During Lent, we commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. As if it were New Year’s Eve, most Christians make a Lenten resolution, consecrate it with prayer, and stick it out until Easter. Our concern for particularity in this moment, while laudable, can prevent us from grasping — and being grasped by — a broader sense of mission. The immediacy of figuring out, “What am I going to give up?” can prevent us from asking, “What sort of person is God calling me to be within the church and the world?” The first question pivots around our personal aspirations; the second one opens up a vista of service and mission. Developing the latter theme, we might approach Lent as an opportunity to embrace the care of Christ and emulate his ministry of coming alongside and caring for the least of these.
Embracing the care of Christ can be painful, for it often requires a prior admission that we are wounded. Many recent college graduates work hard to secure employment and repay loans, only to experience job loss, a reduction of responsibility, or another economic shift causing them to move back in with their parents. They are wounded. Some 222,000 veterans have returned from Iraq to a jobless recovery, a gridlocked Congress, and employers who cannot grasp the relevance of leadership skills honed in a military context. They, too, are wounded.
Our individual ailments differ, but we share an Augustinian solidarity. The bishop of Hippo suggests that we are Good Samaritans, called to love across differences of race, class, religion, and other social realities. Yet we are also recipients of God’s boundary-bursting, Samaritan love — Jesus found us by the side of the road, bandaged our wounds, and nursed us into wholeness by the power of his Holy Spirit.
As a community whose health has been and is being restored, Christ calls us to tend to the social ills of his people and all people. Matthew 25:31-46, in particular, underscores the importance of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those who are in prison, and welcoming the stranger.
By caring with and for society’s most vulnerable members — Jesus calls them “the least of these” — we bear witness to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in Christ. We embody his love by performing acts that immediately address the maladies of drug addiction, domestic violence, and chronic sickness. Moreover, our engagement in intermediate, systems-transforming work on behalf of the least of these — inmates, immigrants, gay and lesbian military personnel, and so on — testifies to the restorative justice of God’s kingdom in Christ.
Such care, whether personal or structural, does not itself build or establish God’s kingdom. To claim that it does collapses human initiative into divine work (making devils out of those who may oppose it for well-argued reasons) and, more dangerously, runs the risk of idolizing the stratification of power that enables such change (e.g., relief and development arms of denominations or national governments become sacrosanct instruments beyond critique). Our individual and collective care for “the least of these” represent necessary and yet feeble attempts to follow in the footsteps of our Lord who prioritized the marginalized in his ministry. Our call is not about politics, not about ideology, but about modeling the love and justice of Christ. Cornel West has famously remarked that, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” What does our Christian faith look like out on the street?
Lent reminds us that the church’s social service and justice-making efforts fall short of God’s glory, that our best attempts to repair the world are still broken, leading us to depend anew on the care of Christ. We are weak, but the consolations of our Lord are strong; through him we discover the strength to love, the power to carry on.
We were hosted by an ecumenical group that visited the United Nations during the summer. While we were there we stayed with the Kimbanguish Church – the largest African-led Congolese church. In 1921, Simon Kimbangu, the founder of the Kimbanguish Church, prophesied that there would be a black President and African-Americans would begin to return to the Congo. Most of the participants [on the delegation] had no idea about the prophecy. We were greeted by thousands in the streets and it was all over the national news. During our visit the delegation met with the president of the general assembly and Congolese women that have been victims of rape.
When I returned home, I began to organize faith leaders for our PSA campaign. I reached out to Rev. Otis Moss, III at Trinity United Church of Christ, who had already been involved with the ongoing crisis in the Congo. KineticsLive.com has been in partnership with Trinity United Church of Christ since we launched in November 2011. We are asking communites of faith to host a screening of the film, Crisis of the Congo– a 27-minute documentary – and participate in Congo Week, October 20th – 26th, 2013. There will also be a letter writing campaign, starting in elementary school and going to high school. There is also a petition to implement the Obama law and to get Secretary of State to withhold funds from Rwanda, which is implicated in supporting the M23 [the rebels] who took over the city of Goma.
UF: Can you tell us a little bit more about the public service announcement aspect of Breaking the Silence?
JW: Sure. We are reaching out to faith leaders nationally and internationally to assist us in creating short videos stating that they are breaking the silence and shining light on the conflict in the Congo. It’s a two-minute presentation meant to be shown within a worship [and disseminated online]. Currently they are available on our website and are being uploaded to YouTube. We welcome more faith leaders to join us.
UF: How would you describe the goal of the campaign?
JW: First, we want to look at the history. Let’s start with the Berlin conference in 1884. King Leopold rules for 23 years, killing an estimated 10 million people while extracting rubber, ivory, and other minerals for trade. Belgium then rules until 1960. The first elected leader, Prime Minister Patrice Emery Lumumba, is assassinated. Then, the United States installs and backs a dictator – Mobutu Sese Seko – for over three decades. I could say more, but the point is that history contextualizes what’s going on in the Congo now.
The West has a history of exploiting the enormous natural and human resources in the Congo, which has an estimated mineral wealth of $24 trillion. Congo has enough agricultural resources to feed the world until 2050. And the Congo River has enough hydro-electric capacity to illuminate the entire continent and parts of Europe. The Congo is located in the heart of Africa. I believe if you save the Congo, you save Africa. Our goal is to bring awareness to the worst human rights conflict in the world and mobilize people of good will to demand justice for the Congolese people.
UF: Oftentimes, social justice is invoked on behalf of domestic issues – living wage, affordable housing, public health, etc. What would you say to those who want to globalize their understanding of what social justice entails?
JW: All issues are global issues. The wages that Americans are paid are directly connected to the global economy. The exploitation of labor in poor countries has resulted in many industries collapsing in America. Issues of underdevelopment are present in the two-thirds world and in urban America. I think it is impossible to be successful advocating on domestic issues without a global context. Black bodies have little value globally. We must do a better job of connecting our efforts for justice globally.
UF: Tell us a bit about yourself. What drives your commitment to the Congo? How did you get involved in this work?
JW: I grew up in Baltimore where I attended the Mason Memorial and Good Shepherd Church of God in Christ. The influence of the church and the example of my mom led me to live a life of service and ministry. Later I was introduced to the work of Randal Robinson, Founder of TransAfrica Forum, and he ignited my passion for global justice. While in college I studied Interdisciplinary Studies focusing on International Affairs, Financial Economic and Africana Studies (Pan-African Development) . Later I would worked as the program director for the Collective Banking group (CBG), a faith-based community economic corporation, representing over 200,000 congregants to develop and enhance economic empowerment strategies for African-Americans.
While at the CBG I attended Harvard University’s Summer Leadership Institute. During this program I developed my idea for Kinetics, an information ministry that using dialogue as a catalyst for social change. With theory of change ‘if we knew better, we would do better” Kinetics works to strengthen social movements within the African-American community by bridging the gap between the church, community-based organizations and the academy. My first client with Kinetics was TransAfrica Forum.
Six years ago, I was asked to join a coalition of faith leaders along with the Institute of Policy Studies,TransAfrica forum, Africa Action, Friends of the Congo, and the Africa Faith and Justice Network to identify common areas of partnership between our respective organizations. We started off trying to decide what issue in Africa could we mobilize around- Congo was the country of choice. Since the forming of the coalition, I have developed a stronger relationship with Friends of the Congo, and have been working to help them launch a Religious Council. So I’ve been passionate about the Congo for a while. But actually stepping on the soil – touching the people, holding babies…it’s something that I’ll never forget. I believe in the power of the church. I’m critical, but I believe with our flaws and all, the black church will save the community and be an instrument of healing.
UF: So the premise is that “if we know better we would do better”.
JW: Exactly. Let’s think about our context. Who is telling the story of the Congolese? You can’t just watch CNN and MSNBC and think you’re engaged. We have to tell our own story.When it comes to media ownership, we’re not part of the game. We’re not controlling local radio or national syndication – even with the Grio, the Root, and Huffington Post Black Voices.
Let’s take, for example, the Baltimore campaign against Governor [Martin O’ Malley] proposed construction of a youth prison. No one was telling that story [emphasis added]. Rev. Heber Brown, pastor of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, called and said that the Governor wants to build a $100 million youth jail when they are closing recreation centers and haven’t built a new school in 30 years”. I had hosted “Justice Sundays” on poverty and mass incarceration in the past. We decided to host Youth Justice Sunday on October 31st and had 25 churches and organizations endorse it, along with Rev. Frank Reid. It was a two-hour program and march to the proposed youth jail site.
We used our website and social media to bring awareness to the issue. Our allies created YouTube videos and Facebook pages. Many of our churches were unaware that the Governor was preparing to build a youth jail. [And our organizing and publicizing] gave us enough coverage to leverage the story and then other media outlets began to pick it up. That’s why we did Youth Justice Sunday and that’s the importance of an information ministry and telling your own story.
UF: How would you define information ministry?
JW: The Bible says my people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge. An information is about Informing, equipping and empowering the church to do the work God has called us to do. Once we are informed we must put our faith into action.
UF: Any closing words of wisdom?
JW: I just want folks to get involved and to understand power of the church when we work together. In traveling I discovered that the many of the oppress peoples of the world draw on the civil rights movement and the legacy of the black church in America. It’s important to know that we have the power to transform the Congo, transform cities like Chicago and Baltimore, and transform the world.
Twiss modeled a healthy integration of Christianity and culture; he once remarked that, “walking the way of Jesus has meant embracing my Native American heritage”. A gentle-hearted and uncompromising truthteller, he identified America’s original sins of racism and Native American genocide in order to establish reconciliation built on justice and dignity for all who bear God’s image.
Leroy Barber, President of Mission Year and director of The Voices Project (Photo Credit: MissionYear.org)
Urban Faith: Leroy, thanks for your time. Let’s start from the beginning. What is the Voices Project?
Leroy Barber: We’re a group of African-American leaders coming together to have a conversation around issues that affect the African-American community as well as to be a voice to other communities.
[Our goal] is to better represent the African-American community, who its leaders are as it relates to justice issues, as it relates to Christianity, and society in general. We want to help bring a broad spectrum of African-American voices back into the public square.
We are pulling folks from business world, social activists, politicians, musicians – every arena that affects culture. We are convening a conversation and getting the word out through writing and speaking projects. [We’re] trying to extend the rich history of constructive African-American engagement with culture.
Why now? What makes the Voices Project critical for this particular historical moment?
Politically, folks may be more apt to listen. We have an African-American – or someone who is biracial – as president and we know that poverty is deepening within African-American communities. We offer a voice to those who are living beneath the poverty line and suffering from ills of injustice. Instead of being silent we want to offer a platform for voices to emerge from [that] injustice.
Our community is suffering from not having a diversity of voices speaking to and from the African-American community. In the past, we have had athletes speak on our behalf, but now that role is diminishing. We need more than just athletes, more than rappers.
How often do we hear African-Americans who are involved in politics, business, and social action – all these arenas – speaking about and into everyday life in our community?
Also, the role traditionally played by publications like an Ebony or Jet is not quite the same in our community.
That’s a fascinating point. In light of the changing dynamics that you mention, how is the Voices Project positioning itself to speak to African-American folks today?
We’re highlighting diversity within our movement. We’re not calling everyone to be the same thing. We have older pastors and younger pastors. Entertainers and musicians. We’re trying to reconnect across generations – linking the old guard of the church with the young guard.
The Church has historically been the major social and spiritual voice within our community, but now that is changing. We definitely appreciate and value its role. I mean, I’m a Christian. So I value the church. At the same time, diversity for us is not just about the church but about cultural vocations of politicians, artists, musicians, business leaders, and so on.
Understood. It sounds like you’re talking about two different kinds of diversity?
That’s right. We’re about being intentionally intergenerational and diversity in the sense of engaging individuals across various vocations and from different sectors.
How long has the Voices Project been in existence?
We are moving into our third year. We meet twice a year. Our group has been growing over the past few years. Different individuals come in at different times. We’re at about forty individuals now who are leaders within their fields. In the near future, we’re looking at convening a larger gathering.
We chose to meet in New York City and Orlando.. New York City is the center of culture – fashion, news outlets, arts, entertainment. All of this is centered in New York, so that this voice can get out there.
Then, there’s Orlando. Disney is the place of inspiration. It’s a place where you dream big, you don’t hinder your dreams, [you] work hard, and anything can come true. Orlando [in the context of the Voices gathering] is shaped around questions like: what is God doing in your organization? What are you envisioning? What are you seeing?
In New York City, we focus on getting the word out. We ask, “how do you apply the dream that we discussed in Orlando”?
We’ve covered a lot of ground about the Voices Project. Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
I’ve been working in cross-cultural spaces for the last 25 years. Growing up, I attended a predominantly white high school. The question for me was: “How do I survive this place? How can I be heard within this space and find myself?” That question has been important for me. You know, I come across so many black folks who know what they’re doing – I mean, they’re doing phenomenal stuff – but no one hears their story. They’re doing mentoring, youth development, and education, but somehow there uniqueness still isn’t coming through.
My sense is that you [everyone] have a story. You have a gift and let’s here about your gift as you give it to the world. We get filtered stories all the time. I want to hear directly from the folks who are being affected [by issues of concern].
We’re in a world where young black youth are saying – I see it in my work – “I don’t want to get married because that’s for white folks. I don’t want to read because that’s for white people”. Our people – especially our [African-American] youth – are not hearing the powerful stories of Maya Angelou, and other folks that can make a difference.
You raise a great point about filtering stories through the voices of other individuals. With the rediscovery of Scripture’s justice themes taking place within Evangelicalism, I’m noticing a lot of filtering taking place. If you think this filtering is in fact taking place, how does the Voices Project avoid reinforcing that trend and instead push back against the filtering dynamic?
We address that by reaching out to those who understand and work in different cultures. They have competency in different cultural contexts. They know how to give a hard message with a degree of respect and grace. And they have done it in different circles. I used to think I was the only way doing that type of stuff. But then I discovered that there’s a whole community of black leaders who know how to lead all kinds of people. They know how to all the stuff – how to trainings and seminars on race; they maneuver the black church with honor and walk through those doors. They have the gift to do it. I have no doubt about that.
Thanks. As you know, we’re quickly approaching February, which of course is Black History. What’s the significance of Black History Month for African-Americans and our broader society today?
I have two angles for that. We’ve lost heart around this celebration. We have older leaders who really embrace it, but it hasn’t really been accepted cross-culturally across generations and sectors. I’m disappointed by that. I’d like to see it revived – some of our artists, poets, and writers, bringing black history back to the forefront.
The second thing – and this comes to the Voices Project – is about the dynamic of bringing in an Anglo person to connect with and educate Anglo communities on black history month. I understand that an Anglo person can speak these issues and yes, it’s important for everyone, but why not invite, but why not an African-American voice to speak to white audiences about the significance of black history? It’s an important opportunity to leverage.
So, let’s recapture and regain the magic of black history month. That would mean bringing a diverse group of African-American church leaders along. We’re talking about history of faith, music, literature, arts – all of that stuff pulled together. For some reason, these things have gotten splintered, but it’s important to bring it together again.
During February, I bring a musician and artist with me [as I preach and speak]. When I preach, some is [also] doing Negro spirituals and giving the history of those [songs]. At same time, artists are painting. Those three things working together are powerful man. The creativity of what we do as African-Americans is powerful and we need to embrace it.
Great. As we conversing, I’m hearing a theme of spirituality connecting with a broad concern for justice. It reminds me a bit of Sojourners and I know that you are involved with their Emerging Voices project. Tell me, where did you discover the connection between spiritual renewal and social justice?
I grew up hearing the Gospel and the social Gospel. These were two tracks and two different lines…with the Gospel being the main track. I think our call as spiritual people is for restoration is linked with justice in God’s economy. That call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. In Isaiah, we hear about the fast that God chooses, to loose the bonds of injustice. It’s about setting the captives free [holistically]. Spiritual restoration is linked with social justice.
The Emerging Voices are living one message. You can’t have one without the other. When the children of Israel come out of Egypt, we see clearly that their spiritual renewal and freedom are linked together.
My voice within those voices [and in the Voices Project] is to prevent those two things from clashing but to bring them together.
Wonderful. Any final words of wisdom?
I’m hoping we’ll begin to make an impact around affecting folks’ lives. We don’t need a whole lot of fanfare. We need folks who understand how to have a big voice without being the center of attention. As I can do that more as a leader, I can help out and have an impact on my community.
We’re about big voices that speak out against injustice without being the center of attention. It’s a team effort. We’re a village and we want to keep that at the center of attention.
That’s a great line: “Big voices speaking out against injustice without being the center of attention”. Leroy, it’s been a pleasure. God’s blessings upon your work. Thank you.
FREE AT LAST?: In ‘Runaway Slave,’ pastor and activist C.L. Bryant and other African American conservatives reject liberal politics and ask whether big government entitlements are a new form of slavery.
The title of the new film Runaway Slave might lead some to dismiss it as just another dramatization of a commonly rehearsed chapter of black history in America. But when one discovers that the film is actually a documentary about a politically liberal African American pastor’s conversion into the conservative political movement, the title suddenly takes on a much more provocative tone. On one level, Reverend C.L. Bryant’s Runaway Slave is a coming-of-age narrative about his shift from being a pastor and NAACP Chapter President to being a prominent defender of small government, free markets, and personal responsibility. On another level, however, it is a clear rebuke of what the filmmakers perceive as the black community’s enslavement to the Democratic Party and progressive politics. Bryant wants us to understand that the black community is not a political monolith, and that our moral and economic concerns might be better addressed by the Republican Party’s conservative platform.
A press release for the movie leaves no doubt about the film’s point of view. After announcing that the movie comes to us “from the creators of Tea Party: The Documentary Film,” it goes on to describe the film’s general premise:
Rev. Bryant takes viewers on an historic journey across America that traces the footsteps of runaway slaves who escaped to freedom along routes that became known as the Underground Railroad. But in the film, he also travels a “new underground railroad” upon which Black Conservatives are speaking out against big government policies which have established a “new plantation” where “overseers” like the NAACP and so-called “civil rights” leaders keep the Black community 95 percent beholden to one political party.
The great achievement of Runaway Slave is its geographically and ideologically diverse portrait of black conservatism. Bryant talks with financial conservatives like Marvin Rodgers, a Rock Hill, South Carolina, an aspiring politician who emphasizes the “pocketbook politics” of supporting small businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship. He speaks with academics like the economist Thomas Sowell, conservative school-reform advocates, right-to-life activists, and small business owners. Interestingly, everyone but the Wall Street and country club conservatives are present. Their omission is noteworthy — precious few black conservatives are a part of the proverbial 1 percent. Nevertheless, by interviewing grassroots activists and organizations in nearly every region of the country, Bryant convincingly demonstrates that black conservatism is a national thread within the African American political tradition.
The film sets forth a conventionally conservative view of government: lower taxes; less government regulation; strong defense of property rights. Additionally, participants construe the government as a presumptuous behemoth that presents itself as the “Daddy,” “Slave Master,” and “God” of American citizens. In this framework, reducing the size of the public sector becomes an article of faith, not simply a political position.
Two dynamics merit mentioning here. First, deep appreciation for our nation’s originating documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc. — sits alongside profound disappointment with the current state of government. If our origins are laudable and our contemporary moment is lamentable, as the movie claims, then we must conclude that we lost our national footing somewhere along the way. The documentary avoids conceptual clarity about how this moment of decline happened, when it happened, and who is responsible for it. Progressives and Socialists — two distinct traditions which are conflated in the film — are blamed for leading America astray, but the accusation is too vague to persuade anyone who is not already a true believer.
Secondly, the attacks on government are general — there is no exploration of the merits and demerits of Social Security, Medicare, and the GI Bill, for instance, programs that are popular across the political spectrum. Instead, the viewer encounters Government as a monstrosity that overtaxes, overregulates, and overreaches at every turn.
Runaway Slave is also noteworthy for its conservative form of American civil religion. Many Americans are familiar with more progressive forms of civil religion — Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, for example. But there is another side to American exceptionalism. U.S. congressman Allen West of Florida alludes to this tradition when citing Matthew 5 to position America as “a city set on a hill.” America, in this view, is the country where you reap what you sow. A land where hard work, education, and the hand of Providence guides families upward on the ladder of social mobility. It’s not difficult to see how many of these cultural values have become inseparable from the American brand of Christianity.
After watching the documentary, the viewer is left to wonder: what distinguishes conservative visions of government from the liberal visions? Reverend Bryant is not endorsing a libertarian or anarchist view of society. Despite his impassioned pleas about escaping from the plantation, there is no sign that he wants to destroy the master’s house. That is to say, Runaway Slave does not explicitly or implicitly advocate dismantling our social insurance system, ending subsidies to large agribusiness corporations, or stopping the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).
Generally speaking, political realities temper the policy visions of liberals and conservatives. Bryant documents a deep commitment to liberty within the American political tradition. Rightly so. But there is little — if any — mention of our political tradition of equality, a complementary thread in our tapestry. The argument of the film would be strengthened if it directly addressed, for instance, the policy trade-offs that Presidents Nixon (expanding food stamps, starting the Environmental Protection Agency) and Bush (Medicare prescription drug program, comprehensive immigration reform proposal) made between liberty and equality. That oversight notwithstanding, Runaway Slave is one of the most expansive treatments of black conservatism currently available, and is therefore worth watching and discussing.
View the theatrical trailer below, and visit the Runaway Slave website for information on where to see the film in your area.