the house without making sure he knows what he’s supposed to do and then following up when I get home. I’ve heard horror stories of people thinking their kids are working only to find nothing but a trail of video games and social media filling up the day. Setting boundaries are important, and you can include your child in making those decisions. For example, I will talk to my son about the week and what we are going to accomplish and we will agree on which days and times he will complete the work. Some families might have routines that are more strict. But this works for us.

4. Connecting with other homeschooling parents keeps you sane.

I’ve spent a lot of time on social media with other parents who have kids in the same program. It makes me feel less isolated as we’re all going through it together and sharing our stories. We all have kids of varying ages, but there are always a few moms with kids the same age as yours. You’d be surprised at the similarities in our stories. I’ve learned a lot from those moms and gotten great tips and teaching resources. Check out these groups when you have time.

5. You have more time in your day to make learning fun.

When you strip out lunch, advisory periods, the time between classes, gym, assemblies, and time for teachers to work with other kids, that streamlines your child’s day quite a bit. My son can pretty much do his entire day’s work in three hours. I’m finding that is common among other kids who are learning at home. So I’ve started to get creative. We’re going to take advantage of several museums that offer free museum days to area residents. Also, we’ll be going to work out together at the local YMCA, which has affordable pricing.

6. You become the school guidance counselor.

If you don’t go to an online accredited school, you’ll need to develop your own transcript for your child. The Homeschool Mom has a great blog post about this, but keeping track of all the courses, lessons, tests, and grades become your responsibility. Also, it’s on your shoulders to plan out your child’s future, making sure that they are taking in all the subjects necessary for whatever transition they plan to make after high school. I’ve created a spreadsheet for my son that goes from freshman through senior year and has all the courses he will need to take to graduate.

7. Standardized testing is a little more challenging.

My son needs to take the PSAT this spring and it was not easy to get the local high school to let him take it there. I made several calls and emails that were ignored. If you’re not enrolled in the school, don’t be surprised if they simply don’t care that much about assisting you. Unfortunately, when you call the people who administer the PSAT, they say to contact your local school. In the end, the only reason I got a response was that I pointed out that I do have another child at the school. It was very frustrating. The lesson learned here is to start a few months early if you want your child to take standardized tests. Don’t wait until a week before the test. They have to make special accommodations for homeschooled kids and that can take time.

8. It takes a village to homeschool a child.

In my opinion, homeschooling will be hard to do if you work full-time without other family members to support you. This is a tough one to write because I know not everyone can survive financially on a part-time salary. But honestly, you have to be present to make this work. You can’t give an assignment and just leave without touching base during the day and providing assistance as needed. Not to mention, it requires a lot of planning in advance on what to teach, what classes to incorporate into your curriculum, when to take time off, how to provide extra help in subject areas unfamiliar to you, etc. That said, I could see it working if there is an extended family in the house who can help share the homeschooling load. I have a friend whose mother is helping to teach her small children a few days a week. It gives her a break and grandma time to bond.

9. People will be judgemental.

I’ve had people tell me they think I made the wrong decision. That I just gave in to my son’s anxiety. They’ve said there’s no way he can learn at home what he could learn in a public school. Some scare me with warnings that he won’t get into college. It’s hard to hear. From my point of view, my son actually doesn’t mind learning now. No more “I hate school” mantras. I know we made the right choice for our family.

10. Choose your path based on your circumstances.

If your goal is to give your child a flexible schedule in the short-term and you intend for him or her to eventually go back to regular brick-and-mortar schooling, consider starting with your local public school first. A lot of school districts have home-based, online curriculum partnerships you can look into if your child has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Or, they may have a program where you can work with your child’s teachers and take the work home. We did that when my son was in middle school. If this is a long-term choice and there’s really no going back, do your research first before you make the leap if you have time to do so. Talk to other homeschooling moms. There are so many options now and you can tailor something specific to your child’s interests. Start with the Homeschool Legal Defense Association.