Catherine Rentz, Baltimore Sun, January 21, 2019
It’s no coincidence that activist Mary Dadone calls Coming to the Table meetings a “12-step program” for racial reconciliation.
Jane Carrigan, a co-founder of the Annapolis chapter, has shared with the group her recollection of the white supervisor at her first summer job complaining about having to work with her because she was black. Carrigan kept showing up. Eventually, he conceded he had been wrong about her.
Chapter co-founder Rusty Vaughan, a 77-year-old white businessman, has told the group how miffed he felt when black men refused to leave a whites-only lunch counter at a Woolworth’s store in North Carolina in 1960, where he was living.
“I was the worst kind of racist,” he confessed, tearing up.
Dadone, who is white, said, “We are there to get better. We are there to work on ourselves. We are there to quit harming ourselves and others.”
Coming to the Table aims to foster such candid conversations about race in order to promote racial healing, as well as to prompt Americans to face up to consequences of three centuries of slavery, Jim Crow and “separate but equal” laws, and to dismantle racism.
During last month’s gathering at Annapolis’ Unitarian Universalist Church, the group — mostly white liberals and a few African-Americans — watched videos of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and author James Baldwin discussing income inequality and wealth redistribution.
The Coming to the Table movement that began in the mid-2000s has spiked in the past two years, climbing from 10 local groups across the country to 32, including three in the Baltimore area. They initially focused on white-black relations but have expanded to others affected by racism.
The group’s growth coincides with a resurgence in reported hate crimes and incidents, according to Maryland State Police records. The KKK has been trying to make a comeback in the state. On Thursday, a swastika and a threatening note were found inside Severn Middle School.
“People don’t know how to have conversations with each other — that is why we are having all these hate crimes,” said Jodie Geddes, chairwoman of the Coming to the Table board.
Vaughan had metamorphosed from white supremacist to racial justice evangelist. He said hearing from African-Americans, Hispanics and Filipinos about their daily discrimination had changed his perspective.
Vaughan and Carrigan have trained about 80 Presbyterian pastors in Philadelphia to conduct their own Coming to the Table circles and started employee circle groups at Anne Arundel Medical Center. They made a presentation of the program for the Episcopal Diocese of Easton on the Eastern Shore. Anne Arundel County public schools are considering Coming to the Table discussions.
Vaughan inspired Alyssa Ehrsam to start a Harford County group in 2017.
Hearing some stories of what African-Americans face left Ehrsam, 49, speechless after her first Coming to the Table experience.
Ehrsam, who is white, recalled feeling pride at the gathering sharing that she was a descendant of Irish immigrants — not slaveholders.
Then she read more about racial history, including how the Irish were once aligned with people of color, but then many turned on them to boost their social status.
“It makes me cringe today,” she said of voicing her ignorance in the meeting. “We learn from our mistakes.”
The meetings are confidential and set up similar to Native American healing circles. A question is asked. Participants respond one by one while holding a “talking stick.” No one may interrupt or criticize. The format enables every perspective to be heard and fosters a deeper listening, Carrigan said.
Although Coming to the Table is about bringing people of different backgrounds together, most attendees are “white allies” who see injustice and want to do something about it, Geddes said.
Eventually, she said, many realize they’ve been in a “white bubble” and complicit in benefiting from or turning a blind eye to structural racism and injustice.
It’s a kind of scene that while cathartic to those speaking, hasn’t always been received well by people of color, according to Geddes and Carrigan.
Geddes, who was born in Jamaica, grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and has a master’s degree in conflict transformation, said she almost didn’t return after her first Coming to the Table experience when a white woman started crying while telling a story about her black nanny.
Carrigan said that for black people, seeing white people react to their stories and confess to being racist can have impact.
“Many black people say, ‘Oh, my God. I never heard any white person admit to being racist or talk in this way and want to make things better,’ ” she said. “That is important.”
Building a relationship and telling personal narratives is the kind of strategy Coming to the Table missionaries have been deploying with racism skeptics.
Kaye Whitehead, an author, radio host and associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland, said the only way to reach certain white nationalists or “good-natured” white people who call police on black people at, for example, a Starbucks, is through small, interracial group discussions.
The national Coming to the Table organization recommends ways to work toward reparations for African-Americans, such as supporting anti-racist organizations and legislation to mitigate inequalities.