Rev. Paul Douglas Walfall (Photo: Amber Bracken)

Topics: Justice | Interview

United Church minister on racism: We need action

Rev. Paul Douglas Walfall wants the denomination to move beyond an emotional response


Rev. Paul Douglas Walfall is the minister at First United Church in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. He was an intercultural observer at The United Church of Canada’s 43rd General Council last July and spoke to attendees about ongoing racism in the church. His words sent ripples through the denomination, but a year later, he says he has not seen any real change. He spoke with Emma Prestwich.

Emma Prestwich: It has been almost a year since you gave that speech to General Council. There was a very emotional response, but have you noticed any concrete action on the church’s part since then?

Paul Douglas Walfall: I haven’t seen any concrete action as a result of this speech. Some things were already in motion even before I had spoken to the General Council, for example, the composition of the General Council Executive being more respectful of an intercultural mix than before.

During Lent this year, there was an online book club dealing with the book White Fragility. But, and that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, I have not seen any great movement in terms of intentional response by the church to the issue of racism.

EP: Was this book club something that you started within your congregation?

PDW: I think it was formed through the white privilege task group that General Council Executive had previously formed. It was housed online and I think it was related to the United Church website.

In my own congregation here in Fort Saskatchewan, recognizing that not everybody was on the United Church website or Facebook group, I also started a book club during Lent to look at White Fragility and invited members of the community to come out to it. We had probably 12 people gathered around the table looking at the book and speaking about the question of white supremacy and white privilege within the community. For almost all persons there, it was an eye-opener.

EP: What did you discuss?

PDW: We looked at the response of white people to the issues of racism and white privilege, discussing why there is pushback when there is a discussion about racism, and calling people to look at themselves and recognize that you are trying to protect your own white privilege and look at some of the reasons for defensiveness.

Many people were not aware of what it means to be in a privileged position because you are white. There was an assumption that people made about being white as if it was normative, and the book made the same point — that once you begin to make white normative, then you have a problem dealing with other races.

The group was able to find a place to talk about race and racial discrimination without feeling that they were under personal attack when the issue was being discussed. 

More on Broadview: The United Church still hasn’t confronted the racism within it

EP: That’s an attitude that you have identified — a fear of being attacked when race is brought up.

PDW: That is the fear that most people enter into. I constantly hear people saying, “I feel attacked, I feel guilty when you talk about race.” To be quite honest with you, the attitude of most Black people, including myself, is “OK, get over it, though, because the emotion is not enabling the discussion to occur.” And we want the discussion to occur. Because a lot of hurt in the United Church has occurred for Black people, and the only way to deal and address the hurt is when we’re able to have a dispassionate discussion on it. 

EP: As part of your doctor of ministry degree, you interviewed six Black ministers in the church. What were some of the overarching themes that they identified in how they have been treated? 

PDW: Themes such as being made to feel that you are invisible, that your issues don’t matter, that when issues are raised, they are not dealt with. At times, the feeling of wondering if you are part of the church, and also noting that, at points, at least two, there were [incidences] of bullying by the congregation because you are Black. A feeling that you were always being treated on a different scale than other United Church ministers. Also, if you are not from Canada, you’re from Africa or from the Caribbean, that your accent will be used against you.

EP: You mentioned that in your paper on the topic as well — that accent was a source of discrimination for some of these ministers. Was it discrimination coming from their congregation? Was it from their ministry colleagues? Where did they experience that?

PDW: It came from the congregations in particular, where constantly people were being told “we cannot understand you.” One minister said he was being shouted at by a member of the congregation that he needed to improve his English because they’re not understanding him.

This wasn’t in the study, but I know of at least one minister, when Presbytery did its review, this was the major problem that the congregation pointed out to Presbytery — that the person’s accent was not easily understood.

There was an initial response that seems to be the way we do things in church — let’s apologize to the Black people and the Black ministers for the way we treated them. It sounds good, but beyond the apology, what?

EP: That is an aspect of racism that isn’t spoken about as much.

PDW: Because it’s a microaggression. On the surface, it sounds reasonable: ‘I can’t understand you, so you need to make me understand you.’ But we fail to recognize that accent is part of the person’s culture, and that we all have an accent. So when you use the accent of an individual, which is almost the oral representation of the person’s culture, as a bludgeon against the individual, that is a microaggression of the highest order.

In my study, I surveyed three congregations in the United Church. One in British Columbia, one in Prince Edward Island, and the other in Ontario. All three congregations had white ministers. I asked for 15 people from each congregation to participate in this study. One of the questions to the congregation was “How would your congregation feel to call or appoint a minister,” and I gave them eight options of ministers to be called. 

The overall results were telling. For all three, their congregation would be the most willing to appoint or call a white Canadian minister. The second, an ordered minister who is bilingual French. The third was a minister from Europe. Fourth, an Indigenous minister. Fifth, which was intriguing, would be a minister from Australia. Sixth was a minister from the Caribbean or Africa. Seventh was a minister from southwest Asia, and eighth would be a minister of Korean background. The issue of accent is partly at work now, as well as colour. 

EP: You spoke a bit in the report that you wrote about your studies about what you called the “theology of good intention.” What would you describe that as?

PDW: It was actually coined by Anthony Reddie. It is the emotional response that we believe is the best response — the response of apologizing initially for an offence that is done. But all we are offering is the apology. The theology of good intention does not take into account repentance of any sort. Because repentance means change. There’s no change that you’re actually willing to make.

EP: Would you say that does or does not reflect the response that people in the church had after the discussions last summer?

PDW: That summer, there was an emotional response. There was an initial response that seems to be the way we do things in church — let’s apologize to the Black people and the Black ministers for the way we treated them. It sounds good, but beyond the apology, what?

If all we were left with was this emotional response, and there has been nothing on the ground of working towards a new day in the church and coming to terms to seriously heal the hurts of Black people and clergy in the church, then what you have left, sad to say, may very well be a theology of good intention.

EP: How do you feel about that — that this seems to be your impression of how the church has responded?

PDW: It was as expected. But there is a side of me that is saddened because the topics are raised not because I want people to feel sad or bad about themselves. I really don’t want people to go into some sort of mass flagellation. I raised it because I think there’s a need for change. So I feel a sense of sadness, but also invigoration to continue to speak up and out about these things to call on the church for repentance.

More on Broadview: Wilbur Howard and the white church

EP: Our cover story in November 2018 was on this issue as well — the issue of racism in the church and how ministers and people in the church still experience it today. Did you notice a response to that piece at all?

PDW: The response to the Observer, especially with the article on Wilbur Howard, brought to light the reality of the breadth and the lens of these issues in The United Church of Canada. But what I didn’t hear as a response from people was, “OK, let’s change.” And it could be that until we are willing to engage in the awkwardness of the dialogue, that things will continue to be as it is.

I believe in my heart that even Broadview needs to give a spotlight more consistently to the issues of race relations in the church. Because if you look at the recent polls coming out, especially as they relate to immigration, it says that there’s an issue in this country as it relates to race. What is the prophetic voice of the church to this issue? The main way the church can be prophetic is by getting its own house in order.

EP: You mentioned that you see some promising signs. You said the increased diversity on General Council Executive was one, and there’s also a white privilege working group. Is their work still ongoing? Are you involved with it directly?

PDW: No. The white privilege working group is a carry-over from the previous executive. I think they’re to give their report by the end of this year. I’m not certain what else the group has been doing.

I think there have been some signs of life. But I also know in other places, nothing much has changed. If I go back to my doctoral study, part of the argument was that the real challenge is to bring awareness not at the regional or the General Council level, but the congregational level. 

Because if there is no awareness at the congregational level, with ministry and personnel (M&P) committees, etc., then congregations can say, as was reported to me not so long ago, “We don’t want one of those people from Africa or India who have an accent.” Or, as I said last year, an M&P committee can say to a minister, “Accept what you have, because you’re getting better than what you had where you come from.”

Somehow, and I don’t know how, but the church needs to bring awareness at the ground level, because that’s where pastoral relations are occurring. I’ve said this to General Secretary Nora Sanders already — every regional pastoral relations committee or pastoral liaison person should be trained in racial awareness. 

We should be ensuring that if a complaint comes up in the church about racism, that we know how to deal with it. There is no policy for what happens when a case of racism is reported and it is a substantial and viable report. We have one on sexual abuse. We have one on harassment. 

But I would argue that if racism in Canada is as textured and as subtle as it is, the current policies on harassment do not work for when I bring to the board a report that a member of the congregation refuses to shake my hand and the member has told other members that it is because I am Black. Which policy deals with that? Or do we go and do what we normally do in the United Church in Canada — just go silent on the matter and tell me, “Don’t worry about it, it’s only one person”?

EP: Is that something that has happened to you?

PDW: Not to me but I know it has happened to other people. This is my point. We can have the big speeches at the regional and the General Council, but the real work is — how do we equip, sensitize and enable congregations to deal with the issues of racism?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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  • says:

    This is a very thoughtful study and the interview is very helpful. Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Paul Douglas Walfall.

    Many Denominations in North America and Europe many very well find this to be a seminal study leading to even further research and eventually corrective actions.

    Interventions at the congregation level with be key. And skilled resource persons will be needed.

    Dr. Paul, what if your research can be made into a Bible Study with Leaders' Guides and Participants' Workbooks?


    UMC Elder Retired.

  • says:

    There are two issues here – racism and dialect.
    Unfortunately racism is alive and well in Canada. Some of it, I believe is a carryover from the United States, but its roots, among the Blacks and Indians, certainly stem from slavery era. If we were to look at most denominations in Canada, I would think the United Church isn’t the only one with an apparent problem within its ranks.
    I wonder how many of us have considered the issues we will face when we stand side by side with our brothers in Christ, praising God for eternity? (I do realize it will be different, but put the thought there) Meanwhile, both sides of discrimination need to be praying: “On earth as it is in Heaven”
    Dialect is another issue. My friend from India is always asking me to critique his sermons. He is very self conscious about his presentation and idiom use. Quite frankly, I appreciate his sermons because of his (and others) dialect; it forces me to listen harder. The presenter may think his speech is fine, but it may not be the case to the listener. Another example: my friend who is Jamaican has, what I think, a clear (call it Canadian) dialect. Have her comfortable in a conversation with a fellow Jamaican for 5 minutes, and the Patois in her voice is distinct for a few days afterwards. Again, a friend’s aunt has lived in Australia for over 50 years and she is still referred to as a “Yank” by those “Downunder”.

  • says:

    (perhaps these comments might help a little:)
    * the crux of the issue is our built-in tendency to distinguish between 'Us' and 'Them' . Getting beyond that dichotomy is extremely difficult for most of us. We seem to rely on having those polarities in our life. If affects almost every aspect of our lives, e.g. differences between genders, sexual orientations, races, skin colours, nations, tribes, religions, political parties and systems, etc. etc. -- it's endemic and pervasive. We've got to differentiate differences and decide who is best or 'on top' of the pile - winners and losers, good - bad, the best and the worst, etc. etc. However, the whole notion of "being one" (which is - the last time I looked - still a serious core of Christian theology - rarely taken seriously, and we keep perpetuating the the distinctions until one group takes exception and demands apologies or adjustments in words-used, behaviours and actions. Still the entire process of 'getting even' for crimes committed holds sway and our particular Commons will go through the process until the offended group is satisfied and we can then move on to another prejudice to confront and bring down. Seems to be built into our DNA as humans.

  • says:

    The United Church of Canada is highly selective in the way it deals with racism. I note no outcry from any of our ministers or church
    leaders with respect to the ongoing persecution, murder mutilation
    or destruction of christian churches in other parts of the world. Christians are dying daily for their faith in the risen Christ. Before
    you ask believers in Canada to stand up for others in other faith
    persuasions or Christians with different racial backgrounds, you need to show that your love and concern extends well beyond the boundaries of this great land.

  • says:

    As a person who has difficulty hearing, it would never occur to me that I was being a racist because of my impairment. There are certain people whom I have a great deal of difficulty understanding and quite often it is because of their accent. Certain accents I hear more as a din than as separate words. Other accents the people drop or change key sounds that make words unintelligible or I hear the wrong word. There is nothing that I can do to change this and if I attended a church with a minister I was not able to understand I would have to leave. It actually affects mental and physical health.

  • says:

    "I work as a French-English interpreter and my job is to make sense of what an individual is communicating to others. This means I must understand not just the words and expressions but the intent of a speaker. Whether that individual hails from Lac St-Jean, Burkina Faso, Switzerland or Jamaica, I must bridge cultures as well as languages. Befriending people from around the world over the years has expanded my ‘comfort zone’ and this is paying dividends in the work I do.
    Recently, a lawyer who had hired my services, commented on the fact that in a room with 14 lawyers present, half of whom were bilingual French-English, I seemed to be the only one who consistently made sense of what the witness was saying. I thought back to the day’s work and acknowledged that it required effort but I asked him if he had noticed that I put down my notepad, looked into the witness’s eyes and followed the movement of his lips and the expression on his face to better appreciate what he was communicating, becoming, as best I could, one with him. I guess it worked, such is the power of empathy."

  • says:

    Newcomers such as Paul Walfall might appreciate a bit of history of systemic racism within our denomination. As the co-chair of national Anti-Racism Task-force Group of the UCC, the very first pathetic, pedestrian attempt to officially address the issue in the 1990s, I posed the very same query! Bare-knuckled racism has always been encouraged, especially blatantly by ALL pastoral search/selection committees(!) across the church, to thrive more within the church than the wider (secular!) Canadian community. ARTG was a toothless response to my query (that no one would recognize my first-century St. Thomas Apostolic pedigree - older than Rome and Canterbury - at Yonge & Bloor, Toronto except as a Jesus’ doppelgänger! ) in 1982 at the national Interfaith gathering held at Naramata. The church has always been glacially slow; it took ten years to respond to my concerns! Besides an opportunity to visit most of Canada and earn air miles, thanks to the late Prof. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the resource authority on Interfaith Dialogue at Naramata, who invited me to Harvard where he taught! Btw, similar to the flu vaccines in the autumn year after year, realization of thoughtful anti-racism attitude needs to be an on-going effort throughout the year at all levels of church and community! This issue of subtle racism has always been within the church during the unholy Crusades, the Shoa (Holocaust) approved by Pope Pius 12, Apartheid blessed by the Dutch Reformed Church, slavery when brokers such as Anglican cleric John Newton, the author of our sugary hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ profited, and colonialism that lasted for 450 years. Fifty years ago, I had some faint hope when I showed up in the Constantinian left-over Christianity; not any more. As the Francophones say, “c’est la vie”!.