Bishop Kenneth Ulmer has been pastoring for decades in Inglewood, CA. He has seen more than his fair share of racism on the streets and on stages across the country. But he has recently launched a campaign to work toward racial understanding and reconciliation that has captured the attention of Christians across racial lines. UrbanFaith contributor Maina Mwaura sat down with him to discuss his work to confront racism and bring people together. The below interview is edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been around for a long time, you’ve seen the ups and downs when it comes to race? Why did you decide to get involved with such an event like this, for people to come together and talk about this important topic?
I think you just answered it, it is the the importance of coming together. And talking about it, you know, the Bible does a passage where the Bible says, Come, come, let us reason together. And our efforts is simply first of all, to start with coming together, which, especially in these days of division, and schisms, and “isms” that should be “was-ims” all the divisions in the body of Christ, just coming together is an achievement. Yes, I’ve been doing this for a while…and I don’t think I have ever in my life or ministry seen a season and a time where the world is as divided. But more importantly, and more grievously more painful, is that the church is likewise significantly divided. And I think what bothers me is that many don’t know, don’t realize it, or didn’t get the memo, or whatever. And we’re kind of going on in business as usual.
But it is not, as usual, but in many cases, in terms of COVID, and everything, will never be the same. The issue is, what are we going to look like on the other side of this, and the exhortation is, don’t come out of this empty handed. Don’t come out of this, having learned nothing, haven’t having achieved anything, having made no progress. Look around, reach around, grab around for what God is saying to you. I would say, What is God saying to the church? You know, the exhortation of, of John, he did have ears. Here, listen, get it, catch it, what the Spirit is saying to the church, what he is saying, you know, the Prophet said, God is doing a new thing. And I love that verse. And I think it’s Isaiah 43, where it says…don’t miss this…don’t you see that God is doing a new thing? And so I think, ultimately, our gathering is to come together, to reason to wrestle to dialogue, even to dispute and debate. You know, what are you hearing God’s saying, what is God saying, now? What are the words of the marching orders for the body of Christ, when we come through this thing, and of course, all of us would admit that we didn’t know we, we did, none of us knew we would still be in it this long.
And, I gotta tell you, I’m not a prophet, not a son of a prophet, but I think things may get worse before they get better. And by that, I mean, this is not going to be a quick fix. It’s a major cultural shift. And there’s a major cultural shift as relates to the body of Christ as relates to the mandate the commission of the church.
Why do you enjoy talking about race? Like you don’t mind embracing it. Like you don’t mind stepping into it. When a lot of people are going, I think I’ll avoid that conversation. What do you enjoy about it?
I think it’s the new frontier. I say we’re in the desert. I think it’s the new battlefield. And I think it’s a battlefield where God can God desires. And I declared God will get glory. But it’s a battle we cannot avoid. It’s a battle we cannot did not it’s a reality that we cannot deny. But I think I think it is it’s one of those desert lands, is one of those wilderness lands, is one of those battles that God is going to bring us through. But the idea is you got to… I love that passage where in Second Chronicles, where God says to the Prophet Joshua, “Look, the battle is mine. The battle is not yours. I got this.” But then he says, “but tomorrow, you got to go to the battlefield.” Whoa, whoa, whoa, if the battle is yours, Lord, why can’t I watch you take it now? I’ll just be the cheerleader on assignment. God said No, no, no, it’s my battle. When I win through you.
And I think it’s a season where it’s those of us who are willing to take the risk of going into the battle that is in fact God’s, and that God will win. I have some white friends who admit, and I love them for admitting, “Man, I can’t even afford this.” Like I know a couple of white friends of mine who said some public stuff [that cost them]. [A friend and I] did a video about George Floyd and everything. And I have I noticed friends of mine who stood up and talked about the oneness in the body of Christ and racism and stuff. And that friend had a back door revival. He had members of families, some of them longtime families who left his church just for admitting just for mentioning it. And so, I think there’s a price to it, and I have some friends who are not willing to pay that price. But my only excitement is [that] I think it is the new battlefield where God will get glory. But he needs soldiers like us to take the battlefield.
The thinking is that the journeys, actions and philosophies of these activists are the nation’s “liberation” heritage. But the reality is that the country’s “liberation” heritage goes much further back, and far deeper. For centuries, ordinary South Africans have used culture to liberate themselves from the yoke of oppression.
In this, they echo Africans the world over who have employed language, belief, ritual, clothes, hairstyles, stories and food to resist and transform colonizers’ religions and cultural practices. From Candomble and Capoeira in Brazil to Santeria in Cuba, from blues and jazz music among African-Americans in the southern states of the US, to the dub culture of black British Jamaicans in the United Kingdom, Africans have steadfastly responded to oppression through culture.
In the African diaspora of the southwest Indian Ocean, islanders have relied on culture in times of slavery and colonization. The Malagasy still practice rituals that revive belief, emphasize self-knowing and obtain the ancestors’ blessings. Through famadihana, the ritual of the dead, the Malagasy honor their ancestors.
Mauritians also commune with their ancestors. Every January 2, Mauritians of African descent visit the graves of their loved ones. There they place cigarettes, alcohol, food, and special gifts; things that their loved ones would have enjoyed. The ancestors are regularly spoken about and unusual events are discussed as potential intervention on the part of the dead.
Evidence of culture as liberation can also be seen today in the revival of indigenous dress and hair styling. These communicate alternative worldviews and challenge dominant style and beauty norms, globalizing the rich material and symbolic culture of Africans.
South Africans are no different. They also use ritual and other cultural practices to respond to and challenge oppression. This is revealed in a recent survey by graduate students from Nelson Mandela University in the Eastern Cape province. It reveals the liberating potential of intangible cultural heritage.
The case of South Africa
In South Africa, inhabitants developed beliefs and practices that breached already porous “racial” boundaries. The apartheid state could not manage such practices. It was impossible to police millions of people into cultural submission. No amount of ideological work and violence could achieve that feat.
For example, some Christian churches advanced apartheid ideology but could not stop people from venerating their ancestors or blending indigenous and colonial belief systems.
Ironically and despite the social fragmentation caused by apartheid, a rich cultural heritage flourished in South Africa. The reason? Apartheid’s ideologues depended on the preservation of culture, believing it to be necessary for achieving segregated development.
In a public lecture, the South African storyteller, playwright, director and author, Gcina Mhlophe said that heritage is key to South Africans’ dignity, identity, and sanity. She added that through songs loosely described as “spirit callers”, Xhosa and Zulu people can connect to an ancestral world that lies beyond their present, often difficult reality.
Burning imphepho, a herb which the Nguni people use as a ritual incense with the purpose of invoking the ancestors, some South Africans are able to connect with the world of the dead.
Today, imphepho still provides many with a means to escape the realities of life after apartheid, as it spiritually transports believers to a world beyond the present reality. The smoke from the herb facilitates communion for believers with spirit beings in the ancestral realm.
In some groups, grandparents are equally important to the liberation process. Their stories and ancient ritual practices activate memory, evoke symbolism and impart wisdom. Their sharp admonishments also liberate through humor. For instance and as Mhlophe tells, grandparents are known to have scolded by saying, “you can never earn a cow by sleeping” (meaning that one cannot achieve greatness by being lazy) or, “you are a like a buck in an endless forest” (referring to someone who is shiftless and indecisive).
Understanding, valuing and embracing these parts of South Africa’s cultural heritage is crucial. The richness of those cultures and their persistence to this day, compels a rethinking of the idea of liberation heritage.
The cultural evidence shows that, for centuries, Africans and South Africans have been liberating themselves through their heritage of music, song, dance, poetry and language. Instead of promoting a narrow conception of freedom, those in power should use this knowledge to diversify perceptions of liberation in the country.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me takes its title from a Richard Wright poem, but its more direct inspiration is James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time. Coates’ book is in the form of a message to his son, Samori—but his prose throughout is also inspired by Baldwin’s rhythms, and sometimes even by Baldwin’s turns of phrase. “…the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and distinct sadness well up in me. The answer to the question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.” The construction “those Americans who believe that they are white” comes from Baldwin; the Chuch cadence of that repeated “The answer” comes from Baldwin, the way that careful qualification becomes emphasis and exhoration is Baldwin. For Baldwin fans, to read Coates’ prose is to experience a delightful recognition; here is someone who loves the same person you do.
Coates takes a risk drawing such a strong comparison with America’s greatest essayist. In trying to capture Baldwin’s power, for example, he sometimes resorts to repetitive capitalized portentous abstractions —”the Dream” or “the Mecca.” The strain is visible and distracting; a reminder that Coates (like just about everyone else) isn’t as sure-footed as his model.
But Coates isn’t using Baldwin to demonstrate his own sure-footedness. Literary influence is often seen in the context of anxiety; Melville throwing his spear into the eye of Shakespeare, or Baldwin wrestling with Richard Wright. Coates, though, rejects that vision of adulthood via beating your parents. He recalls his grandmother telling him that his son would “one day try to ‘test me'”. He responds, “I would regard that day, should it comes, as the total failure of fatherhood because if all I had over you were my hands, then I really had nothing at all.” Fatherhood is about love, not testing—and that’s Coates’ relationship with Baldwin as well.
And not just with Baldwin.
Though The Fire Next Time may be the most obvious blueprint for Coates’ work, Between the World and Me is filled with other fathers and mothers. The schools he attended in Baltimore were “concerned with compliance”, not teaching, Coates says, but despite his dismal experience with public education, he developed a lifelong passion for learning. He listened to Malcolm X’s speeches over and over, “because Malcolm never lied, unlike the schools and their façade of morality…I loved him because he made it plain.” He played Ice Cube’s Death Certificate “almost every day.” He went to Howard where he hoped to find a coherent Black nationalism and instead was gifted with “a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just as often marching away from each other.” And from his wife he learned, among other things, how to raise a child without the belt his father used. “Your mother,” he tells Samori, in a quietly heart-breaking passage, “had to teach me how to love you.”
Most reviews, positive and negative, have focused on the heartbreak in Coates’ writing, and there’s good reason for that. Between the World and Me is a painful book. It starts with Samori crying in his room when he learns Michael Brown’s killer won’t be indicted; it closes with Coates talking to the mother of one of his Howard friends, Prince Jones, who was murdered by a policeman who was never held accountable. These aren’t isolated incidents, Coates’ book makes clear. They’re part of a pattern of terrorism and violence stretching back to slavery, through Jim Crow and redlining, and on up through the neglected, violent streets of Coates’ Baltimore childhood. Police brutality isn’t an accident, or a few bad men acting recklessly. Rather, police, Coates says, are “enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.” In order to keep thinking of themselves as white, Americans who think of themselves as white kill black people. So it has been, and so, Coates suggests, it shall be, if not for always, then at least as far into the future as you can see from here.
Mainstream reviews at the Economist and The New York Times were quick to chastise Coates for his refusal to acknowledge How Much Better Things Have Gotten, and his lack of hope. And Coates certainly doesn’t have much hope that white people will give up pretending to be white, or that they’ll start treating black people as human beings.
Coates doesn’t offer absolution to white people for the crimes they’ve committed, or, more importantly, for the crimes they’re continuing to commit. But that doesn’t mean his is a hopeless book, or even, for all its hurt, a sad one. On the contrary, Between the World and Me is filled with love—for Coates’ son, first of all, but also, in its language and structure, for Baldwin, as a particular mentor, and as an iconic representative of black heritage and struggle.
“…black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors,” Coates writes. He’s not a Christian, and mentions many times throughout the book that (like Baldwin) he does not find the comfort in God that many black people have. But he finds comfort, and strength, in black people themselves. “Struggle for the memory of your ancestors,” he tells his son. “Struggle for wisdom… Struggle for your gradmother and grandfather, for your name.” The cadences are still Baldwin’s, because Baldwin is Coates’, just as Coates is Samori’s. “We have made something down here,” Coates says, and what he, and his son, and his teachers have made is struggle and love.
Between the World and Me isn’t just a letter, It’s a tradition and a community, a set of tools and voices which Coates found, and which he’s passing on. The book is a gift, and you’d have to be in the grip of a particularly bleak delusion to think that it’s given in despair, rather than in joy.
Twiss modeled a healthy integration of Christianity and culture; he once remarked that, “walking the way of Jesus has meant embracing my Native American heritage”. A gentle-hearted and uncompromising truthteller, he identified America’s original sins of racism and Native American genocide in order to establish reconciliation built on justice and dignity for all who bear God’s image.
Leroy Barber, President of Mission Year and director of The Voices Project (Photo Credit: MissionYear.org)
Urban Faith: Leroy, thanks for your time. Let’s start from the beginning. What is the Voices Project?
Leroy Barber: We’re a group of African-American leaders coming together to have a conversation around issues that affect the African-American community as well as to be a voice to other communities.
[Our goal] is to better represent the African-American community, who its leaders are as it relates to justice issues, as it relates to Christianity, and society in general. We want to help bring a broad spectrum of African-American voices back into the public square.
We are pulling folks from business world, social activists, politicians, musicians – every arena that affects culture. We are convening a conversation and getting the word out through writing and speaking projects. [We’re] trying to extend the rich history of constructive African-American engagement with culture.
Why now? What makes the Voices Project critical for this particular historical moment?
Politically, folks may be more apt to listen. We have an African-American – or someone who is biracial – as president and we know that poverty is deepening within African-American communities. We offer a voice to those who are living beneath the poverty line and suffering from ills of injustice. Instead of being silent we want to offer a platform for voices to emerge from [that] injustice.
Our community is suffering from not having a diversity of voices speaking to and from the African-American community. In the past, we have had athletes speak on our behalf, but now that role is diminishing. We need more than just athletes, more than rappers.
How often do we hear African-Americans who are involved in politics, business, and social action – all these arenas – speaking about and into everyday life in our community?
Also, the role traditionally played by publications like an Ebony or Jet is not quite the same in our community.
That’s a fascinating point. In light of the changing dynamics that you mention, how is the Voices Project positioning itself to speak to African-American folks today?
We’re highlighting diversity within our movement. We’re not calling everyone to be the same thing. We have older pastors and younger pastors. Entertainers and musicians. We’re trying to reconnect across generations – linking the old guard of the church with the young guard.
The Church has historically been the major social and spiritual voice within our community, but now that is changing. We definitely appreciate and value its role. I mean, I’m a Christian. So I value the church. At the same time, diversity for us is not just about the church but about cultural vocations of politicians, artists, musicians, business leaders, and so on.
Understood. It sounds like you’re talking about two different kinds of diversity?
That’s right. We’re about being intentionally intergenerational and diversity in the sense of engaging individuals across various vocations and from different sectors.
How long has the Voices Project been in existence?
We are moving into our third year. We meet twice a year. Our group has been growing over the past few years. Different individuals come in at different times. We’re at about forty individuals now who are leaders within their fields. In the near future, we’re looking at convening a larger gathering.
We chose to meet in New York City and Orlando.. New York City is the center of culture – fashion, news outlets, arts, entertainment. All of this is centered in New York, so that this voice can get out there.
Then, there’s Orlando. Disney is the place of inspiration. It’s a place where you dream big, you don’t hinder your dreams, [you] work hard, and anything can come true. Orlando [in the context of the Voices gathering] is shaped around questions like: what is God doing in your organization? What are you envisioning? What are you seeing?
In New York City, we focus on getting the word out. We ask, “how do you apply the dream that we discussed in Orlando”?
We’ve covered a lot of ground about the Voices Project. Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
I’ve been working in cross-cultural spaces for the last 25 years. Growing up, I attended a predominantly white high school. The question for me was: “How do I survive this place? How can I be heard within this space and find myself?” That question has been important for me. You know, I come across so many black folks who know what they’re doing – I mean, they’re doing phenomenal stuff – but no one hears their story. They’re doing mentoring, youth development, and education, but somehow there uniqueness still isn’t coming through.
My sense is that you [everyone] have a story. You have a gift and let’s here about your gift as you give it to the world. We get filtered stories all the time. I want to hear directly from the folks who are being affected [by issues of concern].
We’re in a world where young black youth are saying – I see it in my work – “I don’t want to get married because that’s for white folks. I don’t want to read because that’s for white people”. Our people – especially our [African-American] youth – are not hearing the powerful stories of Maya Angelou, and other folks that can make a difference.
You raise a great point about filtering stories through the voices of other individuals. With the rediscovery of Scripture’s justice themes taking place within Evangelicalism, I’m noticing a lot of filtering taking place. If you think this filtering is in fact taking place, how does the Voices Project avoid reinforcing that trend and instead push back against the filtering dynamic?
We address that by reaching out to those who understand and work in different cultures. They have competency in different cultural contexts. They know how to give a hard message with a degree of respect and grace. And they have done it in different circles. I used to think I was the only way doing that type of stuff. But then I discovered that there’s a whole community of black leaders who know how to lead all kinds of people. They know how to all the stuff – how to trainings and seminars on race; they maneuver the black church with honor and walk through those doors. They have the gift to do it. I have no doubt about that.
Thanks. As you know, we’re quickly approaching February, which of course is Black History. What’s the significance of Black History Month for African-Americans and our broader society today?
I have two angles for that. We’ve lost heart around this celebration. We have older leaders who really embrace it, but it hasn’t really been accepted cross-culturally across generations and sectors. I’m disappointed by that. I’d like to see it revived – some of our artists, poets, and writers, bringing black history back to the forefront.
The second thing – and this comes to the Voices Project – is about the dynamic of bringing in an Anglo person to connect with and educate Anglo communities on black history month. I understand that an Anglo person can speak these issues and yes, it’s important for everyone, but why not invite, but why not an African-American voice to speak to white audiences about the significance of black history? It’s an important opportunity to leverage.
So, let’s recapture and regain the magic of black history month. That would mean bringing a diverse group of African-American church leaders along. We’re talking about history of faith, music, literature, arts – all of that stuff pulled together. For some reason, these things have gotten splintered, but it’s important to bring it together again.
During February, I bring a musician and artist with me [as I preach and speak]. When I preach, some is [also] doing Negro spirituals and giving the history of those [songs]. At same time, artists are painting. Those three things working together are powerful man. The creativity of what we do as African-Americans is powerful and we need to embrace it.
Great. As we conversing, I’m hearing a theme of spirituality connecting with a broad concern for justice. It reminds me a bit of Sojourners and I know that you are involved with their Emerging Voices project. Tell me, where did you discover the connection between spiritual renewal and social justice?
I grew up hearing the Gospel and the social Gospel. These were two tracks and two different lines…with the Gospel being the main track. I think our call as spiritual people is for restoration is linked with justice in God’s economy. That call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. In Isaiah, we hear about the fast that God chooses, to loose the bonds of injustice. It’s about setting the captives free [holistically]. Spiritual restoration is linked with social justice.
The Emerging Voices are living one message. You can’t have one without the other. When the children of Israel come out of Egypt, we see clearly that their spiritual renewal and freedom are linked together.
My voice within those voices [and in the Voices Project] is to prevent those two things from clashing but to bring them together.
Wonderful. Any final words of wisdom?
I’m hoping we’ll begin to make an impact around affecting folks’ lives. We don’t need a whole lot of fanfare. We need folks who understand how to have a big voice without being the center of attention. As I can do that more as a leader, I can help out and have an impact on my community.
We’re about big voices that speak out against injustice without being the center of attention. It’s a team effort. We’re a village and we want to keep that at the center of attention.
That’s a great line: “Big voices speaking out against injustice without being the center of attention”. Leroy, it’s been a pleasure. God’s blessings upon your work. Thank you.