Sandy Wehling is white. Thelma Vaughn is black. They belong to a book club in Battle Creek called Sacred Conversations. It brings together people from churches of different denominations who take on racial healing by reading books, sharing personal stories, and building personal relationships.
“It started in 2009 with a group of four churches,” Wehling says. “Two were predominately black and two were predominantly white. We had about four meetings together and then decided to ask the facilitator if we couldn’t meet in smaller groups.”
The idea for conversations about race had begun with a call by the national leader of the United Church of Christ (UCC). It was inspired, in part, by political attacks on then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, a UCC member. The First Congregational Church of Battle Creek took up the challenge and organized the initial meetings.
“Our group didn’t want to stop when the program was over. We wanted to continue meeting, and that’s how the book club started,” Wehling says.
The first book the group read and discussed was The Shack by William Young. The weekly meetings became such a success that those involved, about ten people, have continued to meet ever since.
“I was not a part of that original four groupings, although I was a member of one of the churches,” Thelma Vaughn says. “I didn’t become a member until the smaller group began. It didn’t start as a book club. People just wanted another platform to have connection.”
The group evolved to to include an exchange of personal stories and opinions about current events in the community, the nation, and the world, as well as books. As its members exchanged their personal stories, the group developed a deeper understanding of life experiences of others.
Vaughn shared the story about her arrival in Dowling, a small rural town outside of Battle Creek, in 1968 as a newly hired schoolteacher. She came into town on a bus and called the owner of an apartment, only to be told that they did not rent to “coloreds.”
“I know that was years ago,” Wehling says, "But that was a whole new thing for me. It didn’t occur to me that anybody here would have her experience. That certainly gave me pause and let me know that I have a long way to go in my journey to racial justice.”
The group also supports the Battle Creek community by helping organizations like the SHARE Center and local food pantries.
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