The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: How do you Respond to Racism?

Ruby asks, “In your work and association with those in your congregation, do you experience any racist comments or actions? If so, how do you judiciously deal with such people?”

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

The Rev. Sandra Nikkel, head pastor of Conklin Reformed Church, responds:

“I am a Hispanic American who pastors a 100% white congregation and I have never experienced racism in my congregation. The love, respect, and care that I experience there is truly a blessing! However, I have experienced some racism in other places and the way I've dealt with it is gently exploring to see if the person was open enough to listen and understand how their actions affected me. Racism, like any other sin, will not be overcome unless God changes our heart. If there is no openness, nothing that I do or say will change that person's heart. So, is there anything at all that I can personally do to promote change in that person's heart? Yes, I claim this promise for them from Ezequiel 11:19 as I pray for them ‘And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.’ ”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“In 2015 my congregation came out in support of Black Lives Matter, in those 5 years we have done a great deal of work and education in our predominantly white congregation to improve our language, framing and understanding of systemic racism and the culture of white supremacy. And yet on occasion I witness microaggressions and inaccurate framing of events that default to a white lens or understanding. I include myself in these behaviors as well, as a white person I have so much to unlearn, we all do. Instead of calling people out I prefer to call people in, into a deeper conversation about racism, and about changing our lens. Until we start to see the world from another person's point of view and experience, we will stay stuck in this ugly culture of white supremacy. Isabella Wilkerson once said, ‘You can not rise when you are too busy trying to hold another person down.’ We will truly rise when we are all able to rise together.”

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“I hear very little overt racism in my congregation but I know it exists around the edges. I preach against it, I pray publicly for healing from it. I encourage participation in anti-racism training. I recommend books discussing it. There is much more work to be done, especially in the present cultural climate when racist words and actions have become more prevalent and public. On the rare occasion that I hear overt racism I have become bolder in calling it out: ‘did you mean for that to be racist?’ ”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“The vast majority of our members at the West Michigan Hindu Temple are of Indian origin. A few have indicated that they have experienced racism, but the vast majority have extolled the hospitality of our city and have thrived here.

“While I have never heard any racist comments from temple members, I will say that I am disappointed that in Indian culture (irrespective of religion) there is a pervasive sense of colorism. Fairer complexions are considered more appealing. Go into any Indian grocery store and look in the cosmetics section. You will find several brands of skin lightener.

“What a funny species we are. How many Americans pay money and willingly suffer skin damage in efforts to darken themselves?”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“I am fortunate that I infrequently experience racist comments or actions. However, when someone does say something to me directly, I call the individual(s) on the words he/she is using. In my adult life, I have lived for periods in predominantly African American neighborhoods. I spend a considerable amount of time at our Dominican Provincial Office in a Hispanic neighborhood. I have walked around or rode my bike around these neighborhoods and have never even felt threatened.

“I recall to individuals who are in fear of those perceived to be different, that all human beings, AND I MEAN ALL HUMAN BEINGS, are created in the image and likeness of God. Treating people with respect includes looking them in the eye and speaking with them. Someone begging, regardless of race, is not entitled to get anything from me but the respect and dignity they deserve. In my experience, people might not like that I will not give them that for which they ask, but they do notice that I at least care enough to acknowledge their humanity.”


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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