Peace & Global Witness

Sarah Schoper Salazar can’t be easily dismissed

September 23, 2020 by Emily Enders Odom

Early in 2019, a crop of strange, new signs started springing up everywhere across the yards and businesses of rural, predominantly white Macomb, Illinois, like so many cornstalks in Iowa’s neighboring fields.

The signs, which called for the ouster of Western Illinois University’s (WIU) then president, Dr. Jack Thomas — the school’s first Black president, who ultimately resigned in June 2019 — struck fear into the hearts of Macomb’s citizens of color.

“They saw this as a reminder of lynching times,” said Dr. Sarah Schoper Salazar, a member of First Presbyterian Church of Macomb, who previously served on WIU’s faculty in its department of Education Studies. “The signs, which read ‘Fire Jack,’ were clearly racially motivated.”

As a direct result of the racial tensions that rose to the surface in Macomb during that time, which culminated in Thomas’s resignation, the city’s mayor and WIU’s new interim president organized a committee called Move Macomb Forward, designed to address structural racism in the community.

While Salazar saw these efforts as a promising beginning for her city, she — with the encouragement of First Presbyterian’s pastor, the Rev. Erin Marth — knew that she could do even more.

With God’s help.

Salazar was bold to approach her church’s Service and Justice Committee — which had just voted to become a Matthew 25 congregation, naming Salazar as their liaison and primary spokesperson — proposing to teach a series of workshops on race and racism geared toward white people.

“As I watched people in the community continue to dismiss the thoughts of people of color, I reflected on my own journey of learning what it is to be white,” she said, “and I thought, we need to do something to help white people know that they’re white. They can’t as easily dismiss me.”

While designing, planning and promoting the five interactive workshops that were approved by the committee, Salazar continued to familiarize herself with the three focuses of the Matthew 25 invitation — building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty — even being called upon by Marth to preach a sermon on Matthew 25 in April 2019.

“When our congregation signed up for Matthew 25, we took on all three focuses, because we couldn’t separate them,” she said. “They all work together.”

In fact, “working together” is just how she envisioned workshop participants — not just sitting and learning about structural racism, but rather engaging the challenging material and each other together.

“We need people to be learning this [racism] alongside others, not as individuals,” she said.

And although Salazar willingly rose to the challenge of facilitating the workshops, she admitted to being “terrified and nervous.”

In 2015, she had what she has called a “life explosion.” A pulmonary embolism, which led to life-threatening complications including 57 minutes of cardiac arrest, resulted in her losing contact with the entire left side of her body. She spent eight months relearning how to walk, questioning every day why she had survived.

And then there was God.

“I am not the reason why I am here,” said Salazar. “If I didn’t believe in God then, I do now. My energy and motivation — it’s not me.”

She needn’t have worried about her and the workshops’ success. Because the 2019 workshops consistently drew some 40 people from the congregation and the broader community, they eventually led to another workshop series taught by Salazar in the spring of 2020, “Examining Our Commitment to Racial Justice,” which was sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance of Macomb. At least 30 people participated in this round, which wrapped up right before COVID-19 hit.

Because the series hosted by the Interfaith Alliance was promoted on Facebook, the Rev. Ryan Landino, Lead Presbyter for Transformation, Presbytery of Great Rivers, saw and shared the post in the presbytery’s e-newsletter. “All of a sudden, people across the presbytery were driving to Macomb to attend,” Salazar said. “A farmer and his wife drove over an hour in the snow to attend the workshops after seeing Ryan’s announcement in the Great Rivers e-newsletter.”

Throughout the planning, development and implementation of all of First Presbyterian’s anti-racism initiatives, finding available funding was never a concern. The cost of the original series of workshops was fully covered by First Church’s Peace & Global Witness Offering, 25% of which is retained by the local church for its own ministries of peace and reconciliation.

“We have been participating in all four of the PC(USA)’s Special Offerings for a number of years,” said Salazar. “In fact, we’re proud to be a Four for Four congregation.”

A “Four for Four” congregation is one that receives all four of the Special Offerings mandated by the General Assembly: One Great Hour of SharingPentecostPeace & Global Witness, and Christmas Joy.

Because the 2020 Season of Peace — which began on September 6 and culminates on World Communion Sunday, October 4, when the Peace & Global Witness Offering is traditionally received — is already underway, so are Salazar’s and First Presbyterian’s plans for the congregation’s 25% of the offering.

During the months that Salazar had spent at the hospital in 2015 doing physical therapy, she befriended Cara Erude, the sister-in-law of her physical therapist. Because the two have remained close, Erude, a Black woman, recently confided to Salazar her very real fears resulting from the continuing murders of Black people at the hands of white police officers. She told Salazar that she would feel much better if the Macomb Police Department (MPD) had body cameras for its officers.

“When my friend said this would make her feel safer, that was enough for me,” Salazar said. Soon thereafter, First Presbyterian approved that 25% of their 2020 Peace & Global Witness Offering would be directed to help the MPD purchase Body Worn Cameras (BWC).

To initiate the ambitious effort, Salazar and Sue Marshall, one of the Spring 2020 workshop participants, met with Macomb’s city manager and mayor earlier this year to discuss the body worn cameras. The total project will cost around $33,000.

The decision was then made to invite Erude, as well as Vanessa Huston, another one of the spring workshop participants, to serve with Salazar and Marshall on a campaign team. The team named themselves “Because We Care” and launched a GoFundMe campaign to supplement what First Presbyterian will contribute from its Peace & Global Witness Offering.

The volunteers recently launched a private Facebook group, “Body Cams for Macomb Police Department,” to share messages and concerns with members of the community about policing and BWCs.

The Macomb Police Department has agreed that if “Because We Care” meets the goal they have set on GoFundMe to get the project started, the police department will sustain it as a line item in its  annual budget moving forward. A city administrator also reached out to the group and suggested the campaign could be a kick-off for the Macomb (Quad Cities Area) chapter of One Human Family, an organization that promotes diversity and inclusion that will strengthen their efforts.

Another source of education and inspiration for Salazar and the members of First Presbyterian’s Service & Justice Committee are the various courses offered by the Presbyterian Mission Agency related to the Matthew 25 invitation. In August, she and another member of the congregation attended the pilot, online course that was jointly programmed and hosted by Stony Point Center and Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary on dismantling structural racism.

“The class really solidified for me that we weren’t talking about Black Lives Matter as the national organization but genuinely discussing the concept of Black Lives Matter,” she said.

As she looks toward the future — specifically the last Sunday of September, when First Presbyterian will receive the Peace & Global Witness Offering — Salazar is expecting this year’s offering to easily surpass all previous totals.

“People can see that this is really going to do something for the community,” she said. “We as a denomination need to be aware that to move in this direction, we have to transform who we are. We want to give.”

Give to the Peace & Global Witness Offering to continue the valuable ministry of the Peacemaking Program.

This was originally published for Presbyterian News Service on September 18, 2020.

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The Peace & Global Witness Offering draws Presbyterians together and provides exposure to active peacemakers as well as education and resources to empower congregations and individuals to become peacemakers, themselves.  These collective efforts support resources in dealing with conflict, provide nurturing reconciliation, and stand in support of our global siblings, because the peace of Christ belongs to people everywhere.