Members of Peace Felowship, The Village Church, Anacostia River Church, Revolution Church, Covenant Baptist UCC, and First Rock Baptist Church participate in a peace walk in Washington, D.C. The Rev. Delonte Gholston, fourth from left, regularly helps organize peace walks. Photo courtesy of Delonte Gholston
The Rev. Delonte Gholston collected almost 100 signatures from faith leaders for a letter asking the mayor and other District of Columbia officials to transfer 20% of the police budget into violence prevention programs.
The Rev. Andrew Cheung plans to urge city officials to offer new de-escalation training for the officers that patrol Washington’s streets and enlist more social workers who might instead help the homeless and mentally ill.
The Rev. Ashley Diaz Mejias gained the support of fellow clergy in raising public attention about an outbreak of COVID-19 at a juvenile detention center near Richmond, Virginia, where she co-pastors a church.
The three were part of a predominantly Black but diverse group of clergy and lay people who spent the last nine months in a pilot program exploring how theology applies to issues of police violence and criminal justice.
Participants in the Theology and Racialized Policing Cohort Program meet at the Howard University School of Divinity, Oct. 24, 2019, in Washington, D.C. Courtesy photo
About 45 participants met in person and virtually at Howard University School of Divinity for the “Theology and Racialized Policing Cohort Program” through a partnership with Sojourners, a Christian mobilizing and media organization, and the Christian Community Development Association. It started in October, months before the recent protests following the death of George Floyd — a Black man held for almost nine minutes under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
The certificate program has brought together an intergenerational group of graduate students, social justice and policing consultants and senior pastors to determine what to do before, during and after crises of racial injustice arise. Its last session was led by a minister who was involved in the “Boston Miracle,” an initiative that led to a sharp reduction in youth homicides.
The Rev. Terrance McKinley. Courtesy photo
The Rev. Terrance McKinley, director of racial justice and mobilizing for Sojourners, said the program was designed to particularly help Black clergy who often have in their pews both law enforcement employees and those who have had negative interactions with the police. The program aimed to foster ways faith leaders, across denominations and backgrounds, could not only address the collective grief of congregants over the deaths of Black people at the hands of police but also determine steps for transforming their communities.
“There’s an acknowledgement of the anger, the anger in particular that comes with these kinds of deaths,” said McKinley, 39, who pastors an African Methodist Episcopal congregation. “But as people of faith, we know that that can’t be an ending point, that we’re always pointing toward the wholeness that God wants for his creation.”
As the White House and Congress debate possible nationwide actions, cohort participants say they have come away from their course of study with determination to push for greater change in their local communities.
“I think that a lot of the folks that are in the cohort are waking up to the difference between heartfelt compassionate service and heartfelt and compassionate action, organizing,” said Gholston, a Black pastor who leads a multiethnic nondenominational Washington congregation that grew out of the Mennonite tradition. “I think it’s been helpful to be able to have those conversations honestly.”
The Rev. Yolanda Pierce, dean of Howard University’s School of Divinity, said faculty at her historically Black institution and guest speakers from Sojourners and the CCDA had already been on the front lines of dealing with race relations and policing and could help other faith leaders advance social justice work and community engagement.
“It is absolutely critical that those who work in faith communities are equipped with language, theology and tools to discuss the ways racialized policing has disproportionately affected communities of color,” she said. “The voices, experiences and engagement of people of faith are absolutely critical in reducing harm, violence and distrust in communities that are often overpoliced but underprotected.”
The Rev. Ashley Diaz Mejias. Courtesy photo
Many participants had already been engaged in the criminal justice system in some way. Gholston, 40, leads regular peace walks in Washington with dozens of churches. Diaz Mejias, also 40, is a director of the Richmond Community Bail Fund and has recently been busy helping protesters in that city who have been detained in jail or had their cars impounded.
Diaz Mejias, a white Hispanic woman who co-pastors a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) worshipping community at the detention center, said the course affirmed that her faith is a “grounding space for liberation.” She said it has also given her reading material — including Alex Vitale’s “The End of Policing” — to guide her.
“I read that book in like a day and a half,” she recalled, saying the reading came before the recent protests in her city. “It was like a breath of fresh air and really challenging. And getting to encounter that in a faith space was invigorating for me.”
Some of the cohort participants, including Cheung, a Chinese pastor of a predominantly white multidenominational church, have participated in recent protests following Floyd’s death, including one organized by Sojourners, and a vigil where he prayed at the Lincoln Memorial.
Cheung, 46, who moved to D.C. a couple of years ago, has noticed the prominent police presence in the nation’s capital — which has some two dozen police agencies.
The Rev. Andrew Cheung, left, and his wife, Julia, participate in a march and vigil for George Floyd on May 31, 2020, in Washington, D.C. The grassroots-organized group marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where Cheung led a prayer of lament and speakers advocated for police reform. Photo courtesy of Andrew Cheung
“We put too much faith as a society in the sense of security and protection that law enforcement offers us,” he said. “I feel like our sense of what safety means and how do we get to safety is kind of skewed.”
The program will conclude in July, when participants are expected to turn in final projects: scorecards on how D.C. police precincts are relating to their communities.
McKinley said Sojourners has received requests to offer the program in other cities, including at Duke University Divinity School.
The Rev. Regina Graham, associate director of the Office of Black Church Studies at the school in Durham, North Carolina, said the spring 2021 program will include the school’s Hispanic House of Studies and Center for Reconciliation and will focus on racialized policing and immigration. It plans to have seven African American pastors and seven Latino pastors participate to help them tangibly follow the biblical admonition of “doing justice and walking humbly” as they seek to transform their local areas.
“We’re hoping that it will provide them with the tools and the resources,” Graham said, “that they’re able to share in their ministries, share in their communities outside of the four walls of the church.”
While some participants in the Sojourners partnership with Howard’s divinity school and CCDA are living out what they learned through protests, letter writing campaigns and congregational action, at least one is contemplating a career change.
Claudia Allen speaks at a community interfaith prayer vigil, planned by Pastor Noah Washington of Emmanuel Brinklow SDA Church, on June 12, 2020, in Montgomery County, Maryland. Courtesy photo
Claudia Allen, an African American Seventh-day Adventist laywoman who writes for an online Adventist magazine, was a teaching assistant pursuing a doctorate of philosophy in English at the University of Maryland when she started the program. Now, after spending months sharing stories, statistics and practical steps with Baptist, Presbyterian and Catholic cohort members, the 29-year-old has applied for full-time work in the social justice field, as well as a position on a county policing advisory commission.
“I think that people don’t know that, hey, these town halls, these boards, these meetings are open to community citizens, and, unfortunately, many church folk aren’t sitting on them,” she said. “That’s kind of what I try to encourage people to do and what I’m trying to do myself.”
Depending on whom you ask, the question of what most defines the African American community varies. Some will point to strides made toward racial integration. Others will point to the establishment of our own culture, traditions, and institutions that distinguish us from other races. And depending on whom you engage in this debate, most will admit, there are significant cultural and class divisions among African Americans. Creating a sense of community among African Americans is challenging, but imagine attempting this when the prevalent identifier was slavery.
In his book A Nation Within A Nation: Organizing African American Communities Before the Civil War, scholar John Ernest offers an insightful view of how African Americans to establish their identities before the civil war. This is a unique view since most accounts of this time in history focus on how the Civil War changed our status and sense of community. Ernest presents a view of the oft-overlooked organizations that were pushing for the establishment of an African American community well before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Ernest, a professor of American literature at West Virginia University, presents a historical account of how five types of social organizations — the church, Masonic lodges, conventions, schools, and the media/press — got their start. He traces how each attempted to meet the unique needs of the African American community.
One of Ernest’s most striking observations is that our forefathers held two key approaches on how the establishment of community should be accomplished. Some believed that African Americans should fight to assimilate into the majority community, and that finding acceptance there was the ultimate measure of progress. Others, smarting from their experiences with severe racism, believed that creating a new community — i.e., a nation within a nation — was the best approach.
What’s fascinating to consider is that the African American is still divided along those lines. What’s more, the tension between those two mindsets still polarizes our community. Those who fight to be accepted among the majority, which in our time is still white Americans, are often accused of being disloyal to their heritage. Those who fight to establish their own culture are often accused of being separatist, or in the most severe cases racists themselves.
Ernest also highlights the painful fact that from our earliest history, oppression was the most common connection among most African Americans. Even free African Americans faced oppression, opposition, and racism. Many of the organizations formed during that time were built on freedom from that oppression.
A Nation Within a Nation, although focused on the past, whispers to our current conditions. What would our culture be like if the oppression of our ancestors was removed from our current community? How would we then define ourselves? This book made me wonder if a common denominator could ever be found for African Americans. It also made me wonder about the efficiency of trying to define ourselves by a single idea.
But don’t expect answers to those questions in this book. Ernest writes the book in true historian style, only presenting information without his personal beliefs. His writing has the density of academia, so this is not a quick read. In my opinion, this is the best approach. So much our history has been interpreted for us by pop culture or presented in snapshots. It’s refreshing to be able to read such rich history without a filter and with all the weightiness it deserves.
I think the most enjoyable aspect of this book is the discussion that has arisen among those in my African American community. This is a topic that needs to be revisited, and A Nation Within a Nation provides a great springboard for beginning that important dialogue.
It’s been a week since the presidential election, and much of the chatter prior to Election Day about how racially divided America is has continued in different forms thanks to a crop of strange and often disturbing news stories that feature racial subtexts. Here are a few.
After President Obama’s victory, reports circulated about a race riot on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Apparently some students were angry over the Obama win and caused a ruckus which included the torching of an Obama/Biden poster. But was it a “race” riot?
A new meme has been making the rounds in social media that displays maps of slaveholding states in 1859, legally segregated states in 1950, and the breakdown of red vs. blue states after the 2012 election. The suggestion is that the slaveholding and segregated states from the past bear an uncanny similarity to the states won by Romney last week. But the meme doesn’t mention that Obama won Florida (as well as Virginia). So, does the comparison meant to show how far we’ve come, or how some things never change?
Obama’s Black Liberal Critics Are Still Mad, Too
Reports from The Grio and The Root find Cornel West calling President Obama “a Republican in black face.” And African American political pundit Boyce Watkins warns African Americans against “drinking the Kool-Aid” again and argues that Obama has yet to demonstrate a serious interest in tackling issues deeply affecting the African American community, including poverty, black unemployment, urban violence, and the mass incarceration of black men.
Those are just a few of the post-election race stories that are making headlines. Did we miss any? Is this much ado about nothing? Please share your opinions below.
HOW FAR WE’VE COME: President Barack Obama, Ruby Bridges, and representatives of the Norman Rockwell Museum view Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” hanging in a West Wing hallway near the Oval Office, July 15, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
The past week reminded us once again (as if we needed reminding) how racialized American politics has become since Barack Obama became our first African American president four years ago.
For many, President Obama’s historic victory signaled an evident shift toward what some called a “post-racial America.” Even those who rejected such talk conceded that Obama’s election was proof that our nation has grown in a positive direction.
In July, Associated Press reporter Jesse Washington examined the effect that President Obama’s election has had on the nation. According to Washington, shortly before the 2008 election, 56 percent of Americans surveyed by the Gallup organization poll said that race relations would improve if Obama were elected. One day after his victory, 70 percent said race relations would improve and only 10 percent predicted they would get worse.
But once Obama settled into the White House, it became clear that the president’s race — instead of becoming a nonissue in a post-racial era — would become a subtext of his every move and lead many of his opponents to level racially tinged charges against him (e.g., “He was born in Africa,” “He’s a closet Muslim,” “He’s a socialist,” “He’s hates America,” “He hates white people”).
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Barack Obama, America’s first black president, speaks near a portrait of George Washington, America’s first white president. (Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)
Just this past week alone, the president was described as “a retard” by one high-profile pundit, and accused of “shucking and jiving” by a former vice presidential candidate. Then, after respected Republican statesman Colin Powell again endorsed Obama for president, John Sununu, a surrogate for GOP nominee Mitt Romney, suggested Powell supports Obama because they share the same race. This adds juice to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released on Wednesday that found the 2012 election is turning out to be the most racially polarized presidential contest since 1988.
Now comes word today of a new Associated Press poll that finds racial attitudes have not improved during the four years of Barack Obama’s presidency. In fact, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey.
This leads us to wonder how racial progress might fare under a second term for President Obama. Or, whether things would improve or get worse under a Mitt Romney presidency that, presumably, would not be as haunted by the specter of race the way that President Obama’s has.
What do you think?Has President Obama’s time in office improved or worsened race relations in America?
MITT’S PITCH: GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney took his conservative message to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) convention on Wednesday, telling the audience that President Obama’s policies have hurt African Americans. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Newscom)
Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney “received the most hostile reaction from any campaign audience this year” and “appeared unsettled by three rounds of loud boos” July 11 at the NAACP national convention in Houston , The Washington Post reported.
‘Obamacare’ Opposition Booed
The booing came after Romney expressed his opposition to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, The Postreported, but the article said “many portions of his speech received reserved cheers, such as his promise to defend traditional marriage, and many black voters in the audience stood to applaud him when he finished.”
Trumped Up Support
Colorlines published a gallery of frowning faces from the event and quoted tweetsfrom pundit Roland Martin that accused Romney of busing in supporters. Is anyone else not surprised that a political campaign would bus in supporters, especially when the audience is expected to be less than friendly?
Failure to Connect
“It wasn’t just [Romney’s] sharply-worded criticism of President Obama’s policies” that drew the audience’s ire, according to BuzzFeed. “It’s that Romney doesn’t know how to talk to black audiences.” For example, Charlette Stoker Manning, chair of Women in NAACP, reportedly said, “I believe his vested interests are in white Americans. …You cannot possibly talk about jobs for black people at the level he’s coming from. He’s talking about entrepreneurship, savings accounts — black people can barely find a way to get back and forth from work.” I’m not sure about you, but to me that last bit sounds like a pretty insulting generalization.
Bold, Consistent Message
“We understand that folks aren’t going to agree with us 100 percent,” Romney adviser Tara Wallis quoted as saying. “But at the end of the day, I think that Gov. Romney’s message was bold. He said what needed to be said, and he said what he’s always said.”
Thumbs Up for Courage
“I give him thumbs up for being courageous,” William Braxton, a retiree from Charles County, Md. told The New York Times. However, Braxton also reportedly said he has “never, ever” heard Romney “say anything about how he would help the poor or underprivileged, let alone the black community.”
Obama Absence ‘Perplexing’
Molly Ball, of The Atlantic, found it “perplexing”that President Obama didn’t speak to the group at all, but instead sent Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday and Vice President Joe Biden today because of “scheduling” conflicts. “When the president is invited and sends an underling instead, that’s an undeniable dis, especially when his opponent shows up in person,” said Ball. “Obama, who won 95 percent of the black vote in 2008 (and who, you may have heard, is America’s first black president), may believe he can afford to take black voters for granted. But that’s not at all clear.”
Biden Draws Cheers
The audience was perhaps forgiving, because “Biden drew cheers as he credited Obama for championing a landmark health care law, launching the mission that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and stepping in to rescue the financial system and U.S. automakers General Motors and Chrysler,” the Associated Press reported.
What do you think?
Is President Obama taking the Black vote for granted?