MINNEAPOLIS -- The Rev. Edrin Williams, pastor of one of the most racially diverse churches in the Twin Cities, quickly launched an emergency food distribution center when rioting after the death of George Floyd destroyed neighborhood stores. Now he's taken on another role as well: dispensing food for thought to white faith leaders grappling with how to combat racism.
"I get calls nearly every day from around the country and even one from Switzerland," said Williams, of Sanctuary Covenant Church in north Minneapolis. "They ask, 'What should we be doing?'?"
The national spotlight on racial inequities has injected new energy and placed new demands on African American religious leaders, long at the forefront of civil rights movements. Many are orchestrating their largest-ever food relief projects, fielding outreach from allies, working to quell community tensions and exploring new strategies to combat racial injustice.
A group of Twin Cities Black pastors has been discussing a proposal with Gov. Tim Walz to create a Minnesota "social compact" that would forge new investments and public policies to begin erasing racial inequities. Wayman African Methodist Episcopal Church in Minneapolis is preparing to launch a project to transform one Minneapolis public school into a culturally appropriate model for Black achievement.
Minnesota's evangelical community has created what it hopes will be a $1 million fund to support African American churches. Many Black pastors are in demand for speaking and consultation. And, for the first time, their food programs are attracting armies of white volunteers.
"There's something special happening at this moment," said Williams. "People are seeing the (racial) barriers who haven't seen them before. There's a captive audience."
Bishop Richard Howell of nearby Shiloh Temple International Ministries marveled that while participating recently in a panel before largely white religious leaders, the first question directed to him was, "What is systemic racism?"
"There's an openness to hearing us -- finally -- in a manner we haven't seen before," said Howell. "I've been preaching 40 years, and I've never seen our friends listen to the facts, and the painful facts, of African American history. We have an opportunity to share what we know with those who don't."
Whether it's just a flash of racial consciousness, or something deeper, is the big question, he said.
On a recent Friday, Williams stood in front of about 90 volunteers in his church parking lot. Wearing shorts, a T-shirt and face mask, he bowed his head and said a prayer moments before hundreds of neighbors streamed in to pick up groceries and other goods.