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18 May 2001

North Americans in WCC prepare for UN World Conference against Racism

cf. WCC Press Feature, Feat-01-04, of 18 April 2001

North American church representatives hoping to influence a United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance gathered 10-13 May to develop a consensus and sharpen their awareness of the issues that will be presented at the 31 August - 7 September World Conference in Durban, South Africa.

Many of the 55 US and Canadian citizens at the World Council of Churches (WCC) preparatory meeting in Dearborn, Michigan, said they intended to go to the Durban conference. Most of them were African Americans, Africans, Asians, Native Americans, Latinos and other persons of colour. Bernice Powell Jackson, executive minister of the United Church of Christ's justice and witness ministries, charged them to tell the truth about racism in North America.

"We commission you this day to confront the official denial which will be all around you," she said. "We commission you to remember the people who have no power and no privilege and whom you must serve as their voice in the international arena."

Other speakers provided background comments on a WCC "draft declaration and programme of action" being prepared for the World Conference. Participants debated the fine points of the draft and made recommendations for additions and revisions.

US and Canadian racism against Indigenous persons is not fully understood because of distortions in the way media and historians tell the story, said Professor George E. Tinker, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America clergyman and professor of American Indian Cultures and Religious Traditions at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. "Every day we hear that the bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City was the 'worst act of terrorism on American soil,'" he said. "That is a-historical. It does not take into consideration the thousands who died because of acts of terrorism against American Indians."

Today, Tinker said, racism against Native Americans is "invisible". "My people have health problems far in excess of the general population," he said. "Our teenagers are three to ten times more likely to commit suicide. Our public school dropout rate is 50 percent. We have a 50 percent unemployment rate, five to six times higher than African Americans. We are suffering from a community-wide post-traumatic stress syndrome that won't go away."

Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt Jr. of the 4th Episcopal District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Shreveport, Louisiana, characterized the situation as an "American dilemma".

"We promise in our constitution to be a democracy, yet we live undemocratically," Hoyt said. "Somehow, we must come to grips with America, the home of the oppressor, and America, home of democracy."

Officially, the courts have eliminated statutory racism in the US. Yet "racism has raised its ugly head in crimes of hate, police racial profiling, red-lining in housing, gerrymandering in congressional districts, and in opposition which frequently surrounds attempts to achieve racial balance and parity in education and housing."

Brenda Girton-Mitchell, director of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA's public witness and advocacy office in Washington, noted, "We could have been in this conversation 30 years ago. Racism doesn't go away."

Dorothy Wills of the United Church of Canada and other Canadian participants described the evolution of racism and discrimination in Canada. The Rev. Melodee Smith, a United Church of Christ pastor and civil rights attorney from Trenton, Illinois, urged the group to take to Durban an opposition to the death penalty in the USA.

The draft declaration and programme of action as modified and amended by the participants will join other action plans developed by similar WCC preparatory meetings in other regions of the world. A copy of the North American draft is available through the US Office of the WCC, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 915, New York, NY 10115, 212-870-3193, USA, WCC Contact.

For more information, please contact Philip E. Jenks, Communications Officer, US Office, World Council of Churches, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 915. New York, NY 10115, 212-870-3193, WCC Contact.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.