Tennessee State University offers coding classes in Africa

Tennessee State University offers coding classes in Africa

FILE – In this April 13, 2021, file photo, Tennessee State University President Glenda Glover smiles during a press conference in Nashville. Tennessee State University announced on Wednesday, MAY 26, 2021, that it will begin offering an online app design and coding class in two African countries this fall. (George Walker/The Tennessean via AP, FILE)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee State University announced on Wednesday that it will begin offering an online app design and coding class in two African countries this fall.

Robbie Melton, who runs TSU’s coding program, said the idea is to get African students interested in STEM careers and increase the number of Black students entering those fields. App design and coding is an easy introduction.

The courses are offered through a partnership between the historically Black university and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which operates several schools in Africa. The participating schools are the African Methodist Episcopal University and its feeder high school, Monrovia College, both in Monrovia, Liberia, and Wilberforce Community College, which serves high school and college students in Evaton, a township in South Africa.

TSU already offers the app coding program to more than 30 historically Black colleges and universities in the United States, and more than 2,000 students have participated since it started in 2019, Melton said. Around 20% have gone on to pursue STEM degrees, she said.

In addition to teaching students, TSU faculty members train participating school faculty to be able to give the courses themselves. The same will be true for the African schools, which have signed up 500 students to take the course over the next three years. That includes both college students and high school students who will take advantage of dual-enrollment.

If some of the students decide to continue their studies with TSU, the school is now able to offer degrees remotely through virtual classes, TSU President Glenda Glover said.

“Our global mission is to empower underserved populations,” Glover said. “Access to education is challenging in parts of Africa. We’re meeting that challenge and breaking those barriers.”

 

Religion plays a role in the renewed conflict in Israel, but it may not be what you think

Religion plays a role in the renewed conflict in Israel, but it may not be what you think

Originally published May 12, 2021

(RNS) — Violence between Gaza and Israel intensified this week to levels not seen for years, with Hamas shooting hundreds of rockets toward the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and Israel retaliating with heavy strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.

The buildup to the current conflagration — some are already calling it a new “intifada” or “uprising” —  began several weeks ago in a Jerusalem neighborhood near the Old City, close to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites for more than 1,200 years.

While Muslims pray at Al-Aqsa year-round, the mosque attracts even more worshippers during Ramadan. Wednesday (May 12) marked the end of Ramadan and the start of Eid al-Fitr, a joyous time for millions of Muslims concluding a monthlong fast.

There’s no doubt that the most extreme Jewish nationalists would like Israel to recapture the Al-Aqsa Mosque because they say it sits on top of the ruins of the ancient Jewish Temple, the only remainder of which is the Western Wall.

But except for the setting of the conflict, faith is only tangentially related to the violence. Here’s a quick explainer on the conflict of the past few days, and what, if any, role religion plays.

Why did Israeli police raid the Al-Aqsa Mosque to begin with?

The Israeli government said the police responded after the Palestinians started throwing stones at them. Palestinians say the fighting really began when police entered the mosque compound on May 10 and started firing rubber-tipped bullets and stun grenades. More than 330 Palestinians were wounded. Israel said 21 of its officers were, too.

But the underlying tensions may have more to do with a set of clashes in the larger east Jerusalem area, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and is home to about 350,000 Palestinians.

For weeks prior to the mosque violence, Palestinians had been protesting the threatened eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem. At night they would clash with police and far-right Jewish settlers.

Those clashes are in turn part of a long legal battle over who owns the property. Some Palestinians  were relocated to Sheikh Jarrah by the Jordanian government in the 1950s after fleeing their homes during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.

On May 10, the Israeli Supreme Court was set to decide whether to uphold the eviction of six families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in favor of Jewish settlers. The court has since postponed the ruling.

So this is a land dispute?

On a large scale, yes. In Sheikh Jarrah, in particular, the dispute originates in the 19th century, when Jews living abroad began returning to what is now Israel and buying properties from Palestinians who lived there. The Jordanians took over the land between 1948 and 1967. Israelis are now claiming it’s theirs again.

The dispute in Sheikh Jarrah takes on political overtones because the neighborhood is part of east Jerusalem, which Palestinians want name as the capital of a future Palestinian state encompassing the West Bank and Gaza. Many Israelis, regardless of their views about a Palestinian state, believe Jerusalem must remain “a Jewish capital for the Jewish people,” and under Israeli control.

What’s Hamas got to do with it?

The clashes between Israel and Palestinians in Jerusalem have united Palestinians far and wide, as have the larger disputes over their displacement and disenfranchisement by Israel. Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, located about 60 miles south of Jerusalem, sees itself as a defender of Palestinians.

Hamas is at root an Islamic organization born from members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and so it also cares deeply about the Al-Asqa Mosque, which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary.

On May 12, Israel assassinated several Hamas commanders in retaliation for the barrage of rockets on Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and Israel’s main international airport in the city of Lod.

What role does Judaism or Islam play in this?

At heart, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a dispute over land. But religion is often the proxy for those disputes, pitting two different ethnicities and religions. Little wonder those tensions tend to flare around religious holidays, both Jewish and Muslim.

But Hamas’ main goal is not war with Judaism, but rather with Israel, which is occupying land it believes is inherently Palestinian.

As Hamas has become more emboldened over the years, so too, have Jewish nationalists. On Monday, May 10, which was Jerusalem Day, a national holiday celebrating the unification of Jerusalem, Jewish nationalists marched through the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Muslim Quarter, in a display that provoked and angered many Palestinians.

As often happens, the exclusive claims to parts of the holy city often turn deadly.

 

 

The American Rescue Plan is welcome relief for faith communities

The American Rescue Plan is welcome relief for faith communities

Members and leaders of Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., worship in a mostly empty sanctuary Sunday, March 15, 2020, after church leadership encouraged people to worship from home via video livestream in response to the coronavirus. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News

(RNS) — For communities of faith, COVID-19 has introduced new stress to the already demanding pastoral work of comforting the families and friends of those who have died and ministering from afar to those who are sick. While virtual worship turns out to be possible, it is a less than ideal way to make vital community connections.

But there is another immediate and concrete way that faith communities have been called to action during the pandemic: in feeding the hungry, supporting those who have lost their jobs, income or housing and offering emotional support to families who have increasing requirements as caregivers.

While faith communities often serve as first responders to the needs of people in their communities, it is simply impossible for houses of worship or social service agencies to shore up and sustain everyone in our communities. Our faith convinces us that we have a moral imperative to care for all of those left behind in this crisis. We need the support of our government, a government that works for all the people.

When Congress passed the American Rescue Plan in March, it dramatically shifted how the United States addresses the ravages of the pandemic and the ravages of poverty. Not only was there funding to support vaccine distribution, the legislation provided structural support for people who struggle to pay their monthly bills.

Two popular tax credit programs — the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit — were expanded, allowing child poverty to be cut in half this year. Imagine what it means to moms and dads who can now afford food, diapers, clothing and utility bills and know they are no longer living on the edge of the chaos that comes from never having enough money.

Recently, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio joined the Rev. Eugene Cho, president and CEO of Bread for the World, and me to discuss the dramatic impact of the American Rescue Plan in helping families who struggle to pay the rent and keep their families from the edge of destitution. As Brown said of his vote on the American Rescue Plan: “The best day of my career. Look what we did. Shots in people’s arms and money in people’s pockets. Kids back in school and people back in jobs.”

The job of addressing the pandemic and poverty is far from over. These effective tax credit programs will need to be made permanent in legislation that Congress will consider later this year. It’s a step that the interreligious faith community will be there to raise its voice for.

Churches will also continue to build trust with their members to become vaccinated. The president has encouraged faith leaders to help build confidence for everyone to get vaccinated, saying, “They’re going to listen to your words, more than they are me, as president of the United States. We need you to spread the word, let people in our communities and your community know how important (it) is to get everyone vaccinated when it’s their turn. … I think this is the godly thing to do. Protect your brother and sister.”

Just as communities of faith have been called on the last 13 months to respond to serve others — with emotional, material and advocacy support — we continue to be called on to support the common good to defeat the pandemic and to defeat poverty.

( Diane Randallis the general secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a national, nonpartisan Quaker lobby for peace, justice and the environment. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service or UrbanFaith.)

Philanthropists and politicians: Religion is not a problem to solve, it’s a partnership opportunity

Philanthropists and politicians: Religion is not a problem to solve, it’s a partnership opportunity

(RNS) — In a period of significant pressure on our democracy, our health and our overall well-being as a people, faith has provided a hidden infrastructure that has held America together. We miss out on much good when we do not recognize the role of faith and religious institutions in our communities.

Last month, the Bridgespan Group released a report confirming what many of us already knew: While faith-inspired organizations, congregations and individuals make up a large percentage of America’s civic and social landscape — especially when it comes to providing aid to low-income people and those on the margins — they are significantly underrepresented and overlooked by philanthropic institutions who fund in these areas. Although faith is often in the headlines as a subject of political intrigue and a tool of partisan warfare, in the lives of millions of Americans, faith is felt closer to home, helping them to survive and make it week to week, day to day.

If you’re not familiar with the basic state of play, the findings of the Bridgespan Group might strike you as something more problematic than simply a missed opportunity. The report finds that “faith-inspired organizations account for 40 percent of social safety net spending across a sample of six cities, which vary in size and demographics. Yet, while some individual philanthropists and community foundations have recognized faith-inspired organizations as platforms for impact, that perspective has not translated into funding from the largest institutional philanthropies — particularly those seeking to address the effects of poverty and injustice.”

The report quotes Kashif Shaikh, co-founder and executive director of the Pillars Fund, a grantmaking organization that invests in American Muslim organizations, who rightly points out: “Secularism is the dominant narrative in the U.S., but often less so in vulnerable communities, in my experience. It’s a disservice to not even acknowledge it.”

Indeed, while it is certainly within the rights of philanthropic institutions to “not do religion,” such an approach undermines any meaningful, holistic commitment to community or place-based philanthropy in much of this country and in many places around the world. At best, a categorical rejection of religious engagement among institutions working in significantly religious communities amounts to an acknowledgment of an organizational deficiency. At worst, it adds up to a willful act of disruption and disrespect for the values, beliefs and culture of the communities that are “served.”

The problem is not just in philanthropy. In politics and public life, faith is often viewed as a sword or a shield for one’s own agenda. Religious communities are too rarely considered on their own terms, categorized instead as political foe or ally. This dynamic contributed to an unfortunate and harmful tenor of conflict between some governments and religious communities as we sought to mitigate COVID-19. These conflicts emerged, in part, because many elected officials viewed religious communities as a problem to solve rather than a potential partner. Politicians need to start viewing faith communities as not just sources of votes, but sources of wisdom and expertise.

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) detected a lack of understanding for how faith and civic health are tied together, and in particular, how faith communities are helping people build relationships and work together across difference. In 2019, they launched a funding and learning initiative, Faith In/And Democracy, to support faith-inspired organizations and efforts that are helping to hold our communities and our democracy together.

As an adviser to this program, I have been able to see the tireless, often thankless, work grantees of the program have advanced. We set out to determine if there was a distinct field of faith organizations and actors supporting our civic life, and our efforts have been met with a resounding “yes.” In its pilot year, over 130 qualified organizations applied to the program, and five were selected to participate in a robust learning community that included a range of advisers as well as philanthropic leaders committed to this work. Together, we grappled with what COVID-19 might mean for our grantees’ work, and we saw up close how they discovered creative ways to persist in their mission despite numerous roadblocks. During an election year when some sought to stir up religious resentment and conflict, our grantees were working to strengthen our democracy and build bridges of faith between disparate communities.

Through the crises of this year and my experiences working in the White House under President Obama, I have come to rely on the fact that if there is a crisis or challenge in the news, there are people of faith at work to address it for the common good. Faith is always at work.

As we turn our focus from lockdowns to vaccinations, public officials are turning to religious communities for support. In recent weeks, Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci participated in a service with D.C.-area clergy focused on the vaccine. Dr. Fauci has referred to the imperative to get adults vaccinated as a “‘love thy neighbor’ opportunity.” After relative dormancy during the Trump years, President Biden has reestablished and reinvigorated the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which should ensure the federal government is able to effectively partner with the faith community to keep the national response to COVID-19 on track.

If respected, valued and included, people of faith and religious institutions can be partners on so many of the issues at the top of the national agenda. For example, the Biden administration should not merely welcome the support of people of faith for the anti-poverty provisions in the American Rescue Plan, but rather, invite faith leaders to champion the provisions, to claim them as a harbinger of a new national commitment to better care for the “least of these.”

Likewise, we cannot have a conversation about strengthening our democracy without recognizing the role of faith as a molder of civic character and a shaper of civic consciousness. Faith communities’ value to our democracy does not only show up for “Souls to the Polls,” but in the countless ways in which faith beckons Americans outside of themselves and toward their neighbors. In many communities, congregations serve as civic incubators, forums for strengthening muscles of service, negotiation and love.

Philanthropy, governments and other sectors should never instrumentalize faith, nor impose their values on faith communities. The point is not that faith communities should be viewed as potential avenues for advancing someone else’s agenda — rather, that so much of what we struggle to do and be is already attended to by the resources inherent in many religious communities.

Nothing does what faith does the way faith does it. We’re going to need it in the days ahead, just as it has been here — quietly, at times — all along.

(Michael Wear is founder of Public Square Strategies, LLC, and an adviser to PACE’s Faith In/And Democracy initiative. Heserved in the White House as part of President Barack Obama’s faith-based initiative. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

 

Ahead of Andrew Brown Jr’s funeral, North Carolina clergy cry out for justice

Ahead of Andrew Brown Jr’s funeral, North Carolina clergy cry out for justice

by Yonat Shimron, RNS

(RNS) — Many of North Carolina’s prominent clergy have called for police reform and accountability in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin.

But the killing of Andrew Brown Jr., a 42-year-old man shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies in eastern North Carolina’s Elizabeth City, a town of 18,000 people on the bend of the Pasquotank River, is personal.

Brown died of multiple gunshot wounds — at least one to the back of the head — on April 21, as deputies served a warrant for drug charges. Coming one day after former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree murder of Floyd, Brown’s killing brought out deeper cries for justice from the state’s top religious leaders. His funeral will be held Monday (May 3).

Brown’s death served as a stark reminder that Chauvin’s conviction is not enough to reform a persistent pattern of unarmed Black people dying at the hands of law enforcement.

In North Carolina, where Blacks constitute 21% of the population but are twice as likely as whites to die at the hands of law enforcement, according to a project called Mapping Police Violence, the killing of Brown has stoked a renewed passion for change.

And no one has expressed as much pain and indignation at the killing as civil rights leader the Rev. William J. Barber II, co- chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

Barber grew up in Washington County, 50 miles south of where Brown was killed. His parents’ lifelong mission was to desegregate the public schools in the region, which resisted desegregation until well into the late 1960s and early 1970s.

On Wednesday, a judge said he would not consider releasing body-cam images for at least another month while the state conducts its investigation.

Barber and other clergy are demanding the full release of body-cam video of the killing and for the case to be handed over to North Carolina’s attorney general. The family of Brown, which has seen a short snippet of the video, has called his killing “an execution.” (An autopsy showed Brown was shot five times.)

“A warrant is not a license to kill, even if a suspect supposedly drives away,” Barber said. “A warrant does not mean a person is guilty. A warrant is not permission to shoot someone, possibly with assault rifles, multiple times.”

A coalition called Justice for the Next Generation, led by the Rev. Greg Drumwright,  protested Sunday at the Elizabeth City Courthouse.

In Elizabeth City, where Blacks make up 48% of the population, a march through the city earlier this week drew several clergy leaders. Those included the bishop of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, the presbyter of the Presbytery of New Hope and the presiding bishop of the Eastern North Carolina Episcopal District of the AME-Zion Church.

“What I see this time around is, ‘Oh, my gosh, now it happened here, too,'” said the Rev. Jennifer Copeland, executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches. “When it happens in your backyard you pay more attention to it and you get a little more involved in the different actions occurring. I do believe that’s happening.”

The council is planning a vigil on May 6.

Barber, who has made numerous visits to Elizabeth City, has reminded people of the South’s stumbling efforts to overcome a legacy of racism. He said he could count at least five Black men from Eastern North Carolina who were wrongly accused of murder and later exonerated. To this day, people of color are underrepresented in the court system, the judicial system and the police department.

“This is where I was raised,” Barber told RNS. “It brought back: Why am I 58 years old and still having to see and deal with what my father dealt with when I was 12 and 13 years old?”

Barber will deliver what he called “words of comfort” to the family during Monday’s private funeral for Brown at Fountain of Life Church in Elizabeth City. The Rev. Al Sharpton will deliver the eulogy.

A visitation for family and friends took place Sunday.

Elizabeth City has seen nights of street protests and the imposition of overnight curfews as people from the state and beyond have marched on the city to demand racial justice.

Barber and other clergy are planning another press conference next week.

 

 

“America Is Not Racist”-A Prophetic Reflection

“America Is Not Racist”-A Prophetic Reflection

West side of the Capitol Building at Capitol Hill in Washington DC. Daily photos in the afternoon, good for late autumn, winter and early spring illustration

On the night before President Joe Biden’s 100th Day in office, he gave a speech to a joint session of the United States Congress. This speech was intended to be an opportunity to talk about the president’s accomplishments in his first one hundred days in office, as well as policy proposals for the future. For the past 55 years, after the president gives a speech to a joint session of Congress, there is a response from a member of the opposing political party. In the case of President Biden, a Democrat, the opposition response came from Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. Both speeches were filled with appealing rhetoric, rehearsal of recent party of achievements, and promises about possibilities for the future given that party’s leadership. However, for many African Americans who watched these two addresses, the discussions of racism stood out most. President Biden called white supremacist terrorism as the most lethal form of racism in the nation right now. Senator Scott talked about how he experienced the pain of discrimination when he pulled over for no reason and followed in a store. Both made statements that stole headlines for Black audiences.

For President Biden, it was:

 

“We have a giant opportunity to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Real justice. And with the plans I have outlined tonight, we have a real chance to root out the systemic racism that plagues American life in so many ways.”

For Senator Scott, it was:

“From colleges to corporations to our culture, people are making money and gaining power by pretending we haven’t made any progress. By doubling down on the divisions we’ve worked so hard to heal. You know this stuff is wrong. Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country.”

The contrast was stark. A white man holding the highest office in the land spoke openly about the problem of systemic racism, and a Black man, who is the first non-white senator from his state since reconstruction, said America is not a racist country. Both men believe Americans must work together to overcome issues, including racism. But their visions for the extent of the work and the approach to the work are radically different. How should we respond as Black Christians to this politicization of the sin of racism?

Isaiah offers us both challenge and hope in Isaiah 29, as we face the complexity of confronting racism in the United States. The first thing is to acknowledge that God is not looking for great speeches from us. He is looking for true faithfulness. The Lord was disappointed in Israel for saying they loved Him, but their actions showed the opposite. The United States has a history of being hypocritical when it comes to race; it is a clear contradiction that the same Constitution that guarantees equality and freedom to its citizens makes African Americans 3/5 of a human, denies rights to everyone except white land-owning men, and appropriates land taken from American Indians. As a country, we have made amendments to our Constitution, passed legislation to create a more just and equitable society, and had celebrations to recognize the contributions of different cultures. But we often live in denial or outright embrace our historic sins as a nation. We have yet to truly repent for how racism has harmed our nation.

Isaiah calls out the sins of Israel, and then prophesies a day when the Lord’s truth and justice will reign. Isaiah speaks to God’s judgment on the status quo oppression of the vulnerable in the nation, and God’s ultimate redemption of His people. Isaiah assures us that even our intelligence and wisdom are nothing compared to God’s ultimate wisdom. However, we temporarily solve problems that pale in comparison to God’s desire for His children. God’s promise of His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven is greater than anything we could imagine. God wants to use His people to speak honestly about the sin in the world, and also His hope for the world.

Isaiah says:

“For when they see their many children and all the blessings I have given them, they will recognize the holiness of the Holy One of Jacob. They will stand in awe of the God of Israel” (Isaiah 29:23, NLT).

It is God’s work in our lives, and especially how we impact the next generation, that will cause others to recognize His glory, and His wisdom that will cause others to want to learn His ways. We must do the work to make our nation more just, while having the humility to never mistake our human work as God’s ultimate justice (Micah 6:8). We must build a more just world for our children and the next generation. The sin of racism is a problem we must all confront, but the ultimate justice flows from God. Let us be humble as we continue to seek God’s justice on earth as it is in heaven.