Minister and elder Sammie L. Berry talks with the news media after a Sept. 9, 2018, worship assembly at the Dallas West Church of Christ, Botham Jean’s home congregation. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.
The preacher stood wearily on stage, wiping tears from his eyes.
The mayor, working to bring healing to a city of 1.3 million, sought solace on a front pew.
Allison Jean, mourning the fatal shooting of her son Botham Shem Jean by a police officer, wailed as the 250-member, predominantly black congregation sang hymns such as “Trouble in My Way.”
“I know that Jesus — Jesus— he will fix it after a while,” the church sang.
Television and newspaper cameras captured the emotion — and the heartbreak — as the Dallas West Church of Christ gathered to worship just days after the inexplicable killing of 26-year-old Botham Jean in his own apartment.
The recent Sunday was no ordinary Lord’s Day for the congregation, which was grieving the sudden loss of a beloved song leader and Bible class teacher — and doing so under an immense media spotlight stretching from Texas all the way to the Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia.
Attorney Lee Merritt, left, with Botham Jean’s mother, Allison Jean, to his right, speaks to the news media at the Dallas West Church of Christ after a prayer vigil on Sept. 8, 2018. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.
“Somebody like Bo — why?” church member Sherron Rodgers said, uttering the question on everybody’s mind. “Why did it happen to somebody like him? I’m just sad.
“He was a special, kind person who would never mess with anybody,” she added. “He’d take off his jacket and give it to you. That’s the kind of person he was.”
According to those who knew him, Botham Jean was a devoted man of faith with a “beautiful” and “powerful” singing voice.
He was baptized at age 10 in his native St. Lucia and moved to the U.S. at age 19 to attend Harding University, a Christian liberal arts university in Searcy, Ark. He often led worship at Harding’s daily chapel assembly and served for three years as a ministry intern with the nearby College Church of Christ.
Allison Jean, right, mother of shooting victim Botham Jean, hugs a mourner after a prayer vigil Sept. 8, 2018, at the Dallas West Church of Christ. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.
Officer Amber Guyger, who lived in the same apartment complex as Botham Jean, was charged Sept. 9 with manslaughter and booked into jail before posting bond.
According to an arrest affidavit filed by Texas Ranger peace officer David L. Armstrong, Guyger worked her shift Sept. 6 and then returned home. At the apartment complex’s multi-level garage, she parked on the wrong floor and then mistook Botham Jean’s home for her own. After entering through his slightly ajar door, she confused him with a burglar and opened fire.
But for the victim’s mother, a former top government official in St. Lucia, many perplexing questions remain. The official narrative about how her son died doesn’t make sense.
“The No. 1 answer I want is: What happened?” said Allison Jean, who was joined at a recent news conference by attorneys and Allen Chastanet, the prime minister of St. Lucia, a nation of 178,000 people. “I have asked too many questions and been told there are no answers yet.”
At the microphone, Allison Jean was flanked by Botham Jean’s older sister, Allisa Findley, and his younger brother, Brandt. Noting that Botham Jean was her middle child, the mother said, “I stand in the middle to represent Botham.”
Botham Jean’s death has refocused national attention — and even international attention, given the St. Lucia connection — on police shootings of unarmed black males by white police officers.
Students, faculty and staff at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., gather Sept. 10, 2018, on the university’s Benson Auditorium steps to grieve and remember alumnus Botham Jean. Photo by Noah Darnell, courtesy of Harding University
This week, a group of Dallas religious leaders, including megachurch pastors Matt Chandler of the Village Church and T.D. Jakes of the Potter’s House, wrote a letter expressing grief over Botham’s death and calling for “fair, consistent application of the law” in the investigation. Guyger’s status as a police officer should give her “no advantage in the current investigation nor upcoming prosecution.”
“We demand full transparency, consistency, and integrity in the days ahead as the judicial process progresses,” they wrote.
A criminal investigation is ongoing. So far, Guyger has not faced disciplinary action from the Dallas Police Department for the shooting.
“An exhaustive and thorough criminal investigation is essential, and as soon as we are assured that conducting an administrative investigation will not impede on the criminal investigation, we will proceed,” Dallas Police Chief U. Reneé Hall said in a statement this week.
At the Dallas West Church of Christ, minister Sammie L. Berry said the congregation will work to support the family and make sure justice is served.
“Bo was an outstanding young man,” Berry said of Botham Jean, who had started preaching occasionally on Sunday nights. “You just can’t think of how this could happen to him. I mean, all he did was go to work, go to church, help people.
“We’re going to make sure that his name is lifted up. We’re going to make sure that we get answers to what happened,” the minister added. “We won’t allow this to be just brushed to the side and move on to the next case. He meant too much to his family. He meant too much to this congregation, to his college, to the place where he worked.”Allison Jean told the congregation at a prayer vigil that her middle son “did everything with a passion,” including serving the Lord.
“I can never give up because I know that Botham is singing with the angels, and I want to be in that choir,” she said. “I want to see my son. I want to look upon his face.”
When Botham Jean was born in 1991, his mother said, “God gave me an angel.”
While much of the national conversation focuses on race, she said Botham Jean “never saw color. He never saw race. He wanted all of us to unite, to be together.”
Mike Rawlings. Photo courtesy of City of Dallas
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who earlier met with Botham Jean’s family to express his condolences, stayed for the entire two-hour Sunday service.
At the end of the service, Rawlings told the congregation he came not in an official capacity but as a citizen, “wanting to soothe some of my hurt because the city of Dallas is hurting so bad.
“To be able to sing with you, to be able to pray with you, to be able to listen to this wonderful sermon was just what I needed because I feel like, as mayor, I’m in the perfect storm,” he said.
The mayor drew cheers when he agreed with Berry that “we all need to be like Bo.”
“God bless you,” Rawlings said as he wrapped up his remarks. “Let us pull together. We will be a better city once we know the truth and once we come together and heal.”
Tommy Bush, a retired executive minister, works with a small congregation in Romance, Ark., an unincorporated community about 20 miles west of Searcy.
Bush, 70, served as a professional mentor to Botham Jean his senior year in college and helped the accounting graduate land a job with PwC, formerly known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, in Dallas.
The two became close friends and worked together to support missions in St. Lucia and Kenya.
“His theology — his philosophy — was to get as good a job as he could and to make money to be able to give,” said Bush, who came to worship with the Dallas West church and comfort Botham Jean’s family. “He had great ideas for serving poor children and orphans in St. Lucia.”
Bush said he prays the charged officer knows Jesus.
“I just hope that she has the indwelling presence of Christ,” Bush said, breaking into tears, “because Botham will be the first one in line to give her a hug and welcome her home.”
(Bobby Ross Jr. writes for the Christian Chronicle.)
Asale Chandler holds a picture of her son, Yalani Chinyamurindi, who was murdered at age 19. Now, Chandler is a running for the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. (Alex Leeds Matthews/California Healthline)
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — More than three years have passed since Asale Chandler’s teenage son was murdered in San Francisco. But Chandler said it feels as though it has been only three days.
The anguish doesn’t get better, said Chandler, a 55-year-old community activist from San Francisco at a recent rally. “It gets worse.”
Chandler’s 19-year-old son, Yalani Chinyamurindi, was one of four young black men who were shot and killed in January 2015 while sitting in a Honda Civic in the city’s Hayes Valley neighborhood. One man has been arrested in connection with the shooting.
Chandler prayed, protested and communed with other mothers — and brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles — who have lost their loved ones to violence.
The “Mothers Fight Back!” rally came amid ongoing unrest over the police shootings of unarmed black men, including Stephon Clark, who was killed in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento in March. His death sparked large-scale protests that blocked traffic and disrupted Sacramento Kings basketball games.
But attendees of the rally noted they were speaking out against violence of all kinds, not just police brutality. They said they took to the Capitol steps to grab the attention of lawmakers and journalists.
A poster commemorating Stephon Clark, who was killed by Sacramento Police in March, sits on the Capitol’s steps during the Mothers Fight Back! rally. (Alex Leeds Matthews/California Healthline)
A few, like Chandler, are running for public office. Others participated to support their loved ones and join in solidarity with other mothers.
“You do want to connect to a mother or a father who’s been through it,” Chandler said. She hasn’t found solace through therapy or medication, but said being around other mothers whose lives were also transformed by violence is “the true medicine.”
The rally was passionate, but it wasn’t as pugnacious as its name might suggest. The moms came bearing snacks, handcrafted posters and children’s books. They sang and said prayers.
Participants said they are facing a dire mental health crisis fueled by violence, trauma and uncertainty.
“It’s traumatic for all of us. … We’re scared to death. We don’t know what to do, we don’t know how to act,” said Leia Schenk, 40, a social services worker in Sacramento, who is close with Sahleem Tindle’s family. Tindle was shot and killed by BART police near the West Oakland BART station in January.
Asale Chandler’s son was murdered more than three years ago in San Francisco. At a recent rally, the community activist participated in a Hebrew “mother’s prayer” at the Mothers Fight Back! rally at the Capitol. (Alex Leeds Matthews/California Healthline)
Schenk said she struggles with the emotional fallout from the violence and fears for her children, particularly her two black sons. “It’s a helluva way to live,” she said.
Black children die from gun-related homicides at a rate nearly 10 times higher than that of white children, according to a 2017 study in the American Academy of Pediatrics. Another study published a few weeks ago showed that black men are at risk of being killed by police at a rate about triple that of white men.
The statistical differences are important, said Chet Hewitt, president and CEO of the Sierra Health Foundation, which awards grants to reduce health disparities.
However, the numbers don’t reveal the mental and physical pain that afflicts victims and their communities contending with violence, said Hewitt, who did not attend the rally.
“You are constantly on high alert, and you are constantly in a state of mourning,” said Cat Brooks, an Oakland mayoral candidate and a co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project.
Brooks, who has a 12-year-old daughter, attended the gathering to address the struggle many black parents encounter trying to protect their children from violence.
“Because there is no rhyme or reason to our people getting killed, that means there’s no one to tactically figure out how to avoid it,” said Brooks, 41. “We teach our children everything we can about how to stay alive.”
A poster commemorating Stephon Clark, who was killed by Sacramento police in March, sits on the Capitol’s steps during the Mothers Fight Back! rally.
That trauma, fear and uncertainty has measurable effects on health.
Community cohesion can help people heal from acts of violence, but violence can also erode that sense of togetherness, said Flo Cofer, director of state policy for Public Health Advocates, a nonprofit organization that works to address health disparities.
Many of the communities most affected by violence also face other physical and social challenges like poverty, hunger and educational obstacles, she said.
“That’s part of the reason why the violence is so devastating. This is happening in a place where trauma is the air they breathe,” Cofer said in a phone interview.
At the rally, the low-key gathering of approximately 50 people consisted mainly of women and children. Moms parked strollers under a tent while their former occupants munched on crackers or toddled on the Capitol steps.
As one little girl, dressed in flowery overalls and shimmery sandals, danced to the “Circle of Life” song, adults and older children, dressed in white, surrounded her, clapping to the beat.
When the mothers gathered for a Hebrew “mother’s prayer,” Chandler stood near the front with her arms stretched above her head.
She is running for the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco to address the violence in her Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. “I’ve seen nothing but yellow tape, and it messed me up so badly,” she said.
Yolanda Banks Reed led the prayer.
Banks Reed’s son was the young man who was killed nearly seven months ago near the BART station. She said she knows the mental toll will be lifelong.
“It’s a life sentence for a mother,” she said. “A mother should not lose her children.”
In the book, legal scholars Devon Carbado and Mitu Gulati argue that in the “post-racial” era, white-controlled organizations prefer to hire “‘good blacks’ who will think of themselves as people first and black people second.”
“They will neither ‘play the race card’ nor generate racial antagonism or tensions in the workplace,” the book contends. “They will not let white people feel guilty about being white; and they will work hard to assimilate themselves into the firm’s culture.”
This lets an employer realize the benefits of diversity without having to deal with issues of race, Carbado and Gulati argue.
Their critique made me wonder: Do America’s colleges and universities act the same way toward black students in the admissions process?
What I found is that historically and predominantly white institutions are more likely to embrace black students who don’t profess interest in racial justice.
Preferences at play
In other words, similar to how the authors of “Acting White” argue that white employers like black employees who see themselves as people first, and black people second, my study found that white colleges like black students who see themselves as students first, and black students maybe second or third or fourth, if at all.
My research suggests that black students who state that they plan to fight for these kinds of things might never get the chance to set foot on campus of the college of their choice.
Racial hostility on campus
It also matters because this is a time when black students are facing hostile environments on campus. At Yale, for instance, earlier this year a white student called police on a black student who was napping in a common area. I would argue this is a time when America’s college campuses need more students eager to fight racism, not just acquiesce.
It’s not that white colleges don’t want black students – many do. A 2014 report showed that nearly all enrollment leaders at hundreds of public and private historically and predominantly white institutions indicated a goal to enroll “diverse students.” Research shows this often means black students.
However, what my study shows is that these institutions are more likely to screen out black students who vocalize opposition to racism.
To investigate whether white admissions counselors were screening black high school students who don’t adhere to the color-blind imperative, I conducted a nationwide audit study. I began by generating and testing a list of distinctly black names, such as Lakisha Lewis and Keshawn Grant, that would signal to white admissions counselors that the students who were emailing them were black. I then created an email account for each name.
Next, I created four email templates that represented black students interested in 1) math and English, 2) environmental sustainability, 3) African-American history and culture, and 4) anti-racism. In each one the fictitious student asked if he or she would be a good “fit” for the school based on their interests and activities.
I sent a random sample of 500-plus white admissions counselors at the same number of private, historically and predominantly white colleges across the United States, two of the four emails from two fictitious black high school students approximately one month apart. I selected small or medium-sized colleges and universities from U.S. News & World Report’s 2013 list of best colleges.
To identify white admissions counselors, a research assistant and I used profile pictures from college websites or websites such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Only those counselors who both of us independently agreed appeared white were classified as white.
My findings revealed that white admissions counselors were, on average, 26 percent less likely to respond to the emails of black students whose interests and involvements focused on anti-racism and racial justice. The gender of the counselor and the student also mattered. White male counselors were 37 percent less likely to respond to anti-racist black students. And when black women students committed to anti-racism were emailing white male counselors, they were 50 percent less likely to receive a response.
The most extreme finding was the difference in the response rate for white male counselors responding to black women. Black women interested in environmental sustainability got a response rate of 74 percent, while those who presented the anti-racist narrative got a response rate of 37 percent. Stated differently, white male admissions counselors were twice as likely to respond to black women if they were committed to fighting environmental degradation instead of white racism. This indicates that it was not activism that depressed the response rate of anti-racist black students, but rather the focus of their activism.
Degrees of race consciousness
Noteworthy, too, is the finding that white admissions counselors were just as responsive to moderately race conscious black students who participated in culturally resonant activities, such as a jazz band and gospel choir and who mentioned the phrase “cross-cultural understanding,” as they were to black students who revealed no interest in racialized involvements. This suggests, in other words, that it was not simply race consciousness, but a critical race consciousness – one that unequivocally challenges the validity of color-blind ideology – that seemed to be unappealing to some white admissions counselors.
Importantly, the screening pattern I uncovered doesn’t necessarily show that admissions counselors are purposefully discriminating against anti-racist black students, but it doesn’t preclude it, either. Whatever the case may be, there are clear, concrete and immediate steps that administrators can take to curtail this racially discriminatory practice.
Some may think the solution is for black students who actively fight racism to masquerade as something that they are not. One problem with that approach is it’s difficult, if not impossible, to be vocal against racism and not leave evidence of one’s anti-racist activism in their digital footprint. For that reason, I focus my solutions on what institutions can do, not how black students should comport themselves to fit into a white environment.
Second, schools should institute policies requiring admissions counselors to respond to all inquiry emails. Currently, the National Association for College Admission Counseling doesn’t have any best practices for email or inquiry response, according to an association official I spoke with for this article.
Third, the chief admissions administrator should develop a system whereby all admissions staff emails are randomly audited for responsiveness, content and tone.
Fourth, and most importantly, as with employment discrimination, there must be appropriate sanctions and consistent enforcement to maximize compliance. Such a system would incentivize admissions counselors to act in a non-discriminatory manner toward not only black students but all students committed to fighting against white racism and white supremacy.
Might this intervention come at a financial cost to colleges and universities? Perhaps. But it should not be a prohibitive one. Either way it is necessary. If some white admissions counselors don’t even respond to an inquiry email due to a black student’s commitment to racial justice, how can they be trusted to treat these students fairly at the application stage?
Merlin, 38, left Cameroon last year due to violence. But as a black immigrant, his experience in America has been a unique challenge. Rachel Zein for The Texas Tribune
Editor’s note: Some language in this story may not be appropriate for the faint of heart. Consider yourself warned.
After a months-long journey across the Atlantic Ocean, into Central America and through Mexico, Merlin arrived at the U.S. port of entry in Laredo full of hope. The 38-year-old who worked in hotel management said he fled violent political unrest in Cameroon to seek a new life in America, a country he viewed as a bastion of safety and freedom.
But after legally crossing the border and asking for asylum, Merlin was detained by federal officials for 11 months. He lived at the South Texas Detention Complex along with people who didn’t look like him or speak his native language, French.
Merlin, who asked to be identified only by his first name because he’s fleeing political persecution, was frequently frustrated with how the reality of life as a refugee in America conflicts with the country’s image as a haven for immigrants while he struggled through an asylum process experiencing fundamental shifts under the Trump administration.
This wasn’t the United States he thought would be welcoming him with open arms and opportunity. Some days, he questioned why he came.
“I was a bit disappointed for what we were thinking,” Merlin said last week. “In Africa, you thought [America] was paradise.”
As the Trump administration implemented its now-reversed “zero tolerance” immigration policy and narrowed previous paths to asylum , thousands of Mexican and Central American immigrants became the faces of chaotic changes that federal agencies made in how they treat people legally and illegally crossing the border.
But asylum seekers like Merlin who fled African countries have also been ensnared in the bureaucratic tumult. And those black African immigrants arriving in Texas are finding a litany of racial, cultural and practical challenges that can be different from — and overshadowed by — the experiences of Latino immigrants who flood into Texas each year, advocates and experts say.
“We become frustrated with the single story pushed out,”said Deborah Alemu of the UndocuBlack Network, an organization that advocates for black, undocumented immigrants.
The number of African immigrants in the U.S. has roughly doubled every decade since 1970, according to the Pew Research Center. The original plaintiffs at the heart of what is now a class-action lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union filed against Immigration and Customs Enforcement over federal officials separating families seeking asylum are from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Texas, the second-most populous state in the country, has more than 235,000 foreign-born African residents. That is more than any other state, according to 2016 U.S. Census data. But those immigrants represent only 5 percent of the state’s total foreign-born residents, thanks mainly to the large number of immigrant Texas residents born in Latin America.
Alemu said that historical racism and discrimination directed at black people in America can exacerbate the difficulties African immigrants already face for being an asylum seeker.
“You won’t be recognized as Ghanaian, Congolese or Jamaican,” Alemu said. “You’ll be recognized as black.”
A “resting place of hope”
Four houses sit in a cul-de-sac in East Austin, forming what is almost a small town. Children outside run from house to house. Doors slam as squeals of laughter and chatter fill the air. These homes belong to Posada Esperanza, which roughly translates to “resting place of hope,” a transitional housing program for immigrant mothers and their children who are escaping cultural or domestic violence. The organization provides immigrant women and their children with temporary housing and resources to find jobs and permanent homes.
Patti McCabe, the shelter’s director, said Posada’s population was once majority Latino residents. But now, nearly half of the women housed at Posada are from African countries. Most of them fled the Democratic Republic of Congo — a country dealing with violent fallout from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which triggered a wave of weak governance, exposing Congolese civilians to sexual violence and rape, extreme poverty and human rights violations by rebel groups.
McCabe said Africans often travel as family units. But once they reach American soil seeking asylum, the husbands are detained and the women and children are often released while they wait for court dates. Posada receives many immigrant women who are pregnant or have given birth without their spouses by their side. One Congolese woman currently at Posada was within days of her due date this month while her husband remained detained at a facility in New Jersey.
“When you think of family separation, you think of children being separated from their parents — that’s what everyone has been talking about,” Posada case manager Laura Messenger said. “But what we’ve seen a lot this year and what we have been seeing for the past two is our women and children here being separated from their husbands and fathers who are still in detention.”
Posada’s staff teach women how to ride the city buses, find health clinics and research work and housing options during their stay. But the goal is to teach the women to financially sustain themselves and their children on their own — which can be incongruous to the traditional gender roles some of the women were taught. Yet for the women of Posada, being financially independent single mothers while their husbands are detained has been empowering, McCabe said.
“It would be they might have input, but the husband always makes the ultimate decision,” McCabe said. “But now, like it or not, they’re the ones who need to make the decisions.”
Still, basic activities like riding public transportation or going to the grocery store can be a difficult task for those who don’t speak Spanish and English — the two most predominant languages in Texas.
“I just can’t imagine how that must feel from their perspective — to not be able to communicate even simple things about what they need in the facilities, let alone their asylum claim and conveying that in an application that’s in English,” said Priscilla Olivarez, an attorney with American Gateways, an organization that has asylum-seeking clients from Africa.
Then U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month issued a ruling that made it tougher for victims solely escaping domestic or gang violence to seek asylum in the U.S. — leading to more deportations before seekers have the opportunity to argue their cases in front of an immigration judge. Sessions had previously criticized what he called widespread abuse of the asylum system and said in October that the asylum process “has become an easy ticket to illegal entry into the United States.”
Olivarez, who sees many asylum claims from African immigrants based on religious reasons or gender-based violence, said she’s seen an increase in asylum denials after Sessions’ June ruling. Olivarez has also seen an uptick in cases where people are being required to pay a parole bond so they can be released while awaiting a final determination of their asylum request. And she’s noticed more parole bond requests denied, meaning asylum seekers are being detained as the process winds through federal courts.
“Before the administration change, we wouldn’t see that,” Olivarez said. “Generally we wouldn’t see parole bonds and they wouldn’t be as high as we’re seeing.”
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement reported that 35,070 bonds have been posted so far this year, compared to 48,199 for all of 2017 and 42,384 for all of 2016.
An ICE spokesman said there have been no changes to the bond policy and that “custody decisions are made on a case-by-case basis taking into account multiple factors, including immigration history, criminal history, medical history and ties to the community.”
Olivarez said her African clients have been “shocked” when they are detained after seeking asylum at the border — especially those who were imprisoned in their home countries for being political activists and must now deal with what she called the “retraumatization” of being detained.
“Many clients tell me they did not think they would be treated this way,” Olivarez said. “For many of them, America was a country that valued freedom, which is why they made the dangerous journey to come to the U.S. They believed the U.S. was the only country that would provide them with sufficient protection. However, when they arrive in the U.S., they feel as if they are treated as a criminal.”
From African jail to American detention
Merlin left Cameroon after violence erupted between the country’s French-speaking population, which dominates the government, and English-speaking separatists, who have reportedly been marginalized by the French-speaking majority.
Since 2016, scores of civilians on both sides have been killed, with the government accused of torturing suspected separatists and separatists accused of kidnapping and extorting civilians and state workers, according to Human Rights Watch.
Merlin, who grew up farming with his parentsand is now a single dad, saw the country he loved rapidly change before his eyes. After being arrested with hundreds of others during a protest, Merlin’s mother begged him to go to America for his safety.
He was surprised that he was detained for so long, but he said he’s grateful that it was only 11 months. He met other detainees who had been there for years.
“Why allow people in and detain them?” Merlin said.
Racism, discrimination linger beyond asylum process
Merlin was released in February and then stayed at Casa Marianella, another Austin-based immigrant adult shelter, where he connected with other French-speaking African immigrants. As he awaits a judge’s ruling on his asylum case, he is slowly adjusting to life in America.
“When you get out of [detention], you put your hand on your chest and say, ‘thank God,’” Merlin said. “I’m more safe today.”
But even those black African immigrants who are allowed to stay while their asylum requests are processed — and those who successfully immigrate to the United States — face racial bias and discrimination both inside and outside the immigration enforcement system, according to a 2016 report by the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
There’s a story in the Old Testament about the king of Babylon, Belshazzar, who hosted a dinner for his religious leaders and royal elites. The blindingly arrogant king, surrounded by adoring sycophants, hauled out the holy articles stolen from the temple in Jerusalem to swank up his party.
The lesson of Belshazzar is that co-opting the things of God for the purpose of arrogant power is dangerous business. God showed up in a puzzling display of divine judgment — a great hand appeared and began to write on the wall.
On Monday night (August 27), the White House hosted something like a state dinner to honor the leadership of American evangelicals. Many cabinet members were present, along with the president, the first lady and dozens of members of the group of informal evangelical advisers who enjoy unique access to President Trump.
It’s the latest puzzling contradiction raised by evangelicals working in the service of a president whose character and so many of his policies stand in direct contradiction to the words of Jesus.
As evangelicals not invited to the party — and not likely to be anytime soon — we are astonished that none of these leaders seem to have brought before the president and his cabinet the justice issues so pressing in our day.
Speaking to David Brody on the Christian Broadcasting Network prior to the dinner, Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas, declared the real reason for the event, saying the White House is “cognizant of the fact that the midterms are coming up. And they’re facing the possibility of a Democrat Congress that, if they take control of the legislature, are going to either impeach this president from office or at least paralyze him while he’s in office. … He knows he’s got to have his evangelical base behind him.”
Pastor Robert Jeffress introduces President Trump during the Celebrate Freedom event at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, on July 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Pastor Robert Jeffress introduces President Trump during the Celebrate Freedom event at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, on July 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Jeffress isn’t even hiding the partisan political role he is actively playing. Instead of showing up on God’s terms he’s all about the midterms!
What is the cost of this wholesale evangelical sellout? Among other concerns is the plight of persecuted Christians and other religious minorities around the world, who have been all but abandoned by the president’s near shutdown of the long-standing U.S. refugee resettlement program.
The numbers are stark. Over the past decade, according to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, the U.S. welcomed more than 280,000 persecuted Christians to enjoy religious freedom and rebuild their lives. Some 42,000 Christians found refuge here in 2016 alone.
Since coming into office, the Trump administration has dramatically slashed the number of refugees entering the U.S. through a combination of executive orders, historically low ceilings on refugee admissions and intentional slowdowns of processing overseas.
Christians have been harmed alongside Muslims and others. With just one month left in the current fiscal year, the U.S. is on track to receive fewer than 14,700 Christian refugees and fewer than 22,000 total.
Many of those admitted in recent years have been persecuted particularly for their Christian faith, fleeing brutal governments that have no respect for religious liberty in countries such as Myanmar, Iran and North Korea and terrorist groups like the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaida in Iraq and Syria. Were these fellow Christians mentioned at the White House?
Resettlement of persecuted Christians from Iran and Iraq – which together accounted for about 60,000 Christian refugees over the past decade – are down by roughly 99 percent: Just 46 Christian refugees have been allowed to arrive this fiscal year from these two countries, among those where advocacy group Open Doors says that Christians face the “most extreme” persecution in the world.
President Trump bows his head as pastor Paula White leads the room in prayer during a dinner for evangelical leaders in the State Dining Room of the White House on Aug. 27, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Other religious minorities have been kept out as well: just one Jewish refugee has been allowed in from Iran (compared to more than 70 in 2016), and only five Yazidis from Iraq (compared to hundreds in 2016). Any mention of these needy people of faith Monday night?
We’re not only concerned about the plight of Christians or other religious minorities: We’re equally troubled by the decline in resettlement of Muslim refugees, whose arrival numbers are down to fewer than 3,000 thus far this fiscal year, on track for a decline of more than 90 percent compared to two years ago. As Christians, we believe that Muslims are among the “neighbors” whom Jesus explicitly commands his followers to love.
After all, when Jesus responded to the clarifying question “who is my neighbor?” he told the story of a man — the Good Samaritan — who provided help to someone of a different religious tradition who was in desperate need. Where was the advocacy for our Muslim friends?
To be honest, we’re not surprised that most of the president’s evangelical supporters are not lobbying on behalf of Muslim refugees. Some of them were calling for a Muslim ban before Donald Trump did. Fully three-quarters of white evangelicals supported the president’s initial executive order barring refugees and Muslims from entering the country.
But we had hoped that the White House’s guests would show concern about the plight of fellow Christians, as even the president seemed to be as he entered office: In an interview recorded the day he signed his first executive order barring refugees Trump said he would be doing more to help persecuted Christians fleeing Syria. “We are going to help them,” the president pledged in a CBN interview. “They’ve been horribly treated. Do you know if you were a Christian in Syria it was impossible, at least very tough to get into the United States?”
It’s true that the share of Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. in fiscal 2016 was small, but at least 120 Syrian Christians were admitted that year. In the past eight months, only nine Syrian Christian refugees have been able to come to the U.S., on track for an annual decline of about 90 percent. Were the traumas of Syria spoken of on Monday evening?
There are evangelical Christians concerned about this dynamic. A letter released earlier this month by the leaders of several influential evangelical organizations, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, World Relief, and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, urged the administration to consider an annual ceiling of at least 75,000 refugees for the upcoming year, consistent with historical norms. We were proud to add our names to the letter.
“Belshazzar’s Feast” by John Martin circa 1821. Image courtesy Creative Commons
We wonder if the invited evangelical “advisers,” while mingling with the president and his cabinet, considered these numbers worth mentioning. We genuinely hoped that these leaders would advocate for them behind the scenes, even if few have spoken publicly. Did they take these concerns to the president in secret?
If Trump further reduces the refugee numbers next month as expected, we’ll know the true price of a White House dinner.
At the end of the biblical story, Daniel, the faithful servant of God, was summoned to decipher the writing on the wall:
Oh King, your days are numbered
You’ve been weighed and found wanting
Your kingdom will be divided and given to your enemies
If we take the lessons of the biblical prophet Daniel seriously, what came true for King Belshazzar threatens this president too.
(Shane Claiborne is founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia, and co-founder of Red Letter Christians. Don Golden is executive director of Red Letter Christians and a former executive at World Vision and World Relief. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)
Prisoners in 17 U.S. states went on strike on Aug. 21 by refusing to eat or work to call attention to a number of troubling issues, including dilapidated facilities, harsh sentences and other aspects of mass incarceration in America.
As we approach Labor Day, the strike places a spotlight on the questionable practice of putting prisoners to work for very low or no wages. Examples of what incarcerated people do or have done include answering customer service phone calls, fighting wildfires, packaging Starbucks coffee and producing consumer goods such as lingerie.
But this practice may run afoul of several U.S. legal commitments – including the 13th Amendment ending slavery – and even violates voluntary codes of conduct of some of the companies involved.
I belong to a group of scholars of U.S. constitutional law, labor law and history from several universities, who see the 13th Amendment as about more than 19th-century slavery, even if that was its primary genesis.
Rather, we consider it a continuing obligation on governments and private companies to root out all forms of economic exploitation, even when it is done within prison walls.
Prisoners at work around the world
Prison labor is widely used in many countries throughout the world on every continent, involving an estimated 36 million people.
Proponents of forcing inmates to work justify it as a way for prisoners to repay their debt to society and to provide skills that will be useful at the end of prison sentences. They say it also partially offsets the high costs of mass incarceration, recently estimated at US$182 billion a year nationwide.
The U.S. government has often admonished other countries such as Burma and China for using forced labor to build pipelines or make goods or in times of national emergency. Yet the truth is, it’s just as prevalent in the U.S. as elsewhere, with the Department of the Navy and Minnesota among the governmental entities sued for minimum wage violations in prisons.
In fact, a 2004 economic analysis of labor in both state and federal prison estimated that in the previous year inmates produced more than $2 billion worth of commodities, both goods and services.
Unlike other countries, however, forced prison labor in the U.S. must be reconciled with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is most famous for forbidding the practice of slavery.
The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, states in full:
“Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime for which the person has been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to its jurisdiction. Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this Article by appropriate legislation.”
The first section of the amendment makes clear that people convicted of a crime can be forced to work as punishment but says nothing about whether they have to be compensated.
And according to the second, Congress clearly has the power to regulate inmate labor in federal prisons but has not done so. Lawmakers have, however, passed other laws that may already apply to prisoners with jobs, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which guarantees a minimum wage and overtime to all of those employed in the U.S.
While some U.S. courts have suggested that prisoners working for private companies be paid like other employees, there’s been no definitive decision on this issue.
Expanding its meaning
The group to which I belong, known as the Thirteenth Amendment Project, aims to find ways to use the Amendment to reduce economic injustice in the U.S. and tackle problems such as minimum labor standards and mass incarceration.
In our view, the meaning of “involuntary servitude” in the amendment has a wider reach than simply the abusive arrangements that were in place in 1865. We believe it should also include modern conditions facing immigrant workers, detainees and workers bound to abusive contractual work arrangements – the kind that the Supreme Court struck down in the 20th century.
In addition, the Reconstruction-era drafters of the Amendment sought to prevent the newly freed slaves from becoming unfair competition in the labor force. So they instituted labor protections into the infrastructure of the Freedman’s Bureau, which Congress set up in 1865 to help former black slaves as well as poor whites in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War.
The Freedmen’s Bureau offers evidence of the role that Congress envisioned under the amendment to protect freed slaves and others against exploitation and unfair competition – which, in my view, are both at issue today in the context of unpaid prison labor.
Beyond domestic law, there’s the issue of the United States’ obligations under international human rights conventions.
The U.S. is a member of the International Labor Organization, which as a core principle requires the elimination of forced and compulsory labor within its borders.
The organization also established a convention on forced labor in 1930. It makes clear that while governments in some circumstances can use forced labor, the work cannot be “hired or placed at the disposal of private individuals, companies or associations.”
The U.S. is one of only nine countries that have not ratified this convention, putting it in the company of countries like Afghanistan, China and Brunei. The reason often given is that the 13th Amendment already covers forced labor. But as I’ve shown, the question of compensation is an open one.
The strike’s legacy
The prisoners currently protesting their poor treatment and conditions probably may not expect that it will lead to the end of prison labor.
And whether or not the 13th Amendment or international conventions ultimately limit or end the practice – or at least require fair compensation – will likely depend on the United States Supreme Court.
The real success of the prison strike, set to last through Sept. 9, may be whether consumers become more aware that some of the coffee, clothing and even school supplies they buy may have passed through the hands of inmates, who were paid little to nothing for the work.