Jul. 24—The murmur of masked voices filled the fellowship hall of Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick. With the tapping of metal on glass, the chatting ceased and Rabbi Rachael Bregman stepped to the middle of the room. She invited the 30 attendees to take their seats at tables positioned around the hall.
" ... but try to sit with people that you do not know," she said playfully.
Chairs filled with attendees from different areas and racial backgrounds. And from there, the conversations were set to flow. As participants enjoyed a meal provided by A Moveable Feast in Brunswick, table facilitators used pre-set questions, as well as speeches and letters from Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to prompt their table mates to share their experiences surrounding racial injustice.
Over the next hour, the tables were awash with firsthand accounts of parents, professionals, brothers and sisters — all of whom had personally been impacted by racial prejudice.
So was the scene of Glynn County's first Equity Dinner. Participants were personally invited by a collective of clergy members who have made it a priority to find ways to create change following the death of Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020.
"I'm a mother and there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about Ahmaud's mother," Bregman told the group. "And I felt it was my responsibility to try to do something about it to ensure that this never happens again."
It's a call to action that clergymen and women felt across the board. For months, they have been meeting to figure out ways to foster substantive change within their congregations and the community as a whole.
Following Arbery's death and the international outrage that ensued, local Superintendent Scott Spence invited a group of clergy members to work with Senetra Haywood, executive director of Student Services and Compliance to find ways of promoting racial equity in the community.
Through Haywood, they were introduced to Dr. Dietra Hawkins, an educator who offers extensive equity training programs. The dinner format is one of her methods that has become extremely popular.
"I went through a training with Dr. Dietra Hawkins as the facilitator several years ago. I've been through a lot of professional development trainings in my 22 years but this one really had a profound impact on me," Haywood said.
"So when this group of clergy men and women came together to talk about equity training, I shared pieces of Dr. Dietra's program, Equity by Design, with them. Rabbi Rachael really took hold of it and ran with it."
Bregman and other members of that group embraced Hawkins' community dinner format. For the Rev. DeWayne Cope, pastor of St. Athanasius in Brunswick, getting involved with the interdenominational clergy group was a way to learn more about the community.
"I came here two years ago from Washington, D.C., and I was invited to join the discussions and trainings that were happening around racial equity and justice in Glynn County. I felt that it was a good way to find out what was going on in the community and to just initially offer a listening ear," he said.
Since that time, he's discovered that there are many issues simmering beneath the surface. From socioeconomic challenges to established class systems, he feels there is certainly a divide.
"It's certainly not something that's just happening in Glynn County. It happens everywhere. But I think that we all need to work to shrink the gap. All sides could benefit from that but it's going to take more than just the people who are experiencing the issues. The people who don't think there's a problem need to be in the room too," he said.
"As a minister, our call is to give a voice to the voiceless and to serve all people who come to us in need. But to really serve all people, everyone needs to be a part of the conversation."
The Rev. Drew Thompson, pastor of Union City Church in Brunswick, agrees wholeheartedly. Another founding member of the racial equity group, he is looking forward to expanding the work and inviting more people to join the conversation.
"We are certainly not the first people to do this work. There have been many who have come before us who have been doing this work for a long time. But certainly now, our clergy members all across the board believe this work is absolutely critical," he said.
"We want to broaden the conversation which is what we're trying to do with these equity dinners. We want to connect with each other to hear stories, to offer encouragement and solidarity. But we also want to create initiatives and action."
The next dinner is slated for Aug. 19, and space is limited.
Those interested are welcome to reach out to Thompson via email at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more or to join the group.
Thompson, like the other clergy members, feels that racial equity work is as much a spiritual call as it is a social justice initiative.
"For clergy members, I think that sometimes we can take that concept of 'love your neighbor,' and privatize it in a way it was never meant to be. It was never meant to be restricted to people we see in our personal interactions. Yes, we should strive to be kind to them but it's much broader than that," he said.
"If we look at Luke Chapter 10, when Jesus discusses the Good Samaritan, we see that 'loving your neighbor,' means a lot more than just the people in your social circle. We have to think more broadly ... it includes things like economics, public policy and laws."