Two-minute Daily Direction podcasts by UMI Founder Dr. Melvin E. Banks, Sr., will get you thinking about the intersection of Christianity, social justice, and the role of the church.
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Radicals burn churches hoping to impede justice
The Leadership Conference sees disparities in justice
Rosa Parks protested injustice with non-violence
Chuck Colson advocated for restorative justice
Peaceful protest against injustice shows wisdom
Andrew Young has been a champion for justice
Dr. King stressed nonviolence to fight injustice
Dr. Carl Henry left a good word about social justice
Black religious leaders are up front and central in US protests – as they have been for the last 200 years
When the Rev. Al Sharpton implored white America to “get your knee off our necks” at the memorial of George Floyd, his words were carried by news outlets across the globe. Meanwhile in the U.S., the Rev. William J. Barber II has been an ever-present voice in the protests, prompting some to place him as the successor to past civil rights greats.
That people of the cloth are at the forefront of the current protests over police brutality should not be a surprise.
From the earliest times of the United States’ history, religious leaders have led the struggle for liberation and racial justice for Black Americans. As an ordained minister and a historian, I see it as a common thread running through the history of the United States, from Black resistance in the earliest periods of slavery in the antebellum South, through the civil rights movement of the 1960s and up to the Black Lives Matter movement today.
For many Black religious leaders in the United States, civil rights and social justice are central to their spiritual calling. Informed by their respective faith traditions, it places religion within the Black American experience while also being informed by African culture and the traumatic experience of the Transatlantic trade of African people.
We see this in Malcolm X’s 1964 exhortation that Black Americans should form bonds with African nations and “migrate to Africa culturally, philosophically and spiritually.” Malcolm X’s desire to internationalize the struggle in the U.S. after his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca also speaks to the role he saw Islam having in the civil rights movement.
“America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem,” he wrote in a letter during his visit to Saudi Arabia. The struggle of Black Americans informed Malcolm X’s reading of the Quran.
Similarly, the interaction between religious text and real-world struggle informed earlier Black civil rights and anti-slavery leaders. Slave revolt leader Nat Turner, for example, saw rebellion as the work of God, and drew upon biblical texts to inspire his actions.
As the historian and Turner biographer Patrick Breen noted in an article for Smithsonian Magazine, “Turner readily placed his revolt in a biblical context, comparing himself at some times to the Old Testament prophets, at another point to Jesus Christ.” In his “Confessions,” dictated to a white lawyer after his 1831 arrest, Turner quoted the Gospel of Luke and alluded to numerous other passages from the Bible.
Turner had visions he interpreted as signs from God encouraging him to revolt.
Such prophetic visions were not uncommon to early anti-slavery leaders – Sojourner Truth and Jarena Lee were both spurred to action after God revealed himself to them. Lee’s anti-slavery preaching is also an early example of the important role that black religious female leaders would have in the civil rights struggle.
In arguing for her right to spread God’s message, Lee asked: “If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? Seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one?”
These early anti-slavery activists rejected the “otherworld” theology taught to enslaved Africans by their white captors, which sought to deflect attention away from their condition in “this world” with promises of a better afterlife.
Instead, they affirmed God’s intention for freedom and liberation in both this world and the next, identifying strongly with biblical stories of freedom, such as the exodus of the Hebrew community from Egyptian enslavement and Jesus’ proclamation to “set the oppressed free.”
Incorporating religion into the Black anti-slavery movement sowed the seeds for faith being central to the struggle for racial justice to come. As the church historian James Washington observed, the “very disorientation of their slavery and the persistent impact of systemic racism and other forms of oppression provided the opportunity – indeed the necessity – of a new religious synthesis.”
At heart, a preacher
The synthesis continued into the 20th century, with religious civil rights leaders who clearly felt compelled to make the struggle for justice central part of the role of a spiritual leader.
“In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in a 1965 article for Ebony Magazine.
Racial justice remains integral to Black Christian leadership in the 21st century. In an interview earlier this year, Rev. Barber said: “There is not some separation between Jesus and justice; to be Christian is to be concerned with what’s going on in the world.”
Recognizing the rich legacy of Black religious leadership in the struggle of racial justice in the United States in no way diminishes the role of historic and contemporary secular leadership. From W.E.B. DuBois to A. Philip Randolph, who helped organize 1963’s March on Washington, and up to the current day the civil rights movement has also benefited from those who would classify themselves as freethinkers or atheists.
But given the history of religion in the Black protest movement, it should be no surprise that the killing of George Floyd has unleashed an outpouring of activism from Black religious leaders – backed by supporters from different faith traditions.
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Before he was a Democratic congressman and before he was a civil rights activist, Rep. John Lewis preached to the chickens on his family’s farm as a young boy.
It’s a story staffers of Lewis can repeat by heart because they’ve heard it so many times.
“They would bow their heads; they would shake their heads,” he recounts in footage from an appearance at a Houston church in the new documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble.”
“They never quite said ‘Amen,’ but they tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues on the other side listen to me today in the Congress.”
The documentary, presented through a partnership including Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films, traces the journey of Lewis, now 80, from the fields of Alabama to the halls of Congress. The film portrays how Lewis was shaped by his faith and guided by religious leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. James Lawson, two advocates for nonviolent civil rights action.
“Faith is an integral part of Mr. Lewis’ life but also part of his activism,” said Dawn Porter, director of the documentary, who filmed the congressman for more than a year starting shortly before the 2018 election.
Though he is a politician rather than a preacher per se, Lewis considers politics to be his calling, she said.
“He started preaching to chickens and now in many ways even though he’s a layperson he preaches to us,” she said of the man with a seminary degree as well as a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy. “That is part of the reason why people find it so motivating and so comforting when he speaks.”
The 96-minute documentary, which is to be released on demand and in select theaters on Friday (July 3), includes what has become Lewis’ mantra in its title.
“My philosophy is very simple,” he says in the film, which is also expected to air on CNN in late September. “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”
The documentary’s producers have created a “Good Trouble Sunday” promotion for the movie, encouraging houses of worship to host a digital screening starting this Sunday, for which they can keep a portion of ticket sales.
Faith leaders on a mid-June conference call promoting the documentary expressed appreciation for Lewis, who was diagnosed with cancer late last year, and his long service as a role model.
The Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church outside Atlanta, recalled seeking advice from Lewis in the 1990s, when as the NAACP’s youth director Bryant received pushback for suggesting the civil rights organization reach out to the hip-hop generation.
“He said to me: ‘Jamal, change is never politically correct,’” Bryant recalled. “‘If everybody is in agreement, it’s not that radical.”
“Growing up in rural Alabama, I never had Chinese food before,” he recalled. “But someone that evening said, ‘You should eat well because this might be like the Last Supper.’”
Porter said those comments showed how Lewis and other young civil rights activists did not take their work lightly as they prepared for rides on segregated buses or sit-ins at segregated lunch counters.
“You’ll see in the movie that Rev. Jim Lawson, who was coaching and guiding the students, had them rehearse,” she said of Lewis and his fellow activists. “And I do think he decided that life under a segregated system was not the life that he wanted to live.”
Archival footage — some of which the congressman says he’d never seen before — reviews landmark, as well as lesser-known, moments in Lewis’ history. He was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On his first attempt on “Bloody Sunday” to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, he was beaten by Alabama state troopers and thought he would die as he protested for voting rights.
The film’s crew followed him as he supported fellow Democrats in the recent election and traveled with a bipartisan group of politicians and faith leaders on the annual pilgrimage to Alabama with the Faith and Politics Institute.
“Congressman Lewis has conveyed to all of us over the course of his lifetime that (the) fundamental right to vote is a foundational right,” said Joan Mooney, CEO of the institute, on the recent conference call. “So more than the transactional act of voting, Congressman Lewis talks about its sacredness, and voter participation in a democracy is the active expression of the values of all human beings.”
This article originally appeared on Chalkbeat.org
Alexis Mann’s life story is a case study in beating the odds. She grew up poor, dropped out of school, had a baby at 16, and ran away from home.
“I was determined to turn the stereotypical fate of teen moms on its face,” said Mann, who went on to graduate from high school and college and earn her master’s degree in special education.
Today, she teaches at Harrison Education Center, a Minneapolis high school for students with emotional and behavioral challenges, many of whom have experienced trauma. Mann’s story of emerging from desperate circumstances and thriving “provides students with hope, and helps them not give up on themselves.”
Her job can be challenging in the best of times. The work is even more demanding now, in light of the coronavirus, which has forced classes online, and the recent police killing of George Floyd, which happened just a few miles from the high school. In recent weeks, Mann has had to facilitate some difficult conversations, like when her 8-year-old grandson asked her if what happened to Floyd was going to happen to him.
“We say we don’t don’t know,” she said, “that we hope not.”
Mann spoke recently with Chalkbeat.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Minneapolis has garnered international attention in recent weeks, following the police killing there of George Floyd and the protest movement that followed. How are your students processing the tragedy?
Most or all of my students have had encounters with the police. Many of them are on probation, and some have served time. They have a genuine lack of trust with the so-called criminal justice system. This is a time when students are asking themselves: What are my priorities? What are my needs? And for some of them school has not been a priority right now. With the protests, they are wanting to be part of that and showing up in large numbers to have their voices heard.
The biggest takeaway for them is to rise up and use their voices, to practice their civic participation and to vote, and to show up in spaces where policies are being made and decisions are affecting them. We do a lot of community engagement work in class; I take them to the state capitol to teach them about the power of their voices and the importance of fighting for equal protection, as is promised under the law.
Were you surprised by what happened to George Floyd?
What took me by surprise was the grim smirk on [the officer’s] face. He had this look like so what. It reminds me of how teachers sometimes treat their students, knowing that they’ll be protected regardless of job performance. Some teachers create a racist environment, a hostile learning environment, where some students get preferential treatment and others are over-punished. If Johnny asks to go to the bathroom, fine; if Tyrone asks, they don’t believe him.
Tell us about your own experience with school and how it impacts your work today.
I grew up in the Rondo neighborhood, a historically black community of St. Paul. When I was in elementary school, my parents bused us out to St. Anthony Park, which was a primarily white school. I remember Miss Buttler, the only black teacher in the school. I always hoped I would be lucky enough to be assigned to her classroom, but I got another teacher. Looking back, having teachers who I did not connect with caused me to lose interest in school.
I started high school in a suburb outside of Atlanta. I skipped class, refused to do my work, flunked, and ran away — back to Minnesota. I decided that my only way out was to become a teen mom, and three months after my daughter was born I struck out on my own at the age of 16, and I never looked back. I was determined to turn the stereotypical fate of teen moms on its face. Ultimately, I graduated from Central High School in St. Paul with my class in 1993, and went on to college and graduate school.
My story gives me a heightened ability to relate to my students and puts me in a place where I can be more considerate of their needs. I did not grow up with opportunities for success readily available, but through all that — what I encountered coming out of poverty — I’m able to provide students with a blueprint.
What’s one thing you’ve read that’s helped you become a better educator?
“Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them” by Dr. Ross W. Greene. The author does a really eloquent job categorizing [challenging] behaviors as being the result of either a lagging skill or an unmet need, rather than disobedience or disrespect.
In recent months, you’ve been teaching your classes remotely and also facilitating at-home learning for your children and grandchildren. What advice would you give to parents who are trying to help their own children during the pandemic?
Try to keep your kids on a consistent schedule, and make sure they are going to bed and waking up at a reasonable time. Create a distance learning space (or spaces) where your kids can focus and work quietly. It may also be a good idea to establish agreements with your children. For example, no pajamas in the distance learning space or no video games during the distance learning day. Lastly, create incentives for meeting milestones that you establish.
Speaking of advice, what’s the best advice you ever received — and how have you put it into action?
My dad once told me, “The ones who know the most say the least, so hear more than you say and think before you speak.” Being a good listener is paramount to establishing respect, building rapport, and cultivating healthy relationships, which has been extremely helpful in building strong connections with my students and preventing and de-escalating behaviors.
What gives you hope at this moment?
Distance learning is giving our students access to learning 21st-century technology skills that they were not getting before, and they will need these skills to compete in the future job market. I hope that we can continue to provide distance learning as an option for students who are uncomfortable in the classroom environment, or who skip school because of safety reasons, or who need to earn extra credit to graduate. I support using distance learning to create more equitable access to education and technology skills.