California Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee is among the names being considered to replace Sen. Kamala Harris as she heads to the White House to serve as the first woman vice president of the United States.
Lee, currently in her 12th term in the U.S. House of Representatives, is the highest-ranking Black woman in Congress as co-chair of the steering and policy committee — a position she was appointed to by Speaker Nancy Pelosi after narrowly losing her bid for Democratuc Caucus Chair. Lee got her start in politics as a college student who volunteered to work on Shirley Chisholm’s pioneering campaign for president in 1972.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, will fill Harris’ vacancy. The 19th’s editor-at-large, Errin Haines, spoke to Lee on Saturday about her future and what’s next for Black women in political leadership after a year that saw record turnout, organizing and candidacies for public office for the vanguard constituency of the Democratic Party.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You are somebody who is certainly in the conversation right now, so I want to talk to you about that and the future of Black women’s political power now, and people coming around to the reality that they should be following Black women’s leadership.
I got involved in politics through the presidential campaign of the first African American woman … We have thought, we’ve dreamed about this moment, but we’ve also worked for it.
I know this is a year in which we’ve seen the importance of representation in our politics. Kamala Harris launched her own campaign last year in the spirit of Shirley Chisholm. Talk a little bit about the importance of more women — and Black women, in particular — running for elected office, something I know Chisholm talked about. What do you think about where we are in this moment and where we should be going from here?
I was there when [Harris] kicked off her campaign, and I was so honored to co-chair her California presidential campaign. So for me personally, this is just a remarkable moment. And what it says, I think, is, finally! Black women have been smart, we’ve been strategic, we’ve helped elect so many candidates to public office, and we’ve always brought other Black women and other women of color with us. And so this is such a historic occasion for Black women and women of color. But it also says that more women will be able to break through and it will be a heck of a lot easier [to do so].
Sticking with the theme of representation matters: Kamala Harris breaking that barrier in California, to become the state’s first Black senator, first Black woman senator, and now she’s the only Black woman currently serving in the U.S. Senate. What has that representation meant?
With Sen. Harris in the Senate — I’ve worked with her on a variety of issues such as, for instance, the Hyde Amendment — it’s about racial justice for Black women of color, low-income women as it relates to reproductive justice. She understands why this policy has been so destructive and discriminatory against women of color and low-income women.
[Like] when you look at marijuana justice, when you look at the numbers of Black and brown people who have been incarcerated and have these drug charges, which have just stopped them, and been a barrier to moving forward with their lives.
So representation, it really does matter, because the lens by which you look at policies are lenses that others don’t have. And that’s because of who we are, our experiences and the pathways that we have had to walk and run to get to where we are. And so, you know, there’s a void when there are not the perspectives and the input and the leadership of Black women.
Yeah, absolutely. And so obviously, when [Harris] vacates that seat, there will be a void. I know you have a relationship with her. Have you spoken to the vice president-elect about when she might be vacating that seat?
Oh, no, no, no. It’s probably still too early. I don’t know, I have no idea. And I haven’t even seen any press reports. I mean, I’ve heard from her, but not about that.
Has she even given you any indication of who she might like to see as her successor?
Other people have already told me they want to see you as her successor. So, I have to ask you, is a job that you are interested in?
Well, there’s several African American women who would meet the test and who would be phenomenal in the Senate. I would be honored. Because you know, public service for Black women is not just about being elected; that’s another platform and framework for public service. The governor will make his decision. We will respect his decision, because he has to determine who he thinks best will serve California, he has to take into all of his considerations, and come up with his conclusion as to who he thinks would best fill that void and who would be able to work with him as we move forward on our California agenda. So it’s up to him, quite frankly, but I know that there are several African American women on the list who are fully prepared and could serve.
If it’s not you, do you still think that whoever the next senator of California is should be a Black woman? I know, there’s been some conversation about making history with say, the first Latino to represent California…
The void that Senator Harris would leave as an African American woman is a huge void. Not speaking to any other issue or making this about beating up anyone else. It’s about the void and the fact that since the first Senate session, I believe, African American women have had a total of about 10 years with Sen. Carol Moseley Braun. So 10 years out of hundreds of years. And so this void and this gap would be tremendous. I believe that the governor will take that into consideration.
I know that you have a relationship with President Elect Biden. And so I’m just wondering what you’ve also if you’ve had a chance to speak with him, and what you’ve told him about the Black women that you’d like to see help him govern.
In the House and throughout the country, in the state legislatures, there are some brilliant and phenomenal African American women who could serve as cabinet officials. How many women do we have in the Congressional Black Caucus? All of us could serve in the cabinet. I know one consideration, of course, is making sure that the seats do not go, if they were vacated, to Republicans, but for the most part, most of the seats are strong Democratic seats. And so I think this provides a real opportunity for African American women in the House of Representatives to serve in a variety of positions.
My good friend of many years, [Ohio Democratic] Congresswoman Marcia Fudge for secretary of agriculture. I work with her — I’m on the appropriations committee, and I’m on the subcommittee on agriculture — and so I’ve had the privilege to not only work with Marcia as a colleague, but she’s a good friend. There’s nobody who knows ag issues like Congresswoman Fudge and I think she would be phenomenal as a secretary of ag, and I’m certain that her district would elect another Democrat to that seat.
Sticking with the House for a minute: Who are the other Black women that you would like to see in elected House leadership?
I think that it’s time. I think that those of us who run in the past, we’ve shattered some of those glass ceilings. And we’ve broken some of those barriers, even though we may not have won the election. I think that now, more members see that the capacity, capabilities, the value and the strategic positioning and how Black women really do have the ability to help unite the caucus and bring [it] together. And so, yes, several are running. And, you know, I’m hoping that they win and I’m going to help.
If you are not headed to the Senate or headed to the cabinet, you were discussed for Speaker of the House after the historic 2018 midterms. I know how much respect you have, among your colleagues, and especially some of the younger women of color that you have mentored. Are you considering running this time? And is it time for a Black woman to hold that gavel?
I don’t think anyone could do what Speaker Pelosi has done in keeping this caucus together and winning elections. And I fully support her. When you look at Speaker Pelosi’s history and record, she’s probably been the greatest speaker ever because she’s had the most diverse caucus. And she has had the ability to raise money to make sure we elect more Democrats. She has supported women of color to assume committee chairs and vice chairs of committees. And so I think that, you know, I mean, I know she’s gonna be reelected, and I’m working to make sure that she is reelected as our speaker.
On her historic speakership: What do you think that has done to help this country’s political imagination around women in power?
It has shown that women lead and women lead on each and every issue, not only issues perceived as women’s issues, but every issue. And I think it’s also shown that especially with Speaker Pelosi, that racial equity matters. And that racial inclusion in the House of Representatives is an asset. And that we are able, and she has seen, especially with African American women and women of color in the House, how we work and how our legislative efforts really move forward, because we work with everyone, because we know that what’s good for women, and for our communities, as women of color for low-income communities.
I mean, she appointed me to chair the majority leader’s task force on poverty and opportunity, for example. She always talks about how she came to Congress—because one in five children live below the poverty line. Her keen understanding of those issues, that poverty not only affects women, it affects families, it affects children, it affects everyone across the board. African Americans have the highest percentage, but this is low-income, working families, poor, White families.
Speaker Pelosi has been able to see the issues that I want to champion, such as lifting people out of poverty … On COVID, I negotiated this in the HEROES bill targeting resources for Black and brown communities to deal with contact tracing and testing and follow up isolation and health care. She understood this, and we worked together to negotiate that. Her impact is broad and deep. And as a Black woman, I’ve been able to really help, not only my community, but all across the country on so many issues, because she understood it, and she got it.
And now we’re going to have one of us as vice president in the White House. This has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears, a lot of work. And a lot of hope that we never lost sight of what we were working for and toward and, you know, this is just a major milestone for everybody.
Recently, a life-size bronze sculpture of Jesus, called Homeless Jesus, went viral after someone made a 911 call about a homeless man on a bench. The bronze sculpture by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz depicts Jesus, identifiable by the wounds on his feet, sleeping on a street bench wrapped in a blanket.
With replicas located in prominent urban locations, such as Buenos Aires, Capernaum, New York, Madrid, Melbourne, Rome and Singapore, Homeless Jesus now dots the globe. There are six replicas in Canada alone.
I have spent the past two years looking at the news coverage of this religious public artwork to try and figure out why both faith-based organizations and secular media are fascinated by it. I examined interviews with faith leaders at organizations with a Homeless Jesus and online news articles that reference it.
Regardless of one’s religiosity, viewers are captivated by the image of a Jesus as a homeless figure. For faith-based organizations, Homeless Jesus is a symbol that communicates and teaches viewers about core Christian beliefs.
Schmalz produced this sculpture as part of a series that visually depicts a passage from the Bible found in the Gospel of Matthew 25:35-45. Here, Jesus tells his followers that they are caring for him when they tend to the needs of those who are sick, poor, naked, hungry, thirsty, imprisoned and strangers.
For those familiar with the story of Jesus, the sculpture’s message may appear ostensibly obvious. Yet the sculpture asks them to take this message literally and to pay attention to the dignity of those less privileged.
Likewise, those on the margins of society may feel comforted by the notion that Jesus (considered by some to be the Son of God, and by others, a wise prophet) identifies with their situations.
Faith-based organizations that install a Homeless Jesus replica say they choose to do so because they want to make a bold public statement about their social convictions.
Despite an unfamiliarity with or ambivalence toward the story of Jesus, Homeless Jesus may still resonate with secular and non-Christian viewers. The sculpture presents symbols with universal meanings: a street bench and a body trying to say warm, wrapped in blanket. These symbols say something about physical vulnerability in a public space. When combined, they become an icon of homelessness.
Bronze sculptures are often reserved for historic monuments and statues of community heroes. When this medium is combined with an image of homelessness, it generates a clear and powerful message. The unusual combination asks viewers to see those who are homeless as people with dignity, worthy of being sculpted. At the very least: they are worthy of safe and affordable housing.
This sculpture is a challenge to the dominant tendency to ignore the needs and stories of people who are homeless. The homeless population is often perceived as “natural losers” in a competitive market economy. Capitalism justifies the presence of extreme poverty in affluent societies. Homeless Jesus presents an alternative narrative.
Religious art can communicate insight
Homeless Jesus, and its spot in the limelight, demonstrates how religious public art can play a role in promoting the ideas of an equitable society.
Back in the ‘70s, critical theorist, Herbert Marcuse, said art can oppose oppressive ways of thinking, behaving and speaking. As a scholar who left Germany shortly before the onset of the Second World War, Marcuse understood the horrors that arise when a population uncritically serves the interests of the elite.
According to Marcuse, art that offers alternative perspectives and challenges social norms, can create spaces where people can identify and question oppressive social systems.
Jürgen Habermas, another key critical theorist who is still active writing and theorising today, proposed that although religion can be prescriptive, it can also provide an alternative perspective on social reality. He said religious and secular citizens should be willing to learn from one another.
Habermas suggested that at formal levels of political decision making, religious individuals should work to translate their ideas into a language that their secular counterparts find accessible.
Homeless Jesus exemplifies how religious public art can communicate a religious belief in a manner that is respectful of and intelligible to a diverse secular audience. Religious public art can be an avenue for faith-based organizations to meaningfully contribute to the bettering of social life.
The Rev. Rolland Slade in October 2018. Video screengrab
In his first meeting as leader of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, the Rev. Rolland Slade called on other committee members on Tuesday (Sept. 22) to be responsible “to shepherd and to protect” survivors of church sex abuse.
Slade, senior pastor of Meridian Baptist Church in El Cajon, California, announced that the issue is “personal” for him because his wife is a survivor.
“For the last 40 years of my life, I have been in touch with a survivor of sexual abuse in the church,” he said to the 70 people attending the virtual meeting. “In fact, we’ve been married 39 years. So when I say it’s personal, it’s personal. And I encourage you to listen. You don’t have to solve it but you need to listen and share with them how much you care and what has happened to them is not what God would have happen in the church.”
Slade was elected in June as the first African American chair of the committee that runs the business of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination between its annual meetings.
The issue of sexual abuse has been a growing focus of the denomination, the country’s second largest Christian group, but has been particularly pressing since a series in the Houston Chronicle last year cataloged some 700 cases of alleged abuse by Southern Baptist pastors and other leaders over two decades. Mike Stone, the committee’s previous chairman, began a meeting of the group last year by displaying a photo of himself as a young child and sharing that he had been abused as a boy.
At the 2019 SBC annual meeting, Southern Baptists approved a new credentials committee that can recommend the disaffiliation of churches that do not properly handle instances of abuse. In February, the Executive Committee removed a Texas church that had employed a pastor who was a registered sex offender.
Jon Wilke, media relations director for the Executive Committee, told Religion News Service before Tuesday’s meeting that the credentials committee “continues to meet virtually and work on churches submitted for disfellowship.” He said the committee will not bring any new recommendations to the full Executive Committee until after it meets in person again, tentatively set for February.
SBC President J.D. Greear, one of the speakers at the Tuesday meeting, echoed Slade’s remarks on supporting abuse survivors as one of the numerous ways the Southern Baptists should focus on describing themselves as “Great Commission Baptists,” a reference to Jesus’ command to spread his message globally that is a theme of the next annual meeting.
“Our focus on the Great Commission is why we will continue to strive to make the most vulnerable in our churches — specifically victims of sexual abuse — feel safe by showing them that we will do everything in our power to keep our churches safe from abuse and safe for the abused,” Greear said.
“That’s not something we do because it’s in the media. It’s not something we do because it’s trendy,” he added.
“We do that because it’s right and because Jesus died for those that were vulnerable and said it’d be better if a millstone were hung about our neck and cast into the sea than to cause one of the little ones to believe and then to stumble.”
Slade listed abuse survivors as the second of two groups he believed his committee should give particular attention. The other is pastors of the relatively small churches that comprise the bulk of congregations affiliated with the evangelical denomination.
“I respect wholeheartedly pastors who have pastored megachurches and have great testimony of the thousands that they reach each and every week,” said Slade. “But I want to remind us that of our denomination of 48,000 churches, there are more churches that are normative size,” he said, referring to churches with Sunday attendance of fewer than 100 people.
Slade offered his own church as an example. “Meridian Baptist Church runs a little over a hundred on a really good Sunday when we count everybody who steps on the property,” he said.
Slade expressed his wish that the men who lead these congregations — often working in additional jobs and giving a portion of their salaries to support the SBC budget — should be connected with megachurch pastors and church planters, who start new congregations.
Bishop J. Delano Ellis. Photo courtesy of Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops
Bishop J. Delano Ellis II, a Black church official who started Pentecostal organizations and emphasized ecumenism, died over the weekend.
He was 75 and died after a recent hospitalization.
“While you share your love, concern and prayers with us, God and Bishop Ellis had another plan,” the Rev. Sabrina J. Ellis, who co-pastored Pentecostal Church of Christ in Cleveland with her husband, said in a Facebook post on Saturday (Sept. 19). “My husband made his transition this morning. Please continue to pray for us in this season.”
Over the course of his career, the Philadelphia native was a teacher, pastor and a chief of chaplains in the U.S. Air Force Civil Air Patrol.
But J. Delano Ellis was also among a group of “High-Church Pentecostal” clerics who in the 1990s became known for adorning their necks with Roman collars, wearing priestly garments with links to their African heritage and reciting the Nicene Creed. They were part of a trend that reshaped a portion of American Black religion.
“Traditionally … the Pentecostal church maintained its ardor but was never really known for its order,” the bishop, then president of the United Pentecostal Churches of Christ, told Religion News Service in 1995. “What we’re discovering … is that order is not blasphemous. Order best represents God.”
At that time, Ellis’ denomination had joined with two other groups, Pilgrim Assemblies International and Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship, for the first Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops. They supported women ministers, which was a departure from some traditions. At their conference’s closing ceremony, Ellis and other bishops wore fuchsia zucchettos, or skullcaps, and episcopal rings, religious wear reminiscent of Roman Catholic bishops.
Bishop J. Delano Ellis visits with Pope John Paul II in 1991. Photo courtesy of Bishop J. Delano Ellis
Ellis’ ecumenical work included several visits to the Vatican during St. John Paul II’s papacy, including one in 2000 where he led 160 delegates on a pilgrimage in hopes of building closer ties with the Catholic Church.
He retired in 2014 from the role of national chief of chaplains for the Civil Air Patrol, according to a bio on his ministry’s website.
Ellis was recalled as a key leader by members of the Church of God in Christ, a denomination he served for more than 35 years, and other faith leaders.
“Bishop Ellis was the consummate churchman. He was a wise counselor, dedicated servant, and a wealth of information that was helpful to generations of preachers, pastors and bishops,” said Bishop Talbert W. Swan II, leader of COGIC’s Nova Scotia jurisdiction. “He was a mentor, a friend, and a church father. He will be sorely missed.”
African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Vashti McKenzie, a Texas-based leader, responded to Sabrina Ellis’ announcement of her husband’s death.
“Time will not dull his legacy,” McKenzie commented on Facebook, “you and his sons and daughters in the faith will flesh out the rest.”
In 2004, Ellis had to step down from his leadership of the United Pentecostal Churches of Christ for health reasons.
But a couple of years later, he and more than a dozen other bishops started the Pentecostal Churches of Christ after he recovered from leukemia.
At the time, Ellis marveled at the convocation that came three years after he was preparing for his death.
“It was not a lack of faith in God’s ability to heal. It wasn’t that,” Ellis said. “It was more of a belief that maybe God was finished with me.”
About two weeks before his death, his last public appearance was in Cleveland, at a dedication ceremony naming a portion of an avenue in his honor. His family said he was hospitalized less than 24 hours later, a local Fox news station reported.
“I’ve got one thing to say,” he told the crowd at the Sept. 6 ceremony, “to God be the glory.”
Shamony Makeba Gibson was in her hospital room, recovering after giving birth, when she said something that worried her mother.
Gibson had just delivered her second child, Khari, a healthy baby boy, via C-section at Brooklyn’s Woodhull Hospital on Sept. 23, 2019.
But in the delivery room while prepping for her surgery, Gibson told her mother, doctors had briefly struggled to insert an IV in her hand — likely because of a blood clot, she said they informed her.
Shawnee Benton-Gibson’s concern for her daughter was based on her years of reproductive justice activism in New York City, working with mothers and families dealing with issues like postpartum depression and stillbirths.
Back at home after leaving the hospital, Gibson felt fatigued and short of breath, her mother recalled in a phone interview with THE CITY.
“I talked to her about pulmonary embolisms, but she said they checked her in the hospital for it,” Benton-Gibson said.
Besides, her daughter argued, she was taking anticoagulants — commonly prescribed after surgeries, including C-sections — and was wearing compression undergarments the hospital gave her to improve circulation. But her fatigue and shortness of breath persisted.
‘My Best Friend’
One evening in early October, watching TV in the Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment she shared with her partner and their children, Gibson collapsed. EMS workers resuscitated her and rushed her to Interfaith Medical Center, the nearest hospital.
There, doctors found blood clots had spread to her lungs and legs.
Gibson — an artist who was “very funny” and “loved to sing,” according to her mother — died 14 hours later on Oct. 6, two weeks after her son was born.
The cause of death was the condition her mother had suspected: a pulmonary embolism. She was 30 years old.
Her children live with Omari Maynard, their father and Gibson’s partner of seven years.
“She was very fiery like me,” said Benton-Gibson, 51. “She was my best friend.”
Stark Disparities Persist
On Thursday, Benton-Gibson joined other women like her — grandmothers left to help raise their grandchildren after the sudden deaths of their own daughters — for #HearUs, a virtual pre-Grandparents Day event to raise awareness about Black maternal mortality.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 700 women die in the United States each year from pregnancy-related complications. By the CDC’s estimates, two-thirds of those deaths occur in the days and weeks postpartum — and about two-thirds of deaths overall were determined to be preventable.
A 2017 study by the medical journal The Lancet found that the United States has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the developed world — a trend that’s steadily increased over the last two decades.
Brooklyn, where Gibson lived, is home to three neighborhoods that rank highest in the city for non-fatal but serious pregnancy-related illness, or severe maternal morbidity, according to a 2016 study by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
In Brownsville, which has the city’s highest rate of such incidents at 497.4 per 10,000 deliveries, 79% of all deliveries were to Black non-Latina women.
The borough is also home to the neighborhood with the city’s lowest rate of severe maternal morbidity — largely white Borough Park, with a rate of 113.3 per 10,000 deliveries, according to that same DOHMH study.
Gibson’s death was particularly wrenching for Davis, who worked at the city’s health department for more than a decade.
She knew Gibson and her mother well from their reproductive justice work in Brooklyn. Benton-Gibson was the first person to offer Davis a public speaking opportunity on maternal well-being, she noted.
“I can tell you that she has saved lives,” Davis said of Benton-Gibson’s activism. “I can tell you that Shamony [also] has saved lives. And all that knowledge was not enough to save her own life.”
The Thursday evening event — equal parts memorial, group therapy session and rally — brought together women from New York, California, Alabama and Georgia who’d lost their daughters, and in one case, a grandchild as well, to complications stemming from childbirth.
‘All that knowledge was not enough to save her own life.’
Most of those women have embraced a life of activism after the sudden loss of their loved ones.
Among them were Maddy Oden, of Oakland, Calif., who became a doula after the 2001 deaths of her daughter, Tatia Oden French, and her grandchild Zorah, during delivery.
Also attending was Wanda Irving, mother of Shalon Irving, a 36-year-old CDC epidemiologist in Atlanta who died in 2017 from complications of high blood pressure weeks after delivering her daughter.
“Women know their bodies best and know when something doesn’t feel right,” Shanna Cox, associate director for science for CDC’s Division of Reproductive Health, told THE CITY. “The campaign is encouraging women to speak up — during and after pregnancy — if they have health concerns.”
Calls for Justice
Benton-Gibson, a longtime community organizer and licensed social worker, founded The A.R.I.A.H. — Association for Reproductive Innovation through Artistry & Healing — Foundation, which “works to stop the devastation of Black maternal mortality,” in the aftermath of her daughter’s death.
“I’m conflicted: Do I cry? Yes. Am I upset about this? Yes. Do I sometimes wake up and feel like ‘What the…?’” Benton-Gibson said at the event.
“But my bigger stand is that that girl lived all the days that she lived, and I don’t want those days that she lived to be in vain so that the day she passed took over,” she added. “But how she passed — that’s what every breath in my body will be about, because I’m making sure that this never happens again.”
It’s a similar position to the one Bruce McIntyre found himself in nearly six months ago when his partner, Amber Rose Isaac, died during delivery at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx in April during the coronavirus crisis.
On Aug. 1, McIntyre hosted a “Mothers March,” a rally for Isaac and others who died from pregnancy-related causes. Dozens, including Benton-Gibson, attended the event and donned purple in Isaac’s memory.
Also at the march was the family of Sha-asia Washington, who died during delivery on July 3 at Woodhull Hospital, where Gibson gave birth last year.
“I’m staying up all night holding the baby that she should be here holding,” Desiree Williams, Washington’s mother-in-law, said at a separate rally in July in front of that hospital. “It’s not fair, it’s not right. My son is broken down, it’s not right.”
‘She Was Really Happy’
Gibson, an artist who specialized in dance, was “very savvy in graphic design,” and “loved to travel,” her mother said. The Medgar Evers College graduate had visited 10 countries.
She wanted a big family, Benton-Gibson said: five children, which she tried talking her out of, without much success.
“She loved the idea of having children,” she said.
Courtesy of Shawnee Benton-Gibson Shamony Makeba Gibson and her partner, Omari Maynard
When Benton-Gibson became pregnant for the second time in 2019, she knew exactly the kind of birth she wanted.
She had delivered her first child two years prior, a baby girl named Anari, via C-section. When she found out she was expecting Khari, she pored over information about natural births, and at one point even considered a home birth.
She researched doulas and midwives in her area and eventually hired one of each, including a Black doula who lived a short walk from her Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment.
“She was really happy, had a baby shower and everything,” Benton-Gibson said.
But after she checked into the hospital, doctors told her she needed another C-section.
Before that news, she had told her mother, “This birthing experience is going to be different.”
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