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story.lead_photo.caption Rabbi Neil Blumofe, middle, in a file image. Blumofe said he hopes that recent events encourage more members of his Austin, Texas, congregation to learn about racial injustice and how it can be addressed. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/TNS)

AUSTIN, Texas — Rabbi Neil Blumofe and the Rev. Daryl Horton are no strangers to uncomfortable conversations about race.

On their annual summer road trips, Blumofe and Horton have visited sites related to Black and Jewish history and documented their experiences on Facebook.

So when demonstrators took to the street to protest police brutality after the death of George Floyd, Horton and Blumofe, among other local religious leaders, were ready to meet the moment and continue their work talking about race and racism.

However, for other spiritual leaders, many of whom serve congregations that are majority white, this summer marks a significant shift in how they engage in conversations about race within their communities.

The Rev. Josh Robinson of Hope Presbyterian Church in Anderson Mill said his church is just starting to have open conversations about race.

"Our neighborhood where we're located was developed 40 years ago as part of the initial white flight from Austin with people trying to get out of the urban zones," Robinson said. "Being a white, affluent suburban church, my particular church community hasn't had to have conversations about race."

Robinson wants this to change. Last month, the church's council of elders passed a resolution with the goal of dismantling structural racism. Hope Presbyterian is also part of the denomination's Matthew 25 initiative, which includes a focus on ending racism and poverty. The goal, Robinson said, is to make anti-racism efforts a long-term mission and not a temporary response to current events.

"Talking about race when it's not in the national headlines is harder because not everybody wants to hear it," he said. "My colleagues and I feel that this is a moment that has been seismic enough, that it has been such a radical moment in the shaping of our nation, that this isn't going to be just a flashpoint. This is really something we all can lean into and be more honest and intentional in doing the hard work that is demanded of us."

Robinson said that, by and large, most religious leaders within the mainline Protestant faiths in Austin are taking recent protests seriously and being intentional in how they address racism.

"It feels unlike any other point in time in my life," he said.

Other religious leaders expressed skepticism that white religious communities' newfound interest in talking about race will last — or that talking in and of itself can lead to change. The Rev. Jimi Calhoun, pastor at Bridging Austin Interdenominational Church, said that within the Christian faith, he has seen interest in discussing race peak before without much effect.

"The pattern is there's a crisis or event that produces a lot of chatter, and when order is restored, we go back to the way the situation was prior to the crisis," he said.

Eric McDaniel, a University of Texas government professor who studies religious political activity, also believes the current social movement will be short-lived.

"I think one of the biggest problems that keeps coming up is we can make all these symbolic gestures, but for real change to happen people have to change," he said. "And that's very difficult because people don't want to change."

McDaniel said that especially churches, which tend to be segregated by race, are grappling with how to address a history that includes support of white supremacy and the fight against it.

"Religion has played a role in propping up white supremacy, but it's also played a key role in tearing it down," he said. "Given that religion played a role in justifying racial hierarchies, they should play a role in destroying them."

Blumofe and Horton's road trips together started in 2018, when the Legacy Museum opened in Montgomery, Alabama, and the two men organized a six-day drive around the South. They visited sites like the Holocaust Museum in Houston, places where enslaved people met and worshipped in New Orleans, and civil rights landmarks in Selma, Alabama.

The next year, they took a similar trip in the Northeast. This year, they hope to head west to highlight the history of indigenous communities, although they might have to cancel depending on the spread of the coronavirus.

Blumofe said he hopes that recent events encourage more members of his congregation, Agudas Achim, to learn about racial injustice and how it can be addressed. During weekly services, he has been highlighting Black poetry and incorporating analysis of the texts into the Torah study.

Imam Islam Mossaad, who serves the North Austin Muslim Community Center, has been addressing racism and discrimination in his sermons, exploring the protests from an Islamic perspective.

Mossaad sees his role as facilitating these conversations within a diverse community that includes Muslims from 60 countries of origin and a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds.

"The Quran talks a lot about oppression and injustice and standing against oppression," he said. "If we are true followers of Moses and Jesus and Muhammad, peace be upon them, then we should also be more outspoken and know that religion is not just about movements and prayer or liturgy or just the superficial aspects of religion. It goes deeper — to uplift human beings and especially those that are oppressed or dealt injustice."

For the Rev. Kelly Shoenfelt, the lead pastor at Servant Church, this summer has brought renewed focus to her community's existing racial justice service team. Shoenfelt said that while her community, which is majority white, is still learning, it has taken on several initiatives in the past few years that focus on education and allyship.

This includes a racial justice lending library with materials for all ages, educating congregants about the racial history of East Austin and a racial justice sermon series on the book "Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism."

"It's so uncomfortable, and that's exactly why we need to be doing it," she said. "I've never been more uncomfortable than being a white woman preaching a racial justice sermon series to my white congregation."

Servant Church, which is supported by the United Methodist Church, has also partnered with Austin Justice Coalition, a local racial justice community organization, and last year offered the coalition office space at low rent to help support the group's work.

"We are still in a learning phase, trying to learn the delicate balance of how to speak out against systems of oppression and balance that with how to elevate black voices," Shoenfelt said. "Because we want those to be the voices that are heard."

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Mosaic Church promotes the belief that having personal relationships with people of different backgrounds is a key part of living a Christian life, and it considers itself a multiethnic, multigenerational community.

"We believe we're better together. We have a more fuller understanding of the world when we're around people who aren't like us," said Mosaic Lead Pastor Morgan Stephens. "As a Christian person and pastor, it's kind of in the book. Jesus loves all people."

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Gaylen Washington, a church elder, said that conversations about race are integrated into every aspect of their programming, including a quarterly event designed to bring people of different identities into conversation. Most recently, the church hosted a Zoom panel about racism and policing that included church members, activists and several area police chiefs.

Stephens said recently he has seen more and more white pastors embrace conversations about racism, a topic that Black pastors and other pastors of color, have long participated in.

Conversations about race are also happening among clergy members. Horton, who leads Mount Zion Baptist Church, which is majority Black, said much of his recent work has centered on connecting with other religious leaders.

"We're having a lot of meetings behind closed doors," he said. "We're sharing — 'this is what it's been like for the last 50 years to be an African American pastor in the city of Austin' and 'this is what it's like to be a white pastor in Austin, and why is it that we've been in the city for the last 35 years and we've never met and never done things together?' So these are conversations that are taking place."

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For those already involved in racial justice initiatives, the renewed energy around these movements has been a reminder that their work is never really over.

Mossaad said that mosque leaders plan to continue awareness and education programs, look for opportunities to partner with organizations at the center of racial justice work and continue to open their spaces and leadership positions to those who have historically been marginalized.

Robinson said his Anderson Mill church is in the process of building a plan for how his congregation will tackle racial justice engagement in the future.

"We have the responsibility to lead our community in fighting against racism, and if we don't do that, it's spiritual malpractice," he said. "There's an ownership and responsibility that is incumbent on persons who are white to really get into the trenches and do the hard work."

Horton said that while the secular world might not see it, religious communities are actively engaged in conversations about race and seeking a path forward.

"The faith community is having the same conversations that are being seen in public," he said. "There are people in the faith community struggling with these issues just like everybody else."

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