For People with bishop Rob Wright

The Work of Dismantling Racism with The Rev. Greg Warren

For People
For People
The Work of Dismantling Racism with The Rev. Greg Warren

About the episode

Dismantling racism is holy and life-giving work. It is hard work, especially in a society divided on the issues of racism, power, and privilege. We thank God for The Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing, a unique and powerful expression of our commitment to becoming Beloved Community.

In this episode, Bishop Wright has a conversation with The Rev. Greg Warren, Interim Executive Director of The Center for Racial Healing. They discuss Greg’s purpose for stepping into his new call, new partnerships, and the work ahead. Listen in for the full conversation.

The Rev. Greg Warren most recently served as the Rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Conway, Arkansas, while also being chair of the Board of The Diocese’s Camp Mitchell. He also was part of The Diocesan Executive Committee for four years. Greg serves on the Board of the Seminary of the Southwest.

Prior to ordination, Greg worked many years in corporate settings, developing strategic communications and advertising for some of the largest brands in the US and globally. His work also included work in marketing and diversity and inclusion. Immediately before beginning seminary, he served as Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion for Walmart.


Greg Warren: 0:01

This Sunday being Pentecost, it just you know. It strikes me that what gathered around the Apostles that day were proud people from proud nations that learned to come together, and whether it’s a miracle of speaking or a miracle of hearing, but they found unity among diversity, and I think that’s the opportunity we have here.

Bishop Wright: 0:40

Hi everyone, this is Bishop Rob Wright and this is For For People. Today we’ve got a real treat. We’ve got the Reverend Greg Warren, who’s the Interim Executive Director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing here in the Diocese of Atlanta. Greg, good morning. Good morning, so glad to have you and so glad to welcome you as a ministry partner to the Diocese of Atlanta. Greg is an Episcopal priest. He comes to us from Arkansas, from the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas. He has a fantastic educational background, graduating from Indiana University and holds a Master of Divinity from the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. Greg has worked in a couple of capacities in what we call the secular world. He was the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion for Walmart Stores in Bentonville, Arkansas. He was also Vice President and Creative for Walmart and president of client services for MediaVest Worldwide. Greg, you’re an Episcopal priest and you’ve worked in the space of diversity, inclusion and equity. What excites you about this position at the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing?

Greg Warren: 2:06

You know, I think what excites me the most is, I think the Absalom Jones Center is so uniquely positioned in this space.

Greg Warren: 2:15

And that is to say that, you know, in my secular work, in the corporate work, I found that everybody, lots of consultants, came in saying, hey, we have the answer to racism, and they would sell you a product or they’d sell you a model.

Greg Warren: 2:30

And you know those models, they had good things, the products had good things, but in the end there was nothing to take away, there was nothing, there was no there, there, and you see it, I think you look at the, what you know, the state of racism in corporate America today hasn’t changed in a dozen years compared to what it was, despite all that work.

Greg Warren: 2:49

So what I find with the Absalom Jones Center is because of its grounding here in the sacrament whether it’s the baptismal covenant or the fact that we start every session of dismantling racism with a Eucharist it gives it a wedge, it gives us a center that allows it, I think, to scale in a way that isn’t available to other consultancies, because we are speaking a shared language, we are connecting at a very deep level that surpasses the ability. So much of this is a heady experience, whereas I think the opportunity is to make it a hard experience, and I just think as you know, bishop, I’ve admired Absalom Jones from afar for a long time. I think the work that it’s done is outstanding. I am beyond excited to be a part of this, because I think the future is incredibly bright for the center.

Bishop Wright: 3:54

So this work connects for you professionally and it’s an extension of your work, but personally, is there something in your own personal narrative that that connects profoundly to this work?

Greg Warren: 4:08

Yeah, there is, you know, and I really felt this kind of my first day when I was at the center. I went and I walked around, you know, as you know, the center is at the confluence of a number of historically black colleges, universities, and, and I was there before the kids left, before summer break hit, and I just found this incredibly, this overwhelming gathering of people who are very proud of who they are and what they are, and the future was so bright and I’m like this is the center. What came to my mind was a liminal space. This is the center. What came to my mind was a liminal space and I borrow that from William Countryman, you know, who wrote a book that I love, Living on the Border of the Holy.

Greg Warren: 4:52

And it’s this idea of this thin space where Holy Spirit, I think, is most at work. And, you know, I think they’re great scriptural references. To me, the upper room in Acts is a thin space where the resurrected Christ appears and appears again. I think this Sunday we have Pentecost. That’s another thin space. I think Absalom Jones Center has that opportunity, both physically, given its geography, but kind of metaphorically, to be a thin space where people can bring their voices, and that’s why I love the brave space idea. I think to me that speaks very much to this idea of a liminal space where Holy Spirit gives you words words.

Bishop Wright: 5:48

You know it’s poetic that you and I are having this conversation here just a couple of days in advance of Pentecost, and we remember Pentecost is that promise kept by Jesus that the Holy Spirit would come and would make of you know, a gaggle of people, people. What I like to call a powerhouse, a world house and a freedom house and that very much is the work of the center is to make sure that we increase people’s capacity to be able to speak candidly and kindly in service to Christ and community. It’s a world house because we realize that we’re on this island, home, this earth, all together and that we’re going to have to figure out how to live together. And it’s a freedom house because many of us need to be set free from, you know, social constructs which oppress and corrode our spirits. And so, you know, maybe the good Lord is giving us quite a little tickle here today in terms of thinking about Absalom Jones and this freedom work, bravery work, as an extension of the Pentecost work.

Greg Warren: 7:10

I agree with you. This Sunday being Pentecost, it just you know, it strikes me that what gathered around the apostles that day were proud people from proud nations that learned to come together and and whether it’s a you know the, the, a miracle of speaking or a miracle of hearing, but they, they found unity among diversity and I think that’s the opportunity we have here.

Bishop Wright: 7:37

Yeah Well, I’m glad you brought up that word because, as you know, uh, colleges and corporations are walking back their commitment to D, e and I and we can talk about that. But I see this, while that is lamentable in my mind, I see a real opportunity here for the church in this space, as other people sort of leave the space. I think there’s an opportunity here to talk about the dignity of every human being and what practices we might take up, you know, in service to all that. What do you make of us walking back from DEI as a culture, and how do you see this opportunity for the church?

Greg Warren: 8:24

Yeah, you know, like you, I lament that. I’m not surprised, honestly, and I’ll say I saw that in my work at Walmart that we would take two steps forward and three steps back. I think that’s how white supremacy and racism works, you know. It is incredibly creative in finding ways to bounce back. And I think the opportunity for the church and for us in general is we have to be equally innovative and equally creative in the programs that we develop, the trainings that we develop, the ways that we come together to attack this. And it’s not one solution, it’s a dozen or a hundred, you know. But yeah, so I’ll be honest, I’m not surprised and I don’t think honestly we’ve seen the end of that, but I think in terms of the walking back, but I love the idea that you say now it’s the opportunity for the church to stand up and not just be a reflection of the society but a measure. You know that we can be a standard against which society can be measured.

Bishop Wright: 10:08

You know, at the founding of the center, you know, our founding sort of DNA was to talk about dismantling racism, to talk about equipping behind the lines kinds of folks who have this more generous understanding of how God wants us to be family and having them strategically located all through the workforce and all through the church and all kinds of wonderful places. I think we need that now as much as we’ve ever needed it, as things sort of get walked back, and I think what’s helping us walk back these things is just fear. We’re increasingly xenophobic because I think there’s an increasing amount of fear in the system. We’re worried about resources, we’re worried about, perhaps more than ever, who’s in, who’s out, who’s going to have and who’s going to be left without, and so whenever we do that, whenever fear is our God, you know, it takes on these grotesque forms of excluding people and not finding the courage to be able to name some stuff.

Bishop Wright: 11:12

And so, as we said, the center was founded to talk in terms of race, but it’s not limited to race, right? There’s lots of ways that we exclude one another. There’s lots of ways that we want to write out people. So what are your thoughts about? Maybe even a broadening of the conversation from simply race black and white, oftentimes to something more?

Greg Warren: 11:37

Yeah, I think that it actually may be a way that we can make this conversation less threatening, because if we realize our, if everyone realized their own internal diversity, it gives them a lever, an understanding or maybe think of it like a hand outreach that people can develop a sense of what it feels like to be an other in themselves, within their society, within their clique. That allows us to then sort of elevate that, I believe, to much deeper and much, much more controversial, much more challenging issues, particularly around race. But I think it starts with that, that light going on inside, to say, yeah, there have been times when I felt like another, yeah, and so I think that I think, wherever and I love your idea of you know fear, when we let fear overcome or overwhelm empathy, is where we lose that connection. So if we can build empathy in whatever way that allows us to, I think it allows us to overcome the fear.

Bishop Wright: 12:56

That reminds me of that wonderful quote I think it was Walter Brueggemann who talks about the irreducibility of two ideas, one of God and the other of neighbor. Of two ideas, one of God and the other of neighbor right. The irreducible truth is that God is God, and connected to that is that neighbor is neighbor at full stop, right. And so to have that high and lifted up relationship with God, it’s got to get stretched out across relationships with people, and there’s just no way around that. Well, that’s how it gets put into practice, isn’t it?

Greg Warren: 13:32

Because it’s easy to live in your head, you know like oh, I love God, man, but once you put it in practice, it’s with your neighbor. Yeah, the rubber hits the road.

Bishop Wright: 13:45

That’s right. That’s right. We were talking. So we’re here in Georgia we have listeners all over, greg but we were here in Georgia and we were noticing. I was with Senator Kim Jackson, who will be a podcast guest coming up, and we were talking about you know that Georgia is enjoying $11 billion in surplus right now and while that’s good and while some people are pointing to that as a great achievement and an immense success, we look to the left and we look to the right and we see our neighbor bereft of resources in a lot of ways adequate medical care, you know, adequate care for our aging, you know, discounted medicines, et cetera and we realize something’s out of whack here where we can pat ourselves on the back for sitting atop a pile of money while neighbor really is suffering. And sadly, a lot of these folks who are sort of pointing to the surplus as an immense success, unqualified success, would actually say that Jesus is Lord. And so that’s to your point about having a high and lifted up relationship but not stretching that out over people.

Greg Warren: 14:59

Yeah yeah yeah, well, and I think we’re just, we have too few metrics. It’s easy for us to fall into the metric of, oh, we got a surplus, we have too few metrics, you know. It’s easy for us to fall into the metric of, oh, we got a surplus, you know. Or oh, I’ve got an extra in my bank account, or something like that. The metric, I think, in God’s kingdom is much more robust and much richer in terms of are we flourishing the quality of life? Do I love my neighbor? You know. Do I know my neighbor, you know? Am I, am I? Do I know my neighbor, you know? Do I recognize? So I wish there were, you know, a robust metric that allowed us to get beyond. Just, you know, I’ve got extra money at the end of the year.

Bishop Wright: 15:42

Yeah, you know, since we’re sort of playing around with Pentecost, you know the metric in that Pentecost story and for those who don’t know, we’re talking about the book of Acts, the second chapter. Here, when the power comes to the house, there’s so much power in the house that it spills out over into the street. And so, at least in God’s imagination, you know, based on that story, you know the thrust is power in the house, but power from the house to the streets, right? So again, here’s this, one more example of connectivity. Right, you know we’ve got may be listening.

Bishop Wright: 16:27

You know, sometimes, when we’re thinking about these initiatives, these gospel initiatives that are supposed to bring wholeness and healing and new sight and liberation, sometimes we, at least in America, we’re thinking of trying to persuade white people of some things, persuade white people of some things. And while I think that that is a part of it to tell the truth about our very complicated American story, I think another part that doesn’t get emphasized nearly enough is the other side of that coin, and that is the internalization of racism and white supremacy in people of color, and I know that that has been a conversation that we’ve been having at the Absalom Jones Center. Say a little bit about that.

Greg Warren: 17:18

Well, you know, it’s something that I think you know, you see, a little bit of a personal detail, you know, you see, I I a little bit of a personal detail. So I I came out as a gay man when I at a time when it was not accepted and as part of the country when it was not accepted, and I found there there was a thing called internalized homophobia. That that we dealt with all the time and instead, in fact, it’s still very much a part of of that, of that society, and it’s just, you know, it’s in the water we drink, it’s in the air we breathe and I think we don’t realize it. And, extrapolating from my personal experience, like there were times, you know, if I see someone who’s exceptionally, who may be a little bit beyond my bounds of what I think masculinity is, I can feel a cringe, but then I realized that’s my internalized homophobia speaking.

Greg Warren: 18:12

But it took me an awareness, I had to build that over time to say, to go beyond that knee jerk reaction, and I think it’s similar with I would suspect it’s similar within internalized, you know, racism and internalized sort of you know, misogyny, et cetera, is that it is it’s we need to build an awareness and an observation of those are the behaviors that are happening, and to create that awareness within individuals and that allows them to overcome it, because you know, as I often say, fish don’t see the water they swim in. That is, you know, you don’t know you’re in it until someone or you point ideally you point it out or you recognize it in yourself, and so I think that’s some of the work that we have to do as well.

Bishop Wright: 19:03

You know, dr Catherine Meeks was the founder of the center, and now that baton has been passed to you, and I think that what continues to keep me excited about the center is that I know that this work is by no means done.

Bishop Wright: 19:25

No means done, we’ve barely made a den in it, and all you have to do is talk to people or watch the news to realize that you, to realize and get a sense of how pervasive bias is, how pervasive selfishness is, how pervasive these limiting social constructs that we have, you know, not interrogated ourselves about ourselves or others, how they are still at work in the world and how they are keeping us from really, you know, being the dream of God.

Bishop Wright: 20:05

I mean, when I think about the dream of God for us, I think of self-possessed people who understand themselves as having worth, value and dignity, and they understand others as possessing those very same gifts and attributes. Right, nice, yeah. Those very same gifts and attributes, right, yeah. And so the reason why the center continues to be important and I’m so grateful for your partnership in this next chapter is because we know that the odds are still against God’s dream right now, right on the ground. You’ve talked about images, biblical images, pentecost, the upper room, et cetera. I wonder, is there somebody in your life who is inspirational to you in this regard, someone maybe not like the Dr Kings and the Rosa Parks et cetera, but some person that you had a chance to know, who helps you sort of stay grounded in this work by their example?

Greg Warren: 21:11

Yeah, that is a great question. I go back to the person who comes to mind when you say. That is when I was working at Walmart, one of the board members, dr Cash, he, the African-American gentleman, pulled me aside and you know there was a huge power differential. I mean, he’s like a board member, I’m just a mope working at Walmart, I’m just a mope working at Walmart. But he pulled me aside and he said hey, you know, let allow me to understand how to work within this space.

Greg Warren: 22:04

In a way that is always uncomfortable, you know. He said if you ever feel comfortable, you’re on the wrong track. And I really, you know, I think every day I’m like am I going to say a right or think the wrong thing? He said always trust your instinct, always trust your gut because at the heart, we are good. It was his belief, and this was again in a secular context, but it could easily be within our church context. And then, finally, he said just use your voice. Finally, he said just use your voice. Use your voice, because you are a person who is ostensibly outside of this is that you can bring a perspective and a value. Trust in it, trust in that voice. And so I don’t know if that gets at, but as you were describing it, I’m like Dr Cash. It just came to mind is like very clear words to a kind of frightened, you know new, newly hatched, like what is this world I’m getting into and the politics and all this? Yeah, it was good, it was good advice.

Bishop Wright: 23:15

No, and I’m so grateful for people like that. You know who come and they bring an unusual amount of kind candor and it really is. It’s in service to community. You know who come and they bring an unusual amount of kind candor and it really is. It’s in service to community. You know, and it also helps you to get a handle on the work. You know, speaking of handles on the work we deliver at the Absalom Jones Center, this sort of high-minded work, this good gospel work through the hands and the voice of men and women called our trainers, and I understand you’re looking for more trainers to be identified and to be trained. Say a little bit about a day in the life of a trainer. What do they do and what are you looking for?

Greg Warren: 23:57

I think our trainers are so critical to the work we’re doing because they are on the ground. They’re the ones who are facing people who earnestly desire, in most cases, to understand and to go deeper, and so they are so powerful. They get involved in our Dismantling Racism sessions. You know, they get involved in our dismantling racism sessions. They spend a day, an intense day, with people from across the country, around the world, who might be, may or may not be, you know, I’m sure there are cases where they’re not and they create bonds, and I think they do it. What’s it? What’s really important is they do it through their personal connection.

Greg Warren: 24:47

It’s not about here. Take, you know, here’s the model. You heard me talk about models before. It is no here’s, here’s a way that is grounded in scripture, that is grounded in the sacraments here’s, but is essentially about connecting with each other as neighbor and understanding what that means, put through the challenge of racism. Because if you can come out on the other side when you deal with this really challenging issue that divides us at very deep levels, but if you can come out on the other side and recognize everyone is your neighbor, you have learned an incredibly valuable lesson. And I find our trainers are the ones who are. They are the spear, they are the forefront of that. I think a huge objective is deepening our pool of trainers so that we can reach more people.

Bishop Wright: 25:43

And people can reach you where, greg, if they hear your call today and want to know more about being a trainer, where can we reach out to you at?

Greg Warren: 25:56

You can reach me at the Absalom Jones Center. My email is gwarren@ episcopalatlantaorg. You can reach me on. Call me on my cell. I’m at 631-704-7478. I would love to hear from you.

Bishop Wright: 26:10

My wife writes a lot of books about dignity, you know, as inspired by the baptismal covenant and you know, and what she always lifts up there is the word respect, right? If you go back to the Latin roots, it means to re-spectacle, to see again, right? So, greg, thank you for saying yes to helping us see again the dignity of every human being, as God would have us to see, greg, warren, folks, and thank you, god bless you. Thank you, god bless.