The first sermon I preached as Pastor/Head of Staff at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church (GCPC) in Asheville, NC was on Sunday, July 10, 2016.  That was four days after Philando Castile was murdered by police in a traffic stop in St. Paul, Minnesota, in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter. 

It had been an intense few years for my family leading up to our arrival at GCPC. While I had been doing anti-racism work as a consultant, pastor, and scholar for many years, our level of personal stake and risk had recently spiked as a family. My husband and I had become advocates for the rights of collegiate revenue athletes, particularly around issues of race. John, my husband, had been a football coach in the NFL and at the Division I collegiate level for twenty-six years. His firing at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and at Purdue University were highly public events.[1]

The reputation we brought with us to GCPC is important to note in any exploration of how this remarkable congregation has embraced the work of dismantling white supremacy culture in the church.  The church knew they had called a pastor who does not shy away from the most difficult issues facing our society. They knew my family is willing to risk ourselves, our livelihood, our income, and our comfort to fight this fight on a national scale. What they may not have fully anticipated was their own capacity to join in that work with their whole selves.

My family and the church were all risking and stretching in this new relationship we had covenanted to have with each other.  Any conversation about how churches can do this work must start here, on a visceral, gut level. If you are not willing to take risks and call on your community to be courageous, then the work of confronting white supremacy will go nowhere. That first sermon at GCPC was a full immersion into the work of dismantling white supremacy culture together. The Holy Spirit woke me from my sleep the night before I was to deliver it and provoked me to rewrite it.  The lectionary passage was Luke 10: 25-37, the Good Samaritan. I could have preached a generic sermon, and eased the church into the work as we got to know each other. The Spirit did not let me off so easy. I knew that my own vulnerability was required. I called the church to a disposition of “bold humility,” using our need for healing from white supremacy as the presenting problem:

White culture has distorted our shared humanity and our full humanity because it formed us with an expectation of safety and self-protection.  White culture has tried to tell us we can erase our vulnerability, our grief, our fragility, our uniqueness, our idiosyncrasy—and from this attempted erasure we have learned repetitive, dehumanizing habits. We are habituated to ask, “How can we help?” But rarely do we ask, “How can we change?  How can we BE the change?”  White supremacy is a powerful demon that must be exorcised.  This does not mean all white people are bad, this means the culture spawned by white supremacy is a disease that afflicts us all—it permeates our instincts, our muscle twitches, our gut reactions, our intimacy, our self-understanding. Jesus, help us, help us not be afraid to tell you the truth of our affliction. We are naked, we are afraid.[2]

The last four and a half years have grown from there. Four aspects of bold humility have defined how the work has continued: following the Spirit’s lead; sharing vulnerability; believing in the congregation’s capacity to do the work; and being willing to respond consistently to both their resistance and their willingness to go deeper. 

The first thing required in any congregation in order for the work of dismantling white supremacy to take hold is for those with formal power in the system to center the work as the most important work the church is called to do.[3] I am grateful for the way God has given me colleagues to strengthen me in this work. In my first months in Asheville, I became a part of the newly forming “Faith 4 Justice, Asheville” led by AME Zion Pastor, the Rev. Tami Forte-Logan. That collective has been a source of clarity and strength in my work and in GCPC’s work. We support each other in finding the energy and courage to keep centering the work of healing the most primary disease that afflicts our bodies, our churches, and our culture.

Dismantling white supremacy impacts every layer of our institutional and communal life. Three areas where this work has taken hold in the life of GCPC may provide support for other faith communities yearning for a path to go deeper:  worship, systems, and partnerships.

Worship

GCPC is a low anxiety church in ways that are uncommon in the Presbyterian Church. Things like changing the doxology or moving the baptismal font to a different location in the sanctuary do not create panic in this congregation. That was true before I arrived.  Leaning in to that willingness to be adaptive and spontaneous has been a great asset. Every worship service brings new opportunities for creativity, spiritual idiosyncrasy, embodiment, adaptivity, and nurturing relationships.  Worship has been the collective space where we practice sharing power and leaning into God’s healing opportunities.

The church embraced the embodied worship practices I invited them to try. Embodied practices in worship grow out of my constructive theological work.[4]  But these practices take a willing community to become transformative. We have shared some beautiful and vulnerable moments in worship.[5]  For example, in the Fall of 2019 our theme was “The Eucharistic Life” which involved celebrating Eucharist every Sunday instead of once a month.[6] Every week we experimented with new ways of gathering at the Lord’s Table. And we explored how Eucharist is a way of life, not simply a liturgical practice.[7]

GCPC worship is full of disruptions and adaptations. The congregation is called into participation during any and every part of the service, including sermons and the serving of Communion. Children and youth participate in leadership every week. We share information through skits that bring playfulness and congregational participation. We lean into the gifts of the rhythms of Reformed worship, while claiming the ways the Spirit moves us to try new things.

That trust in how God is present in both tradition and creativity has carried over into our COVID 19 experience. Our online worship every Sunday is live, not pre-recorded. We have invested time, resources, and creativity in cultivating strong connections and congregational participation. The church is growing and thriving. This style of pandemic worship is actually dismantling white supremacy culture in real time by disrupting either/or thinking, perfectionism, and “one-right-way” mentalities that are endemic to white-dominant churches. All of these worship practices generate shared visceral data about what sharing power looks like, feels like, tastes like, and sounds like. We have become more habituated and susceptible to sharing power because we experience it in the context of worship every week.

Worship at GCPC is also characterized by an embrace of prophetic preaching. This church has shed the false equivalencies that can hold pastors hostage in the pulpit. Many churches equate prophetic preaching with “getting political.” This false equivalency is code language for normalizing keeping the powerful comfortable. When this shaming around “getting political” surfaces at GCPC, I happily engage it as an opportunity to unpack the aversion we have to tension and discomfort in white churches. And I use it as a teaching moment about our civic responsibility as disciples of Jesus Christ. The political boundary in churches is that they cannot endorse political candidates, not that we don’t provoke difficult discussions on political issues.

Systems 

The administrative layers of the church have been transformed this last four and a half years as well. Together we created clear descriptions of roles, leadership rotation, and healthy boundaries. Each Council collaboratively created its own charter to create accountability practices around sharing power. These charters are a direct challenge to the impulse that whiteness teaches us to hoard power and tolerate institutional inertia in order to protect the status quo.

White supremacy has long been embedded in the ways churches make decisions, deal with conflict and tension, spend resources, and deploy energy. Intentional practices to disrupt these habits are present in every meeting at GCPC. We ground our practices of sharing power in spiritual growth. We use “mutual invitation” to listen and discern, instead of debating and voting.[8] Mutual invitation helps to calm the collective nervous system in high stakes conversations, and diffuses the sense of urgency that white supremacy teaches us. Change moves not at the speed of pressure, but at the speed of trust.[9]  The leading edge in these practices of power sharing is found in the ways we are learning to hold each other accountable. There is joy and transformation in this new-found freedom of being authentic with each other.

A central part of cultivating this freedom early on was in the way  bullying and triangulation, along with clutches of power, were disrupted in the church.  The work of dismantling white supremacy culture in the church requires that the church not succumb to the pressure of wealthy donors who use their giving as a weapon to silence the work. At GCPC we lost some donors at the beginning, but we have gained more in the long run. The spirituality of this work includes trusting that God’s hand is in it and will provide what the community needs to truly thrive.  

Partnerships

GCPC has steadily moved away from a charitable model of community outreach toward a partnership model, informed by the practices required to cultivate racial equity and mutual transformation. This shift is most clearly visible in the work of our Serve Council, the Council of the Session who makes decisions about the disbursement of what used to be called “mission” dollars. While this shift remains a work in progress, there have been tangible changes along the way that have made GCPC a more trustworthy partner for BIPOC-led collectives. Serve Council partnerships now have more energy deployed toward building relationships and trust. GCPC comes alongside our partners not simply with funding support, but with other resources like free use of our building for meetings and events.

GCPC has been nurturing multiple circles and collectives of discernment around questions of reparation and collective liberation. Faith 4 Justice Asheville and Saving Ourselves (SOS), two Black-led organizations, are now embedded in the GCPC community as our fiscal sponsorees and as trusted colleagues in this work. These fiscal sponsorships include the full wrap-around support of our systems and structures. And these relationships and partnerships are built on the work of mutual liberation that we are doing together. In particular, GCPC’s mutual partnership with Faith 4 Justice has been one that has deepened, as relationship and trust have deepened. Rev. Forte-Logan has led transformational work with our Session, Serve Council, staff and congregation. And she has become a close and trusted colleague of mine as well.

In 2020, Serve Council also designated thirteen Black and Brown-led organizations as “Covenant Partners” to receive more funding and more focus on relationship building.  These intentional partnerships are built on GCPC’s own internal work to dismantle white supremacy, and on our growing awareness of the harm that white churches often do in transactional relationships with impacted communities. A Long-Range Building Visioning Team is exploring the next phase of life for our building. The process is moving toward cultivating a decision-making process that involves BIPOC partners at the decision-making table. This process is actively working to disrupt decision making in which those most impacted by decisions have the least power in making the decisions.

We are using new muscles to support each other as we breathe and push through these deep transformations. We are learning how to grieve together more deeply. We are learning about our own trauma and the things that white supremacy has diminished in our lives.

COVID 19 has only enhanced this work.  We are even more resolved to keep doing this work. The church has put its heart and soul into this transformative work. We believe that mutual vulnerability is the path to mutual liberation. We are not yearning to “get back to normal.”  We are amazed at all the transformation happening in our midst as we move into a future we could have barely imagined just a few years ago.


The Rev. Dr. Marcia W. Mount Shoop (MDiv Vanderbilt, PhD Emory University) is Pastor/Head of Staff at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC. She is an author, facilitator, theologian, and radio show host. Mount Shoop is the author of Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (WJKP) and Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (Cascade). She co-authored A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White Dominant Churches (Cascade) with Mary McClintock-Fulkerson. Mount Shoop has also contributed chapters on embodiment, race, and trauma to several anthologies. She co-hosts a radio show for Blue Ridge Public Radio, “Going Deep: Sports in the 21st Century” with her husband, John. You can learn more about her work at www.marciamountshoop.com

[1] I have written about our experience in football on my blog at www.marciamountshoop.com and in my book, Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports  (Cascade, 2014). A story appeared in the New York Times after John’s firing at Purdue University and John is also the coach featured in the HBO documentary “Student-Athlete,” with Lebron James as the Executive Producer. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/05/sports/ncaafootball/purdue-fires-a-champion-of-athletes-rights.html  One of the places our stances were articulated has been our radio show and podcast, Going Deep: Sports in the 21st Century. It is currently a program that runs on Blue Ridge Public Radio, NPR for Western North Carolina. Previous to our coming to Asheville, we produced the show at the studios of WBAA, the NPR station in West Lafayette, IN. https://shoopsgoingdeep.com/  and https://www.bpr.org/post/going-deep-sports-21st-century#stream/0

[2] Sermon, “Go and Be Likewise,” preached at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Sunday, July 10, 2016.

[3] Tema Okun’s document entitled “Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” has been a great resource for me through the years in this work. https://www.dismantlingracism.org/uploads/4/3/5/7/43579015/okun_-_white_sup_culture.pdf

[4] Mount Shoop, Marcia W, Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (WJKP, 2010). 

[5] “Holy Is the Silence and Holy is the Sound” is a song I learned while participating in Interplay in Raleigh, NC.

[6] McClintock-Fulkerson, Mary and Marcia W. Mount Shoop, A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches (Cascade, 2015).

[7]I have written a chapter about this experience in the forthcoming book, The T & T Clark Handbook  to Sacraments and Sacramentality, edited by Martha Moore-Keish and James Farwell . The chapter is entitled, “Healing Eucharist: Excavating the Table’s Delusion and Redemption in White Dominant Church

[8] Mutual invitation is a discursive process that habituates sharing power, devout listening, and honest sharing. Through the years I have adapted the practices I learned from Eric Law about mutual invitation. His explanation can be found in his book, The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb (Chalice Press, 1993).

[9] adrienne marie brown describes this beautiful rhythm of change moving at the speed of trust in her book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (AK Press, 2017).


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Mount Shoop, Marcia W. (2021): “Bold Humility: Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in White-Dominant Churches,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 6: No. 1, Article 6. Available at https://ismreview.yale.edu.