For they know not what they do

Pastor Pedro Silva on using conversation to prevent racism born from ignorance


Last summer, Pedro Silva, an associate pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ, was walking toward the pop-jet fountain on Pearl Street when he noticed a police officer across the street following him. It was a hot day, and his older daughter ran along in front of him, eager to play in the water. Not wanting to jump to any conclusions about the situation, Silva stopped and sat down on a bench. The officer also stopped, Silva says, suddenly fascinated with the sky and other people on the mall.

“I said to myself, ‘If he sees my daughter run over to me and he leaves, then I’ll know he was following me,’” Silva recalls. A few minutes later, his daughter ran over to him, giddy with all the fun she was having. Silva says he saw the officer take note and walk away.

“I am not under any illusions,” Silva says. “I know how culture works, so it doesn’t hurt my feelings because I think that person is programmed by their culture. Obviously, before Jesus died he said, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ I take that seriously, that people do things out of ignorance. If they weren’t ignorant, they wouldn’t do them.”

Sometimes, in meditation or prayer, Silva tries to visualize what he wants to do if a police officer ever aggressively approaches him. He hopes to make it a learning opportunity, one in which he can say, “I don’t want to be fearful of you, and you don’t want to be racist. Let’s work this out. Let’s both be better off from this situation.”

Silva says he works on himself in this way because he doesn’t want to react, but he also knows many people of color don’t have the luxury of such reflection.

“Me being in this job in Boulder, I came here with a voice, because I’m a pastor in a large church,” he says. “Other black people might come here and they don’t have a voice. They might work for a company and come to work and be sad because another black person got killed, but they have to hold that in. I can come to work and say, ‘This is messed up. I’m saying something on Sunday.’”

Pedro Silva knows his job as an associate pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Boulder gives him a platform that many people of color don’t have. So he uses it to facilitate conversations about race and social change. Kelly J. FitzSilva

On Sundays, Silva preaches at the front of the chapel, but it’s a Wednesday, so we sit in the back. There are only four of us in the sanctuary, Silva’s oldest daughter waiting patiently as we talk, his youngest squirming in his arms. Sun streams through the stained-glass windows, casting wide stripes across the wooden benches.

Silva wears a green T-shirt from Andover Newton Theological School, his alma mater. In thick lettering it reads, “Think outside the pulpit.” Like most pastors, he frequently turns to analogies, but he does so casually, often punctuating them with a burst of laughter.

Recently, Silva has been working with The Blind Cafe Experience, a Boulder-based project that brings people together in total darkness to share a dinner, listen to live music and engage in conversations about social change. With Silva’s help, the project is developing a program for people to discuss race and racism in the dark. In the pilot sessions of the program, which took place at eTown Hall earlier this year, legally blind ambassadors ushered participants into the darkness, taking enough twists and turns to be disorienting. The leaders of the experience urged participants to dive headfirst into conversations without trying to find common ground, wanting to harness the vulnerability that arises in the darkness. These conversations between strangers aren’t meant to be comfortable, but Silva compares it to building a muscle: use it and it grows, ignore it and it atrophies.

“Ultimately we talked ourselves into division, and we’re going to have to talk ourselves into unity as well,” he says.

In one exercise, Silva read a series of statements and asked participants to raise their hands if they identified with what was read. Have they told or laughed at a racist joke when they’re with friends of the same race as them? If racism were to be completely gone tomorrow, would any of them feel slightly disappointed that they no longer had a cause to fight against? Hands tentatively reached upward in the darkness. Though no one could see whose hands were in the air, Silva says the act of confession in itself allows participants to evaluate themselves in a way they can carry with them into future experiences and conversations.

Silva says he’s always felt drawn to the sensory-heightening and distraction-minimizing effects of the dark, using it as a tool to aid his meditation practice. In the dark, he says, people put trust in others more quickly than they do in the light.

Silva’s parents divorced when he was young, forcing him to spend his school years in Virginia and summers in Mississippi. He mentored black children in reading programs, “to give to kids what I felt that I was missing,” he says. He was occasionally picked on by both black and white kids because of his name. “Pedro, Pedro, go back to Mexico,” some of this peers would chant. Silva’s name had come from his father, who was from Cape Verde. “I’m not even Mexican!” he remembers thinking. “Why should I go back to a country I’ve never even been before?”

Silva recounts an incident when he was 15: A white man put his mouth to Silva’s ear and said, “I hate niggers.” Silva turned to him calmly and asked, “Do you mean black people?” The man was taken aback. “How many black people do you know?” Silva asked. The man knew none.

“We had a conversation, and he started getting all weepy,” Silva recalls. “He didn’t know what he was talking about. You have to own your ignorance. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t know. I’m not going to go tell anyone about brain surgery because I know nothing about it, but with the cultural things, people feel like they’re so afraid to say, ‘I don’t know. I’m ignorant about this.’ People just talk.”

Silva believes ignorance can often come from lack of exposure, a factor he says is certainly present in Boulder County, which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is 90.5 percent white.

“People don’t like being inadequate, and it’s hard for people sometimes, if they’re successful in some areas of their life, to admit that they’re failures in other areas. You get, ‘I’m a scientist’ or ‘I’m a professor’ or ‘I’m an entrepreneur.’” Silva lets out a small laugh. What you don’t hear, he says, is,“‘I’m successful, but if I see a black person on the street, I run the other direction because I’m ignorant.’”

Silva describes his grandmother as a fundamentalist Republican who often talked of family values and of everyone going to hell. Instead of cartoons, Silva would sit in front of Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts, 1980s televangelists, with his grandmother beside him. Later in their lives, each of her children dealt with their religious upbringing in different ways and had different religious focuses. When Silva watched his Muslim cousins handle discrimination with honor and grace, he decided he wanted to be a Christian in the same way they were Muslim.

“I got to a point where I was not condemning them anymore,” Silva recalls. “If my faith says that I’m supposed to love my neighbor and I’m too busy trying to figure out who’s gonna burn, how am I going to be doing the love part? It never seemed like that’s what Jesus taught. So I’m going to try to love everybody the best I can.” But Silva quickly realized that when he stopped condemning “the other side,” his “side” began to condemn him.

Unsure of his next steps after high school, Silva eventually entered the Air Force, where he served as a satellite communications technician and a language analyst for eight years. Though he remembers enjoying the work, he felt his soul pulling him in a different direction. Preventing war and creating peace, he says, are not the same thing, and he wanted to focus on what he could do to create peace.

From there he entered AmeriCorps Vista, an especially formative experience, as he was able to see the conditions from which many of America’s cultural tensions arise. He lived in Georgia and tutored refugees from Somalia, Liberia, Kosovo and Sudan. Many of them were also being picked on by American kids, which Silva could see was making them even more insecure and isolated as they tried to navigate their new home. He found that while he could try to work with kids to stop biases from a young age, those kids would go home and be exposed to their parents’ biases and fears. After thinking about how he could work with adults in a way that would expand their perceptions, he transitioned to working in human resources and recruiting.

“People spend their time at work more than anything, and so I thought if I could help corporate cultures, then it would trickle into everyday life,” Silva says. “I realized that religion and Western culture, it’s hard to separate them. You could be an atheist, but you’re still shaped by it, in America and in some other Western countries. The history of the country is shaped by religious pursuits or at least pursuits that were perceived religiously.”

He compares corporate culture to the Catholic Church — the CEO as a pope, other executives as cardinals and bishops. As he noticed the depth of religion’s influence on Western culture, he felt that if he could get a better knowledge of it, he could learn to leverage the influence. So, like many of his colleagues had done, he enrolled in seminary.

When he and his family moved to Boulder and he got his job at First Congregational, Silva remembers saying to the former senior minister, “I don’t want to be the person who has to deal with the race stuff when it comes up, just because I’m black.” He felt burned out, and he wondered if it was even possible to change people.

But, as in many cases, his role as a parent changed his perspective. He had been asked to give the Martin Luther King Day speech in Longmont, and his older daughter was inconsolably nervous. When he asked what was wrong, she replied, “I don’t want you to get shot like Dr. King. He did the ‘I have a dream’ speech and he got killed.”

Silva says his decision to engage in conversations about race was motivated by his older daughter: “If she sees me and I get in front of white people and I’m not honest, then she doesn’t get permission to just be her.” Sara McCrea

“It’s obviously not a direct correlation to what I was doing,” Silva says, “But with stuff like that, I have to say something. I have to get in front of it because both of my daughters are growing up in this world. So if she sees me and I get in front of white people and I’m not honest, then she doesn’t get the permission to just be her.”

After a number of controversial police shootings, Silva decided to host some conversations about race through the church, a space people could feel safe to talk and vent and be curious. He wanted to create a discussion where people could be open and communicate across differences, something he says is one of society’s biggest challenges.

It was then that he got connected to Living Room Conversations, an organization that provides a structure for engaging in conversations with people of differing beliefs. The conversations take place between four to seven people and can be on topics ranging from status and privilege to health care to defining the American dream. Silva now serves on the organization’s core team as its faith partner.

During one of the conversations, Silva found himself in a room with another black man and a couple of conservative people. “I’m glad I met you because you proved to me that a black man can pull himself up by the bootstraps,” a conservative woman said to him at the end of the conversation. Silva assumed she had meant it as a compliment, but he felt there was no way he could accept such a remark.

So he told her, “I don’t mean to offend you, but I can’t accept that you think it’s a compliment in good conscience because that would be to spit on Dr. King, Malcolm X, all the people who spoke up and died so I can actually sit here and have a conversation.”

Silva believes everything — including our current political climate — can be redeemed, as long as people, not just those in positions of political power, are willing to put in the work. Part of this includes speaking up and holding people accountable for their words, even that relative who always makes cringe-worthy remarks at the dinner table.

“Everyone says, ‘I want to keep the peace,’ but that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s not peace, it’s just not saying anything,” Silva says.

In looking for peace during a divided time, he advocates taking a hard look at where we are and where we want to be.

“Say you call me at three in the morning and you say, ‘Pedro, I’m lost.’ The first thing I will say is, ‘Well, where are you?’ And if you say, ‘I have no idea where I am,’ then you’re probably going to stay there. If people want peace, they have to figure out where they are.

“If we say, ‘I’m in this system, this society, this is where we are.’ Now, where we want to be is way over there. There are some trees, some potholes, some messed up systems in the way. We have to go through that to get to where we want to be. But we have to start by knowing where we are.”

Faith — and not always through religion — guides Silva as he encourages people to wrestle with their experiences. Faith makes Silva continue to work toward something he’s never seen before; he believes it’s possible because it’s present in his imagination.

“I don’t want to be ignorant. That’s what it comes down to,” Silva says with a laugh that echoes through the chapel. “I want to pay attention and I want to be a contribution, not for a purpose, but because that’s what life does. Flowers don’t say, ‘I want to be a flower and let people smell me and beautify the Earth,’ but they do, and that’s them experiencing life to the fullest.”

His voice softens. “We suppress life all the time in so many forms, and then we wonder why the world doesn’t mirror the beauty that we know is possible.”