Lt. Colonels Mockabee on Unity, Discomfort and Courageous Conversations

By: Laura Poff

Lt. Colonels William and Debra Mockabee are launching a new initiative to encourage Salvationists across the Southern Territory to have respectful conversations about issues that divide us. Called Courageous Conversations, the initiative will be implemented through corps programming and is to launch later this fall.

Q: Tell me how the Courageous Conversations initiative first got started.
WM: It started at youth councils with young people. I was asked to speak at three youth councils this year, and the theme was “Wired.” The Scripture verse was Psalm 139. As I began thinking about that verse, I got to thinking about the fact that people are not born to hate. They’re not born hating people from diverse cultures or different races. You’re not born that way. It’s taught. So, in my speeches, I exposed my own upbringing where racism was a way of life. Racism was something that we all saw. I grew up in Alabama during segregation. I saw it. For me, as a kid, it was normal. It was a normal way of
life, and I think that is how racism is bred – you’re taught that. We don’t do a lot of talking about that. It’s not comfortable. I felt that youth councils would be a good time to share it.

Q: How did young people respond to this?
WM: I think people were surprised. A lot of young people thanked us for doing it, for having the conversation.

Q: What happened from there?
DM: After, we were in a Sunday school class and slavery came up. We have a diverse class, and it was really uncomfortable. A comment was made that we should have more conversations like this. In the midst of all that, Charlottesville happened, and nobody was talking about it. That’s when we decided we have got to do something about it.

WM: We felt the burden to speak to what was happening. At Bible conference, Captain Marion Platt was a speaker, and he called us out. He asked, “Where is the third floor?” And I was convicted by that. Within the sphere of influence that Debra and I have, we can do something. It can’t wait.

Q: How does the Courageous Conversations initiative work?
WM: We have a conversation guide that will be available on Ministry Toolkit. We want this to be talked about in our existing programs including Girl Guards, Sunbeams, band and adult classes.

DM: We’ll be creating conversation guides about not only racism but about other difficult topics.

Q: The goal is to get people talking about things they aren’t comfortable being open about. How do you create an environment where people know they can do that without fear of judgment?
WM: Well, I think that is the most difficult thing to do. Getting people to that first meeting, and getting someone to say, “I was a racist,” is not easy. These conversations are happening somewhere. Why would they not happen within the Body of Christ?

DM: We are going to have to model that ourselves. I think the most difficult hurdle to jump is getting people to understand that, if you’re in this group, it’s a safe place and nothing is going to happen because of what you say. There would be no value to this if we can’t establish that upfront.

Q: How will you convince people to host these groups without requiring them to do so?
DM: To host this, it has to be a passion. It will have to be somebody who says in their heart that they want to do something about this, but they don’t know where to start.

Q: What is the goal of this initiative?
WM: There’s a biblical word that Captain Platt used (at Bible conference): forbearance. It’s the idea that we can disagree, but we don’t have to hate each other because we disagree.

DM: At the end of the day, there’s no tangible result from this other than people walking out of these groups, maybe still with their different opinions, but in unity. That, for me, is the goal: unity and total understanding of the biblical view.

Q: Why is now the right time for us to start having these conversations?
WM: I think we are behind in the Army in addressing this. We have reasons to be concerned, and I don’t want to minimize those concerns, but we are late to the game. When you look at our communities, when you look at our corps, we are reaching multiple generations and cultures. No one is better placed to do this than The Salvation Army.

DM: People are tired. They are just tired of it all, and they don’t know where to go or what to do. So I think now is the time.

Q: What are the consequences for The Salvation Army if we don’t start to have these conversations?
DM: It will get worse. I think people will hate each other and be divided on all fronts – if not by color and race, then by political party. I think on every level it will get worse.

Q: What would you like to say to those who don’t think this initiative has any value?
WM: I would acknowledge their view but disagree, and ask in a non-threatening way what they are basing that on. That’s a courageous conversation, and we should welcome that.