The Preaching Politician

The Preaching Politician

John Lewis, center right, with fellow protesters on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, in “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” a Magnolia Pictures release. © Spider Martin. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Before he was a Democratic congressman and before he was a civil rights activist, Rep. John Lewis preached to the chickens on his family’s farm as a young boy.

It’s a story staffers of Lewis can repeat by heart because they’ve heard it so many times.

“They would bow their heads; they would shake their heads,” he recounts in footage from an appearance at a Houston church in the new documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble.”

“They never quite said ‘Amen,’ but they tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues on the other side listen to me today in the Congress.”

The documentary, presented through a partnership including Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films, traces the journey of Lewis, now 80, from the fields of Alabama to the halls of Congress. The film portrays how Lewis was shaped by his faith and guided by religious leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. James Lawson, two advocates for nonviolent civil rights action.

“Faith is an integral part of Mr. Lewis’ life but also part of his activism,” said Dawn Porter, director of the documentary, who filmed the congressman for more than a year starting shortly before the 2018 election.

Though he is a politician rather than a preacher per se, Lewis considers politics to be his calling, she said.

“He started preaching to chickens and now in many ways even though he’s a layperson he preaches to us,” she said of the man with a seminary degree as well as a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy. “That is part of the reason why people find it so motivating and so comforting when he speaks.”

The 96-minute documentary, which is to be released on demand and in select theaters on Friday (July 3), includes what has become Lewis’ mantra in its title.

“My philosophy is very simple,” he says in the film, which is also expected to air on CNN in late September. “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”

The documentary’s producers have created a “Good Trouble Sunday” promotion for the movie, encouraging houses of worship to host a digital screening starting this Sunday, for which they can keep a portion of ticket sales.

Faith leaders on a mid-June conference call promoting the documentary expressed appreciation for Lewis, who was diagnosed with cancer late last year, and his long service as a role model.

The Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church outside Atlanta, recalled seeking advice from Lewis in the 1990s, when as the NAACP’s youth director Bryant received pushback for suggesting the civil rights organization reach out to the hip-hop generation.

“He said to me: ‘Jamal, change is never politically correct,’” Bryant recalled. “‘If everybody is in agreement, it’s not that radical.”

John Lewis in “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” a Magnolia Pictures release. © Ben Arnon. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

In the documentary, Lewis, a member of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, recalled his last meal in downtown Washington just before embarking on a trip as a Freedom Rider seeking equal access to accommodations for Black Southerners.

“Growing up in rural Alabama, I never had Chinese food before,” he recalled. “But someone that evening said, ‘You should eat well because this might be like the Last Supper.’”

American civil rights activist John Lewis on April 16, 1964. Photo by Marion S. Trikosko/LOC/Creative Commons

Porter said those comments showed how Lewis and other young civil rights activists did not take their work lightly as they prepared for rides on segregated buses or sit-ins at segregated lunch counters.

“You’ll see in the movie that Rev. Jim Lawson, who was coaching and guiding the students, had them rehearse,” she said of Lewis and his fellow activists. “And I do think he decided that life under a segregated system was not the life that he wanted to live.”

Archival footage — some of which the congressman says he’d never seen before — reviews landmark, as well as lesser-known, moments in Lewis’ history. He was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On his first attempt on “Bloody Sunday” to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, he was beaten by Alabama state troopers and thought he would die as he protested for voting rights.

The film’s crew followed him as he supported fellow Democrats in the recent election and traveled with a bipartisan group of politicians and faith leaders on the annual pilgrimage to Alabama with the Faith and Politics Institute.

“Congressman Lewis has conveyed to all of us over the course of his lifetime that (the) fundamental right to vote is a foundational right,” said Joan Mooney, CEO of the institute, on the recent conference call. “So more than the transactional act of voting, Congressman Lewis talks about its sacredness, and voter participation in a democracy is the active expression of the values of all human beings.”

John Lewis is arrested on Oct. 7, 1964, in Selma, Alabama, during a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee-organized “Freedom Day,” an attempt to get residents registered to vote. © Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

‘Greenleaf’ star Deborah Joy Winans says her TV family reflects real life

‘Greenleaf’ star Deborah Joy Winans says her TV family reflects real life

Deborah Joy Winans portrays Charity Greenleaf in the OWN series “Greenleaf.” Photo courtesy of OWN

Deborah Joy Winans, the real-life member of a famous musical church family, has spent the past few years living with another faithful bunch that, despite being fictional and more melodramatic, shares something with her own: Mistakes are made, but they just keep coming back to God.

On “Greenleaf,” the original series on the Oprah Winfrey Network, now in its fifth and final season, Winans portrays Charity Greenleaf, the youngest daughter of a family that runs a Black megachurch in Memphis, Tennessee.

Winans’ character has miscarried one of a set of twins, has coped with a husband who is questioning his sexuality and has striven to gain what she views as her rightful place in her family and in her church. As the final season starts, Charity is helping a global church conglomerate take over her family’s Calvary Fellowship World Ministries.

Winans, a 30-something Detroit native who describes herself as a nondenominational Christian, talked with Religion News Service about the show that moved her from stage to screen and about the real-life events the country has faced since production for the show wrapped.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your character, Charity Greenleaf, is greeted by her mother in this season’s first episode as “Little Miss Benedictine Arnold, traitor to a whole family.” How does it feel to play the outcast?

It feels terrible. But I love the fact that Charity takes it and keeps going. She recognizes the mistake that she’s made, the betrayal she has been a part of, the hurt that she’s created, and she keeps steppin’. She’s not happy about it, but she realizes she has to keep going to make it better.

Charity is part of a fictional Black church dynasty. And you are part of the real-life Winans gospel music family. How would you compare the two, if you can at all?

I’m thankful that I don’t have to compare them in many ways. But with my family, the Winans family, and the Greenleaf family, what I do know is that they’re all human. They all have failed. They all have made mistakes, but they all always go back to their foundation. They go back to the Word of God and they revisit their faith and the next steps to make in order to really stay aligned with the faith, as opposed to the wrong of what they’ve done.

You are the niece of the gospel singers BeBe and CeCe Winans and the daughter of Carvin Winans of the gospel group the Winans. Have you ever been interested in singing?

Singing has never been an interest — not even half an interest. I’ve loved acting since I was a little girl. And so I got my BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) in acting. I spent a month studying at the Moscow Art Theatre School in Russia and then I went on to get my MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in acting from California Institute of the Arts. Acting has always been my main passion, my drive, my desire. Music has simply been an additive in these later years, as far as the jobs that I’ve been blessed to have.

Oprah Winfrey sought you out for the role of Charity. How did you connect with her?

I was doing a workshop of my uncle’s musical, “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story,” in New York in 2015 and Oprah, along with Gayle (King) and Cicely Tyson, came to a reading. Two months later, she called and said that she could not get me out of her mind for this particular role. Unfortunately, nobody (at the network) knew who I was. I said, “Well, yeah, I haven’t done anything yet.” And she said, “That’s OK. I think that they’ll see what I see when it’s time for you to audition. I’m going to open the door for you as wide as I possibly can and when you go, you do what you Winans do.” And I was like, “Yes, ma’am.”

Actors Ketih David, left, and Deborah Joy Winans in the OWN series “Greenleaf.” Photo courtesy of OWN

Has there been pushback from Black church members about the show, given that the Greenleafs deal with murder, abuse and affairs?

I do think that there has been some pushback because there’s so much drama and it’s so juicy. But that’s what you want in a dramatic TV show. That’s what keeps viewers coming back week to week. But I think they recognize that this is not based on someone’s church or some specific pastor or some specific deacon. This is just a world that was created to honor the cornerstone that the church is in our Black community, (while it) allows people to possibly start conversations that maybe previously were just sort of swept under the rug.

Charity did everything she could to become an associate pastor. Do you think her struggle to be a preacher reflects real life for women in some churches, including Black churches?

Oh, absolutely. In the Black community and particularly in the Black church community, for years, women were not seen as equal. Charity fights to do the right thing in the eyes of her parents, to be the perfect child, to listen to herself and really go after this calling that she has felt on her as a little girl. But her family says, “Oh yeah, OK. Maybe. Soon. But just keep singing.” And they don’t agree or see the vision that she feels like God has given her for her own life. And that happens a lot in the church.

If you could talk to Charity, the character you play, what would you tell her?

Oooh, girl! You need to love you. I would tell Charity that she’s been searching for the approval of her family for who she is, for what she wants, for where she believes she’s supposed to be. And because she’s been searching for their approval, she has left the one and only approval that she needs, which is God’s. I would just tell her to look at herself through the lens of Christ, through the lens of love. When you recognize who you are in God and your value and your worth, you don’t need anybody else’s approval.

Deborah Joy Winans portrays Charity Greenleaf in the OWN series “Greenleaf.” Photo courtesy of OWN

Has COVID-19 affected you and your real-life family?

My Uncle Marvin, my dad’s twin brother, came down with COVID-19 and was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. It didn’t look very good at all. But what was beautiful about that is that we came together as a family via Zoom and started having these family meetings every week, catching up with everybody, praying for those that have been affected, those that are hurting. And, thankfully, my uncle is doing very well.

With the country dealing with a pandemic, the George Floyd protests and an economic downturn, how does a show like “Greenleaf” fit into people’s lives right now?

I think that “Greenleaf” does offer a chance for people to let go. But it’s still honoring a Black family. It’s seeing yourself represented, and I think that we need that.

I do think this pandemic of COVID-19 has really brought us together as a world, as a human family. Because everybody was stuck at home, having to figure out how to manage, everybody also had to see this global pandemic of racism. They didn’t get to turn a blind eye to it. I tell people, if you have breath in your body you are able to help make a change in this country. Find your voice, find your way to serve. There is something that you can do to further this fight for justice in our world.

‘Racialized policing’ program takes faith leaders from grief to action

‘Racialized policing’ program takes faith leaders from grief to action

Members of Peace Felowship, The Village Church, Anacostia River Church, Revolution Church, Covenant Baptist UCC, and First Rock Baptist Church participate in a peace walk in Washington, D.C. The Rev. Delonte Gholston, fourth from left, regularly helps organize peace walks. Photo courtesy of Delonte Gholston

The Rev. Delonte Gholston collected almost 100 signatures from faith leaders for a letter asking the mayor and other District of Columbia officials to transfer 20% of the police budget into violence prevention programs.

The Rev. Andrew Cheung plans to urge city officials to offer new de-escalation training for the officers that patrol Washington’s streets and enlist more social workers who might instead help the homeless and mentally ill.

The Rev. Ashley Diaz Mejias gained the support of fellow clergy in raising public attention about an outbreak of COVID-19 at a juvenile detention center near Richmond, Virginia, where she co-pastors a church.

The three were part of a predominantly Black but diverse group of clergy and lay people who spent the last nine months in a pilot program exploring how theology applies to issues of police violence and criminal justice.

Participants in the Theology and Racialized Policing Cohort Program meet at the Howard University School of Divinity, Oct. 24, 2019, in Washington, D.C. Courtesy photo

Participants in the Theology and Racialized Policing Cohort Program meet at the Howard University School of Divinity, Oct. 24, 2019, in Washington, D.C. Courtesy photo

About 45 participants met in person and virtually at Howard University School of Divinity for the “Theology and Racialized Policing Cohort Program” through a partnership with Sojourners, a Christian mobilizing and media organization, and the Christian Community Development Association. It started in October, months before the recent protests following the death of George Floyd — a Black man held for almost nine minutes under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.

The certificate program has brought together an intergenerational group of graduate students, social justice and policing consultants and senior pastors to determine what to do before, during and after crises of racial injustice arise. Its last session was led by a minister who was involved in the “Boston Miracle,” an initiative that led to a sharp reduction in youth homicides.

The Rev. Terrance McKinley. Courtesy photo

The Rev. Terrance McKinley. Courtesy photo

The Rev. Terrance McKinley, director of racial justice and mobilizing for Sojourners, said the program was designed to particularly help Black clergy who often have in their pews both law enforcement employees and those who have had negative interactions with the police. The program aimed to foster ways faith leaders, across denominations and backgrounds, could not only address the collective grief of congregants over the deaths of Black people at the hands of police but also determine steps for transforming their communities.

“There’s an acknowledgement of the anger, the anger in particular that comes with these kinds of deaths,” said McKinley, 39, who pastors an African Methodist Episcopal congregation. “But as people of faith, we know that that can’t be an ending point, that we’re always pointing toward the wholeness that God wants for his creation.”

As the White House and Congress debate possible nationwide actions, cohort participants say they have come away from their course of study with determination to push for greater change in their local communities.

“I think that a lot of the folks that are in the cohort are waking up to the difference between heartfelt compassionate service and heartfelt and compassionate action, organizing,” said Gholston, a Black pastor who leads a multiethnic nondenominational Washington congregation that grew out of the Mennonite tradition. “I think it’s been helpful to be able to have those conversations honestly.”

The Rev. Yolanda Pierce, dean of Howard University’s School of Divinity, said faculty at her historically Black institution and guest speakers from Sojourners and the CCDA had already been on the front lines of dealing with race relations and policing and could help other faith leaders advance social justice work and community engagement.

“It is absolutely critical that those who work in faith communities are equipped with language, theology and tools to discuss the ways racialized policing has disproportionately affected communities of color,” she said. “The voices, experiences and engagement of people of faith are absolutely critical in reducing harm, violence and distrust in communities that are often overpoliced but underprotected.”

The Rev. Ashley Diaz Mejias. Courtesy photo

Many participants had already been engaged in the criminal justice system in some way. Gholston, 40, leads regular peace walks in Washington with dozens of churches. Diaz Mejias, also 40, is a director of the Richmond Community Bail Fund and has recently been busy helping protesters in that city who have been detained in jail or had their cars impounded.

Diaz Mejias, a white Hispanic woman who co-pastors a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) worshipping community at the detention center, said the course affirmed that her faith is a “grounding space for liberation.” She said it has also given her reading material — including Alex Vitale’s “The End of Policing” — to guide her.

“I read that book in like a day and a half,” she recalled, saying the reading came before the recent protests in her city. “It was like a breath of fresh air and really challenging. And getting to encounter that in a faith space was invigorating for me.”

Some of the cohort participants, including Cheung, a Chinese pastor of a predominantly white multidenominational church, have participated in recent protests following Floyd’s death, including one organized by Sojourners, and a vigil where he prayed at the Lincoln Memorial.

Cheung, 46, who moved to D.C. a couple of years ago, has noticed the prominent police presence in the nation’s capital — which has some two dozen police agencies.

The Rev. Andrew Cheung, left, and his wife, Julia, participate in a march and vigil for George Floyd on May 31, 2020, in Washington, D.C. The grassroots-organized group marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where Cheung led a prayer of lament and speakers advocated for police reform. Photo courtesy of Andrew Cheung

The Rev. Andrew Cheung, left, and his wife, Julia, participate in a march and vigil for George Floyd on May 31, 2020, in Washington, D.C. The grassroots-organized group marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where Cheung led a prayer of lament and speakers advocated for police reform. Photo courtesy of Andrew Cheung

“We put too much faith as a society in the sense of security and protection that law enforcement offers us,” he said. “I feel like our sense of what safety means and how do we get to safety is kind of skewed.”

The program will conclude in July, when participants are expected to turn in final projects: scorecards on how D.C. police precincts are relating to their communities.

McKinley said Sojourners has received requests to offer the program in other cities, including at Duke University Divinity School.

The Rev. Regina Graham, associate director of the Office of Black Church Studies at the school in Durham, North Carolina, said the spring 2021 program will include the school’s Hispanic House of Studies and Center for Reconciliation and will focus on racialized policing and immigration. It plans to have seven African American pastors and seven Latino pastors participate to help them tangibly follow the biblical admonition of “doing justice and walking humbly” as they seek to transform their local areas.

“We’re hoping that it will provide them with the tools and the resources,” Graham said, “that they’re able to share in their ministries, share in their communities outside of the four walls of the church.”

While some participants in the Sojourners partnership with Howard’s divinity school and CCDA are living out what they learned through protests, letter writing campaigns and congregational action, at least one is contemplating a career change.

Claudia Allen speaks at a community interfaith prayer vigil, planned by Pastor Noah Washington of Emmanuel Brinklow SDA Church, on June 12, 2020, in Montgomery County, Maryland. Courtesy photo

Claudia Allen speaks at a community interfaith prayer vigil, planned by Pastor Noah Washington of Emmanuel Brinklow SDA Church, on June 12, 2020, in Montgomery County, Maryland. Courtesy photo

Claudia Allen, an African American Seventh-day Adventist laywoman who writes for an online Adventist magazine, was a teaching assistant pursuing a doctorate of philosophy in English at the University of Maryland when she started the program. Now, after spending months sharing stories, statistics and practical steps with Baptist, Presbyterian and Catholic cohort members, the 29-year-old has applied for full-time work in the social justice field, as well as a position on a county policing advisory commission.

“I think that people don’t know that, hey, these town halls, these boards, these meetings are open to community citizens, and, unfortunately, many church folk aren’t sitting on them,” she said. “That’s kind of what I try to encourage people to do and what I’m trying to do myself.”

Ready to Go Back To Church?

Ready to Go Back To Church?

UMI hosts its second virtual discussion: “Safety, Science, Spirit: Reopening Church Buildings,” featuring Linda Mobula, MD, MPH, and Rev. Matthew Lawrence Watley.

An evangelical research center focused on disaster response has detailed key steps churchgoers might take as they contemplate attending reopened churches.

Wheaton College’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute in Illinois released a series of documents this week to augment the guidelines of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The institute previously created a website with coronavirus-related resources with the National Association of Evangelicals.

“We are standing in the gap with a series of new resources since the CDC has been suppressed by the current administration on what guidelines it can provide to U.S. faith communities,” Jamie Aten, executive director of the institute, said in a Wednesday (June 10) announcement about “Deciding When & How You Should Return to Church in Person: A Practical Guide for Church Members.”

“Many churches including their pastors and church members are struggling to sort through misinformation and divisive voices because of the lack of detailed COVID-19 guidance for faith communities being provided at the federal level needed to navigate reopening churches safely.”

The new resources follow other initiatives, such as an ecumenical document released Sunday (June 7) by a consultation of mainline Protestant and Catholic experts, to help church leaders cope with the many questions swirling around reopening churches.

The resources include a 22-page guide — noting the need to be committed to humility, love, persistence and wisdom — and shorter checklists for members and leaders deciding whether to re-approach the doors of their churches.

Here are 10 tips from the guide:

A decision tree to help individuals decide about attending worship services. Image courtesy of Humanitarian Disaster Institute

1. Keep getting updated on the latest about COVID-19.
“There is a rapidly expanding body of scientific knowledge about COVID-19. Experts agree that COVID-19 will be in the US for the foreseeable future, with fluctuating levels of infection in the community. Until a vaccine is available, the virus and the disease will be a threat to our public health.”

2. Stay home if you are concerned about the risks.
“Remember that if you are uncomfortable with the possible risks, you can continue to attend virtual gatherings. Moreover, if you fall into the high risk category, you should plan on continuing to attend virtual gatherings. If you don’t understand the plans in place, ask for clarification or humbly share with your church why you decided not to attend in person at this time.”

3. Speak up to others posing a risk.
“If you think they might be unknowingly taking risks with their safety, it is important to lovingly, patiently, and humbly share your concerns with them. You can pray for them. You can share with them expert advice, like this guide or another resource to help them make their own decision. And you can respect that they may not follow your advice.”

4. Strive for unity amid different views.
“Some in your church will have very similar ideas to you about the reopening process. Others will likely feel very differently, while others are unsure quite what to think. … Find how you can help to nurture unity during the stages of reopening and remember those who are suffering among you.”

RELATED: When churches reopen, don’t sing or shake hands, do make sermons short, says new guide

5. Take a mask and sanitizer with you.
“Wash your hands before leaving and after returning home from church (remember if your mask needs to be washed after wearing it to church).”

6. Be physically distant in parking lot as well as sanctuary.
“Put on your mask and check in the vehicle’s mirror to make sure your mask is properly secured. Use hand sanitizer before exiting your vehicle and again after the service before you head home. Observe social distancing recommendations even while exiting and entering your vehicle, making sure to give space to others as they are exiting or entering their vehicles. Be sure to maintain recommended distancing with others as you walk through the parking lot or sidewalk to the church building and when returning to your vehicle.”

7. Heed cautions about singing.
“Remember that many healthcare professionals, scientists, and choir organizations consider singing and choirs a high risk activity.”

8. Forgo physical contact.
“Avoid ‘high touch’ activities (e.g., greeting with a handshake, passing a collection plate from person to person).”

9. Notify church officials of symptoms.
“If you or others you are staying with start to show signs or symptoms of COVID-19 after attending an in-person church service, consult a healthcare professional and notify your church leadership.”

10. Be patient.
“Reopening is complex, and the church has to consider many factors and take on many new tasks. Patience is one of the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22) that we all need a lot of these days. We should also be humble, understanding that none of us completely understand the nature of COVID-19 and others will likely have very different perspectives than our own. Don’t compromise safety, but be patient and humble.”

This story has been updated to correct the role of the National Association of Evangelicals, which previously created a website with Humanitarian Disaster Institute. The institute is solely responsible for the new resources.

Chicago preacher Otis Moss III uses film to honor Ahmaud Arbery, address racism

Chicago preacher Otis Moss III uses film to honor Ahmaud Arbery, address racism

The Rev. Otis Moss III records clips for the film “The Cross and the Lynching Tree: A Requiem for Ahmaud Arbery” at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Courtesy photo

For more than half of his life, the Rev. Otis Moss III has sought to find ways to merge the cadence of the sermon with the creativity of movies.

In addition to being senior pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, Moss founded Unashamed Media Group, which he described as “creating small films we hope will be used to teach, to inform, to inspire and shape homiletics in a different way.

“I believe that films preach,” he said.

On Sunday (May 17), in honor of a young black jogger who was recently killed in Georgia, Moss premiered his latest fusion of faith and film: “The Cross and the Lynching Tree: A Requiem for Ahmaud Arbery.”

The 22-minute sermonic film features Moss preaching in his predominantly black megachurch before stained-glass windows that depict African American and church history. Interspersed between his words are images of a black actor pausing to tie his running shoes, clips of two drastically different movies released a century apart but both titled “The Birth of a Nation,” and footage of persecution and protest.

Moss, 49, is an Auburn Seminary senior fellow known for his commitment to social justice and a minister whose sermons placed him on Baylor University’s list of top 12 preachers in the English-speaking world. He learned film editing as a teenager tasked with cutting “Twilight Zone” episodes so a local Cleveland TV station could include commercials. Citing Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, he says, “My favorite filmmakers were people who were influenced by spirituality.”

He talked to Religion News Service about his newest project — which was first released in place of his usual sermon — and how he hopes it will educate people of faith, African American parents and clergy who might consider a new approach to their preaching.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to use the format of film to preach about the life and death of Ahmaud Arbery?

One, I started out in film, cinematography in college and thought it was one of the best mediums to communicate the challenges we face in America today. The other aspect of it is people learn in different ways. Some are visual, some are auditory, some are kinetic learners. And bringing the element of visual and auditory together reaches more people.

How did you relate the death of Ahmaud Arbery to the late theologian James Cone‘s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree“?

Cone’s book lays out the cross as a lynching event, an innocent person being lynched, executed because of his ethnicity, his location. The perception of Jewish people in the Roman mind connects with the way black people have been viewed in America, and our color has been weaponized by Confederate and antebellum thinking.

Within the first minute of the film you tie the current coronavirus to what seem to be various forms of racism. Why did you make that link?

Racism is a virus. It infects the spirit. It infects the soul. This is nothing new that I’m sharing. Dr. (Martin Luther) King spoke of it in the same manner. Howard Thurman talked about it as being a spiritual infection. Frederick Douglass spoke about racism and white supremacy as a virus that infects the soul. As we are all sheltering in place to recognize the invisible enemy of COVID-19, there is also an invisible enemy that affects our behavior, being racism, privilege, the inability for the heart to be compassionate to people who are different but not deficient.

You also spoke about the “illusion of blackness as a threat.” How would you encourage people, including people of faith, to address that or counter that?

I would challenge all people of faith to become educated about the weaponizing of black skin in American culture. (Scholars like Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Michelle Alexander and Ibram X. Kendi) speak about the ideology and the myth of black criminality, and people of faith must view Jesus as a person who was disinherited, an outsider. His culture, ethnicity and the fact he was a dark-skinned Palestinian Jew was weaponized by Roman culture.

You use the verb “weaponize” throughout the film. Why?

At the turn of the (19th) century, Reconstruction, the myth of black criminality stated, if you see someone who is darker, they are dangerous. Their skin, their skin color is viewed as a weapon because they do not have the intellectual capacity or moral rooting of people of a lighter hue. So our skin was weaponized. The 12-year-old who walks into a room is viewed as 24 and dangerous because years are added to his physical appearance. The person, like myself, who’s 6′-3″ (and) 200 pounds, I have stepped into an elevator and had people clutch their purse, or, in one case, someone screamed when they saw me because my skin had been weaponized.

Stained-glass windows depict African American and church history at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

You also list dozens of names, including Ahmaud Arbery’s, who have died. So in addition to being a requiem for him, is this sermon-film about more than one person’s death?

Yes, it is. It speaks about the death of unarmed individuals. It speaks about the death of people who were killed while running while black, eating, sitting, selling something on the corner. We have too many examples of women and men who have been killed, not because of criminal activity, but because of the weight of history.

You recount how historically blacks have been prevented from reading the Bible and from preaching without a white leader present. Is your new film-sermon sort of the opposite of that?

Yes, it is. There has been a myth that has been passed on in America that black faith made black people docile when the historical evidence shows slave owners did all they could to ensure that black people did not read the Bible and did not preach without a white person present to tell them what they’re to say and watch over what they say. And this sermonic film is a historical response to that: the ability to be able to tell our own story in ways our ancestors were not able to tell the story.

You also mention a broader view of sacredness. Can you explain why you included the sacredness of a jogger in that list?

Ahmaud Arbery, in an undated family photo. Courtesy photo

Within black spirituality, all aspects of living are sacred. There is no separation of sacred and secular: singing, caring for your children, working and jogging, which brings us right back to Ahmaud Arbery. The idea of caring for your body is also a sacred act. Within all traditions, your body is a gift that you are to care for because it is the only one that you will receive from God.

What is your advice to black parents who, as you say in this film, wonder if their children will “make it home today”?

You must tell your children the truth without instilling debilitating fear in their heart. Give them the power of truth and also the power of possibility. They have within them the tools to change our democracy. This is what we teach in our household to our children: how important voting is and judges and DAs (district attorneys) and being seen on juries. And learning, leading is critical to changing the world.

But there are some rules you must understand when you step out of this door. Some people will not see you as a frolicking teenager. They will see you as a threat, and you must use your mind and your spirit hand in hand so that you may come home safely.

Do you view the film as a message for a wider audience than African Americans, and, if so, what is it you hope others will take away from it?

Absolutely. The response from the worship service has been astounding, especially from people outside of the African American community. One person shared it gave him language to have a conversation with their children.

Beyond the sermon on Sunday, how do you expect your message to be used?

It’s my hope it’ll be used as a teaching tool: Classrooms, organizations, institutions will use this to talk about America’s original sin being race, racism, white privilege. It will be used to talk about how sermons can be shaped in the 21st century by merging the art of film and the tradition of sermonic presentation together. It will be used to inspire people who feel as if their spiritual tank has been depleted and now they have a little bit more energy, in the words of my father, to just go on a little bit longer.