Omaha’s Justice Journey

Omaha's Justice Journey for urban faithWhen black and white church leaders from this deceptively pleasant Nebraska city recognized the need for racial healing in their community, they got on a bus together and traveled south to visit landmarks of the civil rights movement. On their “Justice Journey,” they explored the complex emotions that still divide us as a nation — and the divine grace needed for true reconciliation.

This is the first report of a two-part series.

Most people don’t give the city of Omaha, Nebraska, a lot of thought. I didn’t either until three years ago when my family left Chicago after 16 years to put down roots in a new city. The smaller size and quality of life are inviting and we found Omaha to be a great place to raise a family. Omaha is routinely rated as one of the best mid-sized cities in the U.S., and we enjoy all it has to offer. However, soon after moving here I was surprised to discover some stark realities.

Omaha is a wealthy city, but it has the highest black child poverty rate in the entire United States. In the midst of our current recession, Omaha’s unemployment rate is still under 5 percent. However, in parts of North Omaha, which is a primarily black community, the unemployment rate is 20 percent overall, with census tracts that chronically experience a 30 to 40 percent unemployment rate. When friends from Chicago visit, it is not unusual for them to be disturbed by our local newscasts — they thought Omaha, Nebraska, would be different from Chicago — but we too hear regular reports of almost nightly shootings and homicides. We’ve also realized how segregated the city is, even compared to Chicago. So, while Omaha is a great place for some, others in my city have a different experience.

This reality is a high priority for many Christian leaders in Omaha who feel led to do something to raise awareness of the racial issues in the city.

This past spring, 50 leaders from 14 Omaha churches went on a Justice Journey. Doing the Journey was an idea that had been sparked a few years earlier at a Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago. Based on a concept developed by the Evangelical Covenant denomination called Sankofa (a West African word meaning “going back in order to move forward”), leaders with the mostly white Willow Creek partnered with leaders from the predominantly African American Salem Baptist Church of Chicago on the city’s Southside to embark on a bus tour through the Southern U.S. to sites made famous during the civil rights marches of the 1960s.

After attending a Willow Creek ministry conference, where a video clip of the Justice Journey was shown along with a discussion of how lives had been transformed as a result, Ron and Twany Dotzler of Abide Ministries felt that Willow’s model needed to be brought to Omaha. They soon discovered that others at the conference had similar thoughts — including John and Viv Ewing of the mostly black Salem Baptist of Omaha and Pastor George Moore of the mostly white West Hills Church. As they shared their perspectives, this multiracial group formed a planning team around the idea of creating a Justice Journey for Omaha’s churches. Five years later, it became a reality.

More Than a Sentimental Journey

Though some might write it off as an overly sentimental missions trip designed to assuage the racial guilt of white evangelical Christians, the Justice Journey is a carefully planned event with the purpose of raising awareness of justice issues, reconciliation, and the need for collective repentance and healing.

On Omaha’s first Journey, the participants were paired up interracially, mostly black and white. With their partners, they processed the complex history and emotions they encountered during the trip. It was stressed that everyone should speak their mind and not worry about “sounding ignorant.” From Omaha, the group traveled to Selma, Birmingham, and Atlanta and toured sites such as the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the Civil Rights Institute, the Martin Luther King Center, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the grave site of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta, the Slavery and Civil War Museum, the National Voting Rights Museum, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the “Bloody Sunday” conflict that disrupted the Selma march. The participants had time to read, learn, experience and discuss the history of each site. In addition, the Willow Creek Association’s Alvin Bibbs and legendary evangelical activist John Perkins joined the Omaha travelers to help guide their journey.

I recently spoke to five Justice Journey ’09 participants from three different churches, two black and one white, about their experiences.

Reflections from the South

Tim Perry, a white pastor from Christ Community Church, a primarily white, 3,000-attendee church, spoke of his time on the “Bloody Sunday” bridge. He was deeply impacted by the peacefulness the demonstrators exhibited, yet, they were not received peacefully and many of them met death.

Jay Castillo, also of Christ Community Church, said his experience in the Slavery museum was the most powerful. At this museum, an African American woman played the role of slave master and treated each visitor as if they were a slave. Jay, a 31-year-old Filipino-American originally from San Francisco, had studied the civil rights movement in school and knew many of the stories. A part of him felt that if he had been a slave, he would have stood strong and maintained his sense of dignity. However, as he participated in the role playing at the slavery museum, he gained a much greater understanding of how hard life was for slaves and how easy it was to be brainwashed. He could see how simple it would be to fall into a hopeless state. “Once you experience it, your level of understanding is totally different,” he said.

Omaha's Justice Journey for urban faith

Get on the Bus: Participants used the long ride south for reading, deep conversations, and the occasional nap.

Pastor James Patterson, of the mostly black Trinity Hope Church, was impacted by seeing a much larger picture of what happened during the civil rights movement. “I saw the complex structures put in place to keep blacks down,” he said. “This was a mirror reflection of what I had heard and seen during those years,”

Patterson arrived in Omaha in 1985 and began leading Trinity Hope, a Foursquare church, five years later. A reconciler at heart, he has worked for years at building bridges between the black and white communities in Omaha. “The exhibits at the Civil Rights Institute were history,” he added. “We don’t have to walk in those shoes of mental belittlement and threats anymore. We don’t live in that same kind of oppression. But it is powerful to look back.”

Another powerful moment came during the visit to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where a bomb blast killed four young girls while they attended Sunday school. John Ewing, an associate minister at Salem Baptist and the Douglas County (Nebraska) treasurer, found this the most emotional part of the trip.

“As a black father of two daughters, it was hard for me to reflect on that pain,” he said. “The parents of those little girls did the right thing — they sent their children to church. You don’t expect something like that to happen.”

It was devastating for Ewing to think about how people could have so much hatred in them that they would blow up a church. Even more devastating is the thought that the bombers may have been churchgoing Christians themselves.

Viv Ewing, also an associate minister at Salem Baptist and president of Life Development International, found the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham impactful.

“I was not aware of the number of children that were involved in demonstrations, protests, peace marches, and sit-ins,” she said. “I was deeply affected by the display that showed the differences between a white classroom in the 1960s and a black classroom.”

She said whites had bright, well-kept rooms with new books, while classrooms for the black children were antiquated and looked like they were from the 1800s. The books in those classrooms looked as though animals had chewed on them. The contrast was eye opening, to say the least.

Our City, Our Issues

In reflecting on the Journey, all participants were moved by what they experienced and spurred on to work for justice in Omaha.

“I appreciated the fact that I could soak in what happened during that era with an African American brother by my side,” said Tim Perry. “By yourself you can see something, but with someone else you see so much more.”

The black pastors’ reactions to the different phases of the Justice Journey transformed Perry’s perspective. “I realized that the issues of race and justice are not closed; we must continue to work on them,” he said. “There I was with my counterpart — someone who is doing ministry just like I am. If I care about my friend and our relationship, I too have to work on this.”

Perry noted that, as a white person, he is not forced to pay attention to issues of race and justice each day in America, but African Americans are. Still, he would like people of all backgrounds and races in Omaha to understand that we are all a part of the community, and that we “own” all of its issues, all of its problems — and we need to work on them together.

The Justice Journey is not just a onetime event; it is a step on a greater journey to bring together Omaha’s Christians of all races to be the body of Christ in the city. The participants have many goals for the future. In part two of my report, the Omaha pilgrims discuss how the Justice Journey became a catalyst for changing their community back home.

Related Article: Omaha’s Justice Journey, Part 2.

Big Government in Black and White

Big Government in Black and White for urban faithAmong other controversies, the health-care debate has shined a light on the different ways that African Americans and European Americans think about government in the lives of people.

I was recently talking with a European-American friend of mine who is also an evangelical. I am African-American and evangelical. We were talking about the tense debate that has been going on in our nation about health care when he raised an interesting question about race. He told me that his big concern about the potential passing of a health-care reform bill was a government-run health-care system, which would lead to bigger government. I responded by agreeing with his concerns, but stating that he should have been concerned about big government militarily during the George W. Bush years as well.

I then asked the first question: “Why do some conservatives so easily see the threat of big government when it has to do with health care, but can’t see big government when it’s running an expensive war in Iraq? Not many conservatives complained about how much money the war in Iraq was taking out of their pockets, but now they’re angry about how much the potential passing of a health-care reform bill would. Both the management of war and health care are types of big government, leading to spending money we don’t have as a country in debt.”

My friend responded by asking this question: “Why do so many African-Americans trust government with health care? Why are so many not concerned about big government in this way?”

I thought this was a great question that gets to the racial divide around how some African Americans and some European-Americans see government and corporate America from different perspectives. One of the reasons some European-Americans would rather see health care worked out in the private sector and not run by government has to do with how this country started. For many European-Americans, life in the U.S. began with a seeking of independence from European government systems and the pioneering of a new way of living based on democracy — and maybe more importantly, the development of an economic system called capitalism. This history sheds light on why conservatives and many evangelicals today would be concerned about big government.

For African-Americans there is a history in this country which begins with slavery. The African-American begins his or her experience in the economic system of capitalism and free enterprise as the slave. From there, the experience with the economic system for many African-Americans is within a race-based, sub-system called Jim Crow Segregation. Primarily, government has been the catalyst to open the door to freedom from slavery, even if Jim Crow Segregation was one of its initial alternatives. Overall, government has been the instrument through which substantive change has come for African Americans. The Civil War, the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act are all government-led realities.

Could this be the foundational reason why, in this society still influenced by race, many European-Americans are concerned about big government while many African-Americans embrace it? I believe the church in the United States of America must rise out of being the most racially segregated institution in this nation so that it can lead conversations and forums on reconciliation. At the church where I serve as senior pastor, we have a class called City Matters which seeks to raise awareness and spark reconciling discussion. We’ve also hosted an initiative called The Invitation to Racial Righteousness, developed by the Evangelical Covenant Church of which we are a part.

We need more churches to lead these types of initiatives. These conversations and forums could help us understand one another better. We need to move from demonizing those with different perspectives than ourselves and seek to understand the historical roots of our differences. It is possible to love God, follow Christ in a radical way, and have conversations about differing perspectives on how we view the role of government.
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Reunited Methodists

On a sad but pivotal day in the late 1780s, several of the African American members of Philadelphia’s St. George’s Methodist Church were thrown out of the church by the congregation’s white leaders because of their refusal to sit in a blacks-only gallery area. Those African American Christians eventually went on to form what would become the first congregation of the African American Methodist Episcopal Church, Mother Bethel A.M.E.

Now, 200 years after racism divided black from white at St. George’s Methodist, members of the modern-day congregations of St. George’s and Mother Bethel have reunited.


Social but Separate

social mediaEvery day across America we see self-segregation in lunchrooms, in classrooms, and in church pews on Sunday morning. But how about online?

Recently I began looking around the online spaces I frequent: Twitter and Facebook. I wondered if people, particularly those who were just online for social reasons, mix and mingle any differently than they do face-to-face.

To find out I did what any respecting social media junkie would do, I tweeted it. That is, I sent a microblog post polling my followers. And thanks to the Twitter/Facebook link app (aka “application”), all my Facebook friends got the same poll question: Has social media changed U? Do U now connect w/ a broader range of people? How? Offline too?

My new Twitter follower Bill Snyder responded quickly. “My friends certainly span a wide age range. Not totally sure I can attribute that to social media.” Bill, a fellow writer, whose blog is called A Life Beyond Traditional Media, added: “By default, I am more likely to meet people similar in age and skin color [off line]. Digitally speaking, though, it’s a different game. Through social blogging and Twitter, I put out ideas and read other people’s ideas. I find myself engaging in an exchange of thoughts and feelings before exchanging knowledge of skin color, gender, or age.”

Ramiro Medrano, a Facebook friend, indicated that social media had not changed him at all, having been raised in an ethnically diverse environment. Ramiro says, “I have added economically diverse friends to the list, which would apply [on and offline].”

It’s not surprising that the trend in our online relationships would follow that of our offline connections. Yet the Internet’s power to transcend the old boundaries of geography, race, and class also gives us the opportunity to encounter people, for better or worse, whom we formerly would never have had the chance to know otherwise.

Social networks are changing the way we receive our news and how we think about faith, politics, and a myriad of issues. The first amazing images of the “Miracle on the Hudson” plane crash last January were from a private citizen’s cell phone photos posted to his Twitter page. And much of the current protest raging in Iran over the dubious reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is notably taking place through the Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter dispatches of young Iranians.

Social networks also have become the new marketplace, particularly for startups and entrepreneurs. So, consequently, seeing a patchwork of multi-colored faces smiling back at you on a Twitter profile doesn’t necessarily say that racism is dead or that we’ve made great strides in racial reconciliation. It could also be confirming that money is green, no matter if it rests in a black hand or a white hand.

While many social media are used to bring people together around socially positive or neutral themes, sadly many pockets of the Internet thrive on hatred and bigotry. Racism does live in the digital world.

Latoya Peterson of can attest to that. This spring, Laytoya led a panel discussion entitled “Can Social Media End Racism” at South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive, an annual cutting-edge media conference/festival. Ms. Peterson pointed out that she sees online racism every day on her blog in the comment box. Whether its on blogs, social networks, or news and opinion sites, comment areas are typically filled with racial slurs and off-color sexual references to people of color. Just look at the recent comment by Republican activist Rusty DePass. On his Facebook page, DePass apparently suggested that First Lady Michelle Obama is a gorilla.

The four-person SXSW panel, consisting of Latoya Peterson, Phil Yu (, Jay Smooth (, and Kety Esquivel (, came up with three constructive ways to address the pervasive problem of digital racism.

They proposed that we resolve to use social media to:

1. Spread knowledge about racism through podcasting and videos.

2. Create refuge or sanctuary for those who are striving to defeat racism.

3. Mobilize for social justice and anti-racism grassroots efforts like those surrounding the Jena 6.

Some of the conversation around the SXSW event was held on Twitter, which according to Pew Research studies, tends to have a younger more racially-diverse crowd. One Twitter attendant observed, “There’s no ‘end racism’ app or we would’ve pushed that button a long time ago.”

If I just do a click-through of social media profiles, it’s easy to see the racial mixing and matching, the crossing over to the other side of the proverbial tracks. But I know racism (and classism) still exists. In fact, the anonymity and exclusivity of some networks can foster racist behavior. Statistics from Websense Security Labs confirm this. According to a recent Websense report, racist content has shown a marked increase on Facebook and Youtube during the first quarter of 2009. It’s human nature to hide our faces when we lash out in hate.

All things considered, I find it encouraging to see open dialogue about racism, taking the online world offline. Making the social media world really social. I particularly like it when it happens in Christian circles. For the faithful, being in a social network presents an excellent opportunity to come against the darkness of overt and covert racism. It’s a chance to create a new social climate, one that is inclusive, sensitive, honest, and interdependent.

Those of us who are Christ followers and social media junkies need to reach out across the digital boundaries that divide us with intentionality and fervor. Go looking for those in your niche that don’t look like you. Connect with those individuals and strive to interact with them regularly on a substantive level. As they follow our tweets and status updates, hopefully our online (and offline) behavior will reveal that we are following Christ.