Interview on the Breaking the Silence Campaign

Interview on the Breaking the Silence Campaign

Jamye Wooten, founder of KineticsLive and director of the faith-based Breaking the Silence campaign (Photo courtesy of Kineticslive.com)

UrbanFaith: Thanks for talking with UrbanFaith. What is the Breaking the Silence campaign?

Jamye Wooten: It’s our partnership with our faith leaders and Friends of the Congo to Break the Silence on the deadliest conflict in the world today. In 2012, I traveled to the East Congo with a delegation from the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference.

We were hosted by an ecumenical group that visited the United Nations during the summer. While we were there we stayed with the Kimbanguish Church – the largest African-led Congolese church. In 1921, Simon Kimbangu, the founder of the Kimbanguish Church, prophesied that there would be a black President and African-Americans would begin to return to the Congo. Most of the participants [on the delegation] had no idea about the prophecy. We were greeted by thousands in the streets and it was all over the national news. During our visit the delegation met with the president of the general assembly and Congolese women that have been victims of rape.

When I returned home, I began to organize faith leaders for our PSA campaign. I reached out to  Rev. Otis Moss, III at Trinity United Church of Christ, who had already been involved with the ongoing crisis in the Congo. KineticsLive.com has been in partnership with Trinity United Church of Christ since we launched in November 2011. We are asking communites of faith to host a screening of the film, Crisis of the Congo– a 27-minute documentary – and participate in Congo Week, October 20th – 26th, 2013. There will also be a letter writing campaign, starting in elementary school and going to high school. There is also a petition to implement the Obama law and to get Secretary of State to withhold funds from Rwanda, which is implicated in supporting the M23 [the rebels] who took over the city of Goma.

UF: Who is involved in the campaign?

Thus far, Rev. Moss [from Trinity United Church of Christ], Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Rev. Frederick Haynes [Friendship West Baptist Church], Dr. Iva Carruthers [Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference], Rev. Dr. Bernice Powell Jackson [World Council of Churches], Rev. Raphael Warnock [Ebenezer Baptist Church], Min. Danielle Ayers [Minister of Social Justice, Friendship West Baptist], Rahiel Tesfamariam [UrbanCusp.com], Dr. Allan Boesak [Anti-apartheid activist] and Rev. Patrick Young, who was also a member of the delegation, have done public service announcements. Rev. Johnathan Weaver from Greater Mount Nebo AME Church, who just returned from the Congo, has been a great supporter of our effort as well. Other members of the delegation including, Minister Tiauna Boyd, Dr. Lewis Tate, Dr. Willie Gable and Shannel Oliver are committed to justice in the Congo.

UF: Can you tell us a little bit more about the public service announcement aspect of Breaking the Silence?

JW: Sure. We are reaching out to faith leaders nationally and internationally to assist us in creating short videos stating that they are breaking the silence and shining light on the conflict in the Congo. It’s a two-minute presentation meant to be shown within a worship [and disseminated online]. Currently they are available on our website and are being uploaded to YouTube. We welcome more faith leaders to join us.

UF: How would you describe the goal of the campaign?

JW: First, we want to look at the history. Let’s start with the Berlin conference in 1884. King Leopold rules for 23 years, killing an estimated 10 million people while extracting rubber, ivory, and other minerals for trade. Belgium then rules until 1960. The first elected leader, Prime Minister Patrice Emery Lumumba, is assassinated. Then, the United States installs and backs a dictator – Mobutu Sese Seko – for over three decades. I could say more, but the point is that history contextualizes what’s going on in the Congo now.

The West has a history of exploiting the enormous natural and human resources in the Congo, which has an estimated mineral wealth of $24 trillion. Congo has enough agricultural resources to feed the world until 2050. And the Congo River has enough hydro-electric capacity to illuminate the entire continent and parts of Europe. The Congo is located in the heart of Africa. I believe if you save the Congo, you save Africa. Our goal is to bring awareness to the worst human rights conflict in the world and mobilize people of good will to demand justice for the Congolese people.

Another goal [of Breaking the Silence] focuses on the resource Coltan, which goes into laptops and cell phones. Every Wednesday, participants turn their phones off to break silence around the devastation in the Congo. Again, much of this is a mineral resource war. Major mineral companies are extracting resources – gold, diamonds, and so on – from the Congo. Congo has enough agricultural resources to feed the world until 2050. Enough water and power to energize the whole continent [Africa] and parts of Europe. It’s in the center of Africa, surrounded by nine countries. It’s strategically located – if you save the Congo, you save Africa.

UF: Thanks for providing that historical context. Can you tell us more about what’s happening in the Congo?

JW: Since 1996, 6 million people have died; 2 million individuals have been raped; 2 million have been displaced, fueled by a land grab and resource war. This resource war has devastated the country for over a hundred years. It’s the poorest country in the world, but yet it’s one of the richest countries in the world.

UF: Oftentimes, social justice is invoked on behalf of domestic issues – living wage, affordable housing, public health, etc. What would you say to those who want to globalize their understanding of what social justice entails?

JW: All issues are global issues. The wages that Americans are paid are directly connected to the global economy. The exploitation of labor in poor countries has resulted in many industries collapsing in America. Issues of underdevelopment are present in the two-thirds world and in urban America. I think it is impossible to be successful advocating on domestic issues without a global context. Black bodies have little value globally. We must do a better job of connecting our efforts for justice globally.

UF: Tell us a bit about yourself. What drives your commitment to the Congo? How did you get involved in this work?

JW: I grew up in Baltimore where I attended the Mason Memorial and Good Shepherd Church of God in Christ. The influence of the church and the example of my mom led me to live a life of service and ministry.  Later I was introduced to the work of Randal Robinson, Founder of TransAfrica Forum, and he ignited my passion for global justice. While in college I studied Interdisciplinary Studies focusing on International Affairs, Financial Economic and Africana Studies (Pan-African Development) . Later I would worked as the program director for the Collective Banking group (CBG),  a faith-based community economic corporation, representing over  200,000 congregants  to develop and enhance economic empowerment strategies for African-Americans.

While at the CBG I attended Harvard University’s Summer Leadership Institute. During this program I developed my idea for Kinetics, an information ministry that using dialogue as a catalyst for social change. With theory of change ‘if we knew better, we would do better”   Kinetics works to strengthen social movements within the African-American community by bridging the gap between the church, community-based organizations and the academy.  My first client with Kinetics was TransAfrica Forum.

Six years ago, I was asked to join a coalition of faith leaders along with the Institute of Policy Studies,TransAfrica forumAfrica Action, Friends of the Congo, and the Africa Faith and Justice Network to identify common areas of partnership between our respective organizations. We started off trying to decide what issue in Africa could we mobilize around- Congo was the country of choice. Since the forming of the coalition, I have developed a stronger relationship with Friends of the Congo, and have been working to help them launch a Religious Council. So I’ve been passionate about the Congo for a while. But actually stepping on the soil – touching the people, holding babies…it’s something that I’ll never forget.  I believe in the power of the church. I’m critical, but I believe with our flaws and all, the black church will save the community and be an instrument of healing. 

UF: So the premise is that “if we know better we would do better”.

JW: Exactly. Let’s think about our context. Who is telling the story of the Congolese? You can’t just watch CNN and MSNBC and think you’re engaged. We have to tell our own story. When it comes to media ownership, we’re not part of the game. We’re not controlling local radio or national syndication – even with the Grio, the Root, and Huffington Post Black Voices.

Let’s take, for example, the Baltimore campaign against Governor [Martin O’ Malley] proposed construction of a youth prison. No one was telling that story [emphasis added]. Rev. Heber Brown, pastor of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, called and said that the Governor wants to build a $100 million youth jail when they are closing recreation centers and haven’t built a new school in 30 years”. I had hosted “Justice Sundays” on poverty and mass incarceration in the past. We decided to host Youth Justice Sunday on October 31st and had 25 churches and organizations endorse it, along with Rev. Frank Reid.  It was a two-hour program and march to the proposed youth jail site.

We used our website and social media to bring awareness to the issue. Our allies created YouTube videos and Facebook pages. Many of our churches were unaware that the Governor was preparing to build a youth jail. [And our organizing and publicizing] gave us enough coverage to leverage the story and then other media outlets began to pick it up. That’s why we did Youth Justice Sunday and that’s the importance of an information ministry and telling your own story.

UF: How would you define information ministry?

JW: The Bible says my people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge. An information is about Informing, equipping and empowering the church to do the work God has called us to do. Once we are informed we must put our faith into action.

UF: Any closing words of wisdom?

JW: I just want folks to get involved and to understand power of the church when we work together. In traveling I discovered that the many of the oppress peoples of the world draw on the civil rights movement and the legacy of the black church in America.  It’s important to know that we have the power to transform the Congo, transform cities like Chicago and Baltimore, and transform the world.

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For more information on the Breaking the Silence campaign, visit Kineticslive.com/break-the-silence/

From Congo to Middle America

From Congo to Middle America

SHARING THE BREAD OF LIFE: When not making biscuits at a local restaurant, Democratic Republic of Congo refugee Benjamin Kisoni pastors a congregation of African immigrants in Tennessee. He awaits asylum in the U.S. and dreams of reuniting with his family. (Photo by Dawn Jewell)

Benjamin Kisoni’s recent life reads like the story of a modern-day Joseph. But instead of donning a fine multicolored robe, he ties apron strings in pre-dawn stillness. His fingers freeze mixing chilled buttermilk and flour. He is preparing the day’s first biscuits at the fast-food restaurant Bojangles’ in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Until three years ago, Benjamin had never tasted a biscuit in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Amidst the region’s ongoing turmoil, he was pastoring a Baptist church and publishing a Christian youth magazine. But in 2009, five times men assailed his house, seeking to kill him. Each time Benjamin evaded them. Desperate, he fled to the U.S., leaving behind his wife and eight children (ages 14 to 30) and effectively shutting down his family’s printing business.

Benjamin was targeted because he pursued a court case for his brother’s assassination. Hired gunmen had murdered his brother, a veterinarian and businessman respected for his humanitarian works. Local influential leaders had feared his brother’s increasing popularity.

“I love my country and wanted to help change it by writing. I never imagined I’d be chased from it,” he says. He and his wife reluctantly agreed that his leaving the DR Congo was the best chance they had for everyone to survive. So in May 2009, the beleaguered pastor arrived with one suitcase in small town America, welcomed by his sister and her husband.

Since then, Benjamin’s faith has been refined. After applying for asylum and while awaiting a work permit, Benjamin penned his story on God and suffering to encourage his fellow countrymen. “The ink which wrote this book is my tears,” he says. The book, “God, Where Are You?” will be released later this year by Zondervan’s Hippo imprint.

Biscuits for Jesus

Five days a week Benjamin rises at 3 a.m. to pray and read Scripture. His eight-hour shift begins at 4:30. He has honed the science of Bojangles’ made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits.

“It’s non-stop work,” he says. But God prepared Benjamin via his Master of Theology thesis on the ethics of work years ago.

Last year Benjamin was promoted to Master Biscuit Maker, training new hires from other restaurants. On their first day, he tells each trainee: “I’m a Christian, I love God…The manager may be present or not, but I know God is there. I’m working to please God.”

God, in turn, has blessed the work of his hands. Business has improved at Benjamin’s Bojangles’ location since he started working there, his boss told him. Three times his manager has nominated him “employee of the month.”

Each month Benjamin wires home a large portion of his meager salary to provide food, medicine and rent for his family. It’s not how he  imagined supporting them or rebuilding his nation. But he has accepted God’s plans.

Silent worship carries Benjamin through hours of biscuit-making. As the batter forms a ball, he softly sings in French:
“Here is Good News for all who are disappointed;
He offers better than anything we’ve lost,
Because what we see is not all there is,
His provision never ends…” (English translation)

“I used to think you can go through suffering and then reach victory on the other side. But I’ve learned that when you are in the midst of suffering and have hope in God, that is victory,” he says. Like Joseph, this suffering servant in exile has excelled, trusting in God’s plan.

An African Billy Graham

God keeps confirming the strange twists of Benjamin’s life. Twelve years ago, he dreamed he was helping to build a church, oddly within a bigger church. Today Benjamin is senior pastor to a fledgling congregation of local African immigrants. It meets within the larger American Grace Fellowship Church.

On a recent Sunday, 50 men and women, and more than 25 children from Ghana, Liberia, South Africa, Ivory Coast, the DR Congo and Cameroon filled chairs. The International Christian Fellowship formed in 2009 out of a Bible study to meet cultural needs that American churches couldn’t.

From the pulpit, Pastor Benjamin preaches the Word clearly and simply; Billy Graham is his life-long model. As a pastor’s son, a young Benjamin devoured each new issue of Graham’s Decision magazine.  Today he avoids theological debates and exhorts congregants to imitate Jesus. The church is slowly expanding.

Besides discipling fellow Africans, Benjamin has helped Bryan Henderson, a bi-vocational pastor and financial advisor, grasp God more clearly. The two men email, pray and meet regularly as friends and accountability partners.  “I’m white, he’s black. I grew up with privilege and he grew up with poverty,” Bryan says.  “We had nothing in common, but everything in common. We had the Holy Spirit guiding us.”

BI-VOCATIONAL BROTHERS: Bryan Henderson (left), a pastor and financial advisor, met Benjamin during a time of personal despair. “He helped me see that man does not live on bread alone,” says Bryan. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Henderson)

The two men met shortly after Bryan had lost his job with financial giant Merrill Lynch. Benjamin’s deep faith amidst persecution and trials “really helped me see that man does not live on bread alone,” Bryan says. Now they discuss church leadership issues, American and African culture, and Scripture passages.

A strong daily dose of God’s word sustains Benjamin’s hope. “People here want fast food, fast cars, fast this, fast that. They haven’t learned to wait patiently on the Lord,” he says.

Recently he resonated with the three women who carried spices to Jesus’ tomb, despite awareness they couldn’t budge the boulder at the entrance (Mark 16). “The women could’ve stayed home, but they didn’t,” he says. “So I said, ‘God, I have many stones in my way. I believe you will remove them.’”

A Place to Call Home?

The biggest stone in Benjamin’s life is his asylum case. Last year the U.S. granted asylum to about 25,000 people seeking sanctuary,  although three times as many applied here. Like refugees, asylum seekers flee their home countries because of persecution or well-grounded fears thereof, based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Back home, Benjamin is sure he would be killed. His family is scattered across the eastern DR Congo, too afraid to return to their house but tired of living in limbo. Recently his daughter texted him, “Dad, I want to go back home. If they will kill me, let them kill me.”

This May an immigration judge denied Benjamin asylum, claiming inadequate grounds. His lawyer is appealing, but the process could last years.

Massive backlogs of asylum cases sit in the vastly under-resourced U.S. court system, says Lisa Koop, managing attorney of the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), a Chicago non-profit. Anxiety for family members still facing danger back home is a huge stressor for asylum seekers, Koop says.

In recent months, fighting between marauding militia and the army has increased in the lush green hills of eastern DR Congo, near Benjamin’s hometown. Despite peace accords signed in 2003, 5 million people have died since 1998 in the world’s deadliest conflict.  The current battle for power, the region’s mineral wealth, or security originates in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the subsequent flight of Hutu civilians and militia into the DR Congo.

Meanwhile, Benjamin looks beyond the American dream, “longing for a better country, a heavenly one,” he says (Hebrews 11:14).

“I  trust God because He’s sovereign. I’m not asking the ‘why’ questions,” he told Bryan after his case was denied.

The final pages of Benjamin’s story are unwritten. Meanwhile, reads his book’s epilogue: “I thank God for my suffering. He made himself known to me, and through them he has allowed me to comfort others.”

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