Healing Illinois grant inspired Decatur, Ill. faith-based group to take action beyond the church

DECATUR - "If the church doesn't engage in the work of dismantling white supremacy, there'll be no Christian witnesses in 50 years in the North American continent. We cannot disassociate from our history of oppression."

Those were the words of the Rev. Lenny Duncan, a queer Black pastor and the author of "Dear Church: A Love Letter From a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S." and soon-to-be-released "United States of Grace: a Memoir of Homelessness, Addiction, Incarceration and Hope." A pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church in Vancouver, Wash., Duncan gave that warning while a guest speaker in a March 30, 2021 Zoom discussion on the role of the church in racism and today's social justice movements.

His talk was one of three activities organized by Be the Bridge of Macon County with a $2,500 Healing Illinois grant from the United Way of Decatur & Mid-Illinois. The grant, which was funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services and administered through The Chicago Community Trust, also supported the cost for 100 people to tour the African-American Cultural & Genealogical Society of Illinois, Inc. Museum in Decatur, Ill., and covered a three-day diversity training session for Be the Bridge members and other lay leaders.

"This grant was the shot in the arm that we needed as a group," said Jeanelle Keck, co-facilitator of Be the Bridge of Macon County. "Quite honestly, we had started fizzling out a little bit. We talked to each other on Facebook, but we didn't have a way to just continue on our work. We knew that some of us weren't passionate about Be the Bridge necessarily because of the church focus, but we're still so passionate about social justice work. This really gave us the funds to engage more people."

Be the Bridge is a national, Atlanta-based nonprofit organization that encourages racial reconciliation and healing through the church and offers a curriculum to support that goal. Keck, a finance director at an insurance company, and her fellow peers are volunteers for Be the Bridge. For the past three years, they have organized and facilitated small group discussions to encourage racial reconciliation among people from mainline faiths, such as Evangelical, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, Catholic and Presbyterian churches.

When Keck and her peers noticed that their predominantly white churches were preaching love from the pulpit but not taking any social justice action following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, they began feeling like their church-centered trainings were not creating enough change. As a result of their Healing Illinois diversity training sessions, Keck and her peers, many of whom have left their predominantly white churches due to overt racism, felt inspired to begin focusing more of their attention on social justice action, instead of reconciliation through the church.

"We think that Be the Bridge is a really good educational tool, in terms of it onboards you into understanding. But for a lot of us, we have a different framework where we are moving toward justice and equity," Keck said. "So that doesn't have a religious bent for us. I don't need to be a Christian to believe in justice and equity."

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