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The Rev. Edrin Williams, pastor of one of the most racially diverse churches in the Twin Cities, quickly launched an emergency food distribution center when rioting after the death of George Floyd destroyed neighborhood stores. Now he’s taken on another role as well: dispensing food for thought to white faith leaders grappling with how to combat racism.

“I get calls nearly every day from around the country and even one from Switzerland,” said Williams, of Sanctuary Covenant Church in north Minneapolis. “They ask, ‘What should we be doing?’ ”

The national spotlight on racial inequities has injected new energy and placed new demands on African American religious leaders, long at the forefront of civil rights movements. Many are orchestrating their largest-ever food relief projects, fielding outreach from allies, working to quell community tensions and exploring new strategies to combat racial injustice.

A group of Twin Cities Black pastors has been discussing a proposal with Gov. Tim Walz to create a Minnesota “social compact” that would forge new investments and public policies to begin erasing racial inequities. Wayman African Methodist Episcopal Church in Minneapolis is preparing to launch a project to transform one Minneapolis public school into a culturally appropriate model for Black achievement.

Minnesota’s evangelical community has created what it hopes will be a $1 million fund to support African American churches. Many Black pastors are in demand for speaking and consultation. And, for the first time, their food programs are attracting armies of white volunteers.

“There’s something special happening at this moment,” said Williams. “People are seeing the [racial] barriers who haven’t seen them before. There’s a captive audience.”

Bishop Richard Howell of nearby Shiloh Temple International Ministries marveled that while participating recently in a panel before largely white religious leaders, the first question directed to him was, “What is systemic racism?”

“There’s an openness to hearing us — finally — in a manner we haven’t seen before,’’ said Howell. “I’ve been preaching 40 years, and I’ve never seen our friends listen to the facts, and the painful facts, of African American history. We have an opportunity to share what we know with those who don’t.”

Whether it’s just a flash of racial consciousness, or something deeper, is the big question, he said.

Surge of white volunteers

On a recent Friday, Williams stood in front of about 90 volunteers in his church parking lot. Wearing shorts, a T-shirt and face mask, he bowed his head and said a prayer moments before hundreds of neighbors streamed in to pick up groceries and other goods.

With the Cub Foods across the street still boarded up, they stopped at tents with signs announcing what was inside — apples, carrots, diapers. It’s a massive undertaking created in just two months, assisted on the ground mainly by white volunteers from cities and suburbs.

How to tap that surge of support — from individuals, religious groups, businesses and philanthropy — and harness it to tackle institutional racism is a topic of great discussion. While grateful for the support, many Black faith leaders worry that volunteers leave with no greater understanding of the racial inequities that shaped the community they’re serving.

That understanding, along with deeper personal relationships in the Black community, are needed to become strong allies for change.

“If George Floyd hadn’t taken place, we wouldn’t have these relations,” said the Rev. Runney Patterson of New Hope Baptist Church in St. Paul. “We’ve had some in the past, but they fizzled out. I tell [white] pastors, ‘Don’t come here just to feel good.’… My hope is we can build real relationships and be intentional about it.”

Building bridges

Bridging such divides has long been a mission of the Rev. Richard Coleman of Wayman AME Church. He oversees a monthly Bridge of Reconciliation luncheon for pastors and community leaders — of different races — focused on supporting north Minneapolis.

During this month’s Zoom meeting, Coleman announced that his church and the Minneapolis nonprofit Hope United CDC planned to organize a network of community partners to help transform one Minneapolis school into a model for academic achievement by offering training for cultural competencies, curriculum, mentors and other services.

The project would mark Wayman’s 101st anniversary.

“With the moment, the killing of George Floyd, we wanted to pick something big and significant that can really make a difference,” Coleman said. “There’s a lot of energy right now. To deal with the problems in the Black community requires a systemic approach, and I believe we are in that space now.”

The Rev. Alfred Babington-Johnson, CEO of the Stairstep Foundation in Minneapolis, also hopes to seize the moment. He and other clergy involved in His Works United, an ecumenical collaboration of African American religious leaders, have been talking with Walz and staff about a sweeping proposal to address racial disparities in housing, health, wealth and education.

It is designed to have Black-led organizations develop the capacity to address their community’s issues, he said.

Sitting at his desk, Babington-Johnson pulled up a Power­Point slide listing about a dozen Black-led organizations behind the plan, including the Minnesota Black Chamber of Commerce and the Phyllis Wheatley Center in Minneapolis. Community supporters include the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, Greater Metropolitan YMCA and Minneapolis St. Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership.

“We’re having some very hopeful conversations with government, with corporate leadership,” said Babington-Johnson. “What we have is the opportunity to be of service, because the whole society is riveted” by the inhumanity surrounding Floyd’s death.

Other Black clergy are forging different paths. The Rev. Stacey Smith, senior pastor at St. James AME Church in St. Paul, typically isn’t orchestrating protest marches. But she felt compelled to organize a clergy march last month, during which hundreds of faith leaders prayed silently while walking the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul where violence had erupted.

The idea took shape on a Sunday night, when she began e-mailing invitations. By Tuesday morning she found herself walking past Floyd’s memorial — in the largest march of faith leaders in memory.

“It was an outpouring unlike anything I’ve seen,” she said.

Smith’s church already is running a food program. Now she’d like to offer counseling and support for people suffering from trauma, whether from the COVID-19 pandemic, poverty or racism. She had considered the idea earlier but is convinced now is the time.

African American churches are getting support from other corners. Transform Minnesota, the umbrella group for Minnesota’s evangelical Christians, was planning to raise money to support African American churches suffering financially because of COVID-19. That idea kicked into high gear after Floyd’s death. It launched the One Fund with a goal of raising $1 million before the anniversary of Floyd’s death on May 25, said Carl Nelson, CEO of Transform Minnesota.

“It’s one way to tangibly respond to the disparities we’re now talking about,” Nelson said.

As faith leaders look ahead, they remain hopeful, but guarded, about the prospects for societal change.

They recall that police killings of other Blacks nationally and locally, including Jamar Clark in 2015 in the Twin Cities, have ignited public attention and mobilized communities. But the outcry subsided.

“These things have been cyclical,” said Babington-Johnson. “The difference this time is that folks are becoming aware of the inhumanity [confronting Blacks] in different and deeper ways — and the need for society to change.”