Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Conversation about the Voices Project

Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Conversation about the Voices Project

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.

Thank you.

Politics Are Personal

Politics Are Personal

RESPECTING THE OTHER: Author and social activist Lisa Sharon Harper.

Lisa Sharon Harper is director of mobilizing for Sojourners and was the founding executive director of New York Faith & Justice. She holds a master’s degree in Human Rights from Columbia University and an MFA in Playwrighting from the University of Southern California. UrbanFaith talked to Harper about Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, in which she and co-author D.C. Innes  discuss sometimes controversial issues from different political and biblical persuasions. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

URBAN FAITH: From reading your book, Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, it seems that you and your co-author D.C. Innes hold fundamentally different views about the role of government. What are the essential differences in your positions and/or your views on the role of government?

LISA SHARON HARPER: We debated on Patheos.com and one of the things that we discovered in the midst of this is that our differences on the role of government and also on the role of business actually stem from our differences in the way that we approach Scripture.

For me, Scripture is not supposed to be used as a formulaic, how-to textbook where you can pick a verse and it tells you exactly what you’re supposed to do, out of context. What we have is lots of stories, histories, poems, poetry, song, prose, and together they tell a meta-narrative. They tell the story of the fall, the reconciliation of all relationships that God created.

So, I think the fundamental difference between us is the way that we view the Scripture and in particular the story of what is the gospel, what is the good news, then I think it really permeates the way that we approach the Scripture for our understanding of those basic questions of the role of government.

UrbanFaith columnist Andrew Wilkes wrote about a panel discussion that you participated in with Innes and others. He noted that you tended to draw from the Old Testament and Innes drew from the New Testament. Was that coincidental?

Yes, I think so. If you look at the book and at discussions that Innes and I have had since then, the foundation of my argument is based in the biblical concept of shalom, which has its foundation in the very beginning, in Genesis 1, but it’s woven through the entirety of Scripture. We find the establishment of the people of Israel and the law and government of Israel in the Old Testament, but then we see Jesus’ priorities on who needs to be protected in our society when he gives his very first speech in Luke 4, where he proclaims that he has come to pronounce freedom for the captives, good news to the poor, and sight for the blind.

The last speech he gives before he faces the cross is Matthew 25. When someone asks me what my political agenda is, I say, “Look at Matthew 25.” You actually see there the things and the people that Jesus was most concerned with. He’s looking at hunger. He’s asking the questions of food distribution. He’s looking at thirst. Who has access to water? I’m not just imposing that on the text. Jesus says, “The righteous will say, ‘When did we do all of this for you Jesus?’” What that word righteous means is “ones of equitable action and character.” It means “the just ones.”

When you start talking about equity, you’re talking about systems, the way things work. And so what Jesus is really saying is the ones of equitable action will say, “When did we do this?” And Jesus will say, “When you did it to the least of these.” Also, we have legislatures that will one day stand before Jesus, and Jesus will ask them, “What did you do for the hungry? What did you do for the thirsty? What did you do for the stranger, for the immigrant in our borders? Did they feel welcomed? What did you do for the sick? Is there an equitable distribution of health in our society? What about the prisoner? Is there equitable distribution of justice in our society? How about the destitute, those who are naked? What did you do for them?”

We are all going to be held to account for the ways that we treated the most vulnerable, and not just on an individual level, but on a societal level, and in the way that we create our systems.

Continued on page 2.

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Left, Right, and Christ

Left, Right, and Christ

CIVIL DISCOURSE: Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes provide a model for constructive Christian dialogue across political divides.

Left, Right & Christ is a thoughtful examination of the intersection of evangelical faith and politics by two evangelicals who have spent their careers working amidst the tensions of that sometimes-crazy political space. In the book, coauthors Lisa Sharon Harper, a politically progressive Christian, and D.C. Innes, a politically conservative Christian, engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues that are defining the nature of political discourse in our nation today — healthcare, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, the environment. (Full disclosure: I helped research Lisa Sharon Harper’s portion of the book.) A couple months ago, Innes and Harper held a panel discussion and book signing with Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Innes, an associate professor of politics at King’s College, offered a construal of Christian public engagement from the right; Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners, shared one from the left. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. Having read the book and attended the launch event, two things merit mentioning here here.

The role of technology in disrupting consumption and employment

An audience member noted that technology plays an often-overlooked role in reconfiguring labor markets and purchasing patterns. For instance, the advent of automated teller machines — ATMs — marks an improvement in the access and availability of money for consumers. ATMs, however, reduce the need for the traditional function of tellers in local bank branches. As more banks adopted ATMs, consumer patterns shifted and the demand for a certain type of labor diminished.

Neither Innes nor Harper fully integrates this ongoing development — Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter calls it creative destruction — of technology in particular, and capitalism more generally, into their account of the State, the Market, and the Church. To their credit, though, both authors acknowledged the point once it was made. Technology is an existential issue as much as an instrumental one. Phrased differently, it not only alters what we do, but it also radically re-arranges our way of being in the world. I left the panel thinking about this question: What does it mean to be the Church in a world where technology is such a powerful force? To put it crudely, is a proximate cause in unemployment and underemployment from Wall Street to Main Street and our consumption of everything — from the news we read to the Facebook updates on our profiles — is mediated through technology? I’m still pondering this one and I encourage you to consider it as well.

The use of Scripture in political arguments

While reading the book and listening to their remarks, I noticed an interesting difference between the co-authors. Ms. Harper generally constructs her arguments from passages of the Old Testament. Her treatment of Genesis 1-3 distinctively accents the image of God doctrine and shalom theology. It is rather commonplace to hear Christians from the left invoke the Hebrew prophets or the Imago Dei as a resource for biblical claims about justice and human dignity. Harper’s unique turn within that conversation is to take Genesis — rather than say, Amos or Isaiah — as her starting point and then to deepen the appeal to the image of God doctrine by connecting it to shalom — the sense of wholeness and right relationships between people, between people and creation, and between people and God.

Mr. Innes, conversely, places the weight of his arguments in New Testament passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 2 Peter 2:13-17. His vision: God ordains the government to restrain human sin, punish evil, and praise the good. The last point is particularly important for the professor, who draws a distinction between a government that praises the good (i.e. distributing civic awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and a public sector that attempts to provide goods such as housing, healthcare, and so on. Innes’ arguments — in the book and in person — conclude that a State with large public expenditures and direct service programs overreaches the biblical proscribed role for government.

At the event, Wallis and Innes held a brief but interesting exchange on regulation, Wall Street, and punishing evildoers. Wallis agreed with Innes that punishing evil and restraining sin is a biblical function of government. He then challenged Innes with a question like the following: “Why not apply the insight about punishing evil when it comes to Wall Street?” Innes did not offer a response, although in fairness to him, Wallis did not substantiate his provocative inquiry with a specific example. Nevertheless, given the high-profile conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading — and his eleven-year sentence, the longest ever issued for this type of offense — Wallis and Innes certainly stumbled upon a discussion worth having.

The panel discussion took place with a refreshing amount of charity amidst contrasting perspectives. Despite harboring significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences of political opinion, neither one made the argumentative move of questioning the other’s faith, audibly doubting the “biblical” nature of the opposing argument, or otherwise resorting to ad hominem attacks. Harper and Innes’ book, and their public dialogue, provides a helpful example for Christians from left to right. In a political environment that incessantly caricatures and stereotypes contrasting points of view, a steadfast refusal to bear false witness — and its corollary commitment, telling the truth as we see it — is a distinctive gift of conversational charity that Christians can bring to democratic discourse.

Debating the Debt Ceiling

Debating the Debt Ceiling

If you’re like me, the debt-ceiling debate seems like one more opportunity for various political operatives to sling mud without offering real solutions. But since the House of Representatives voted to approve a “Cut, Cap, and Balance” bill Tuesday that President Obama said he would veto and Senate Democrats are expected to reject in favor of the “Gang of Six” plan, perhaps it’s time to give the debt-ceiling debate serious thought.

First, what is the debt ceiling?

Reporting for NPR in June, The Root’s Cynthia Gordy said the debt ceiling is “the amount of money, set by Congress, that the federal government can legally borrow in order to pay for its commitments — things like Social Security, Medicare and military operations.” She reported that the government has been overspending since the end of the Clinton administration and borrows money by selling U.S. Treasury bonds, notes and T-bills to the public, financial institutions and other countries.  We reached the current $14.3 trillion debt limit on May 16, according to Gordy, but by suspending payments to federal retirement funds, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner prevented a default and estimated that the government could continue borrowing until Aug. 2.

Now that we know what it is, what are Christian leaders saying about the debate?

Baptist Press reports that the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy enitity, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is “sponsoring a three-part standard — including congressional approval of a balanced budget amendment — that must be met before raising the country’s debt limit.”

The “Cut, Cap, Balance Pledge” consists of substantial spending cuts, enforceable spending caps, and passage of a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, “but only if it includes both a spending limitation and a super-majority for raising taxes, in addition to balancing revenues and expenses.”

The Family Research Council (FRC) published an action alert this week that said, “The House of Representatives will vote Tuesday on Cut, Cap, and Balance to ensure immediate cuts to government spending, place caps on future spending, and would grant the President’s request to lift the debt ceiling only if the Balanced Budget Amendment is passed and sent to the states for ratification.” The organization advises its constituency to contact their U.S. Senators to “urge them to oppose any ‘back-up’ plan, such as Senator McConnell’s surrender plan,” which it says will “allow the President to lift the debt ceiling and only allow Congress a vote to stop it if it could garner a super majority.” FRC advises instead that constiuents ask their sensators to support efforts to pass the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act.

In a July 7 Sojourners blog post, Jim Wallis described the debate as a “clash between two competing moral visions,” one that pits “those who believe in the common good and those who believe individual good is the only good.” Wallis wrote:

“While a biblical worldview informs Christians that they should be wary of the rich and defend the poor, a competing ideology says that wealth is equivalent to righteousness and God’s blessing. It is a morality play in which Washington, D.C. is the stage, politicians are actors, lobbyists are directors, the ‘debt ceiling’ is the conflict, and we are the audience who will pay the cost of the production, whether we enjoyed it or not.”

A group of Christian Circle of Protection signatories including John R. Bryant, Senior Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Stephen J. Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America; and Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-facilitator of the National African American Clergy Network issued a statement that listed the debt ceiling among its concerns:

“Budgets are moral documents, and how we reduce future deficits are historic and defining moral choices. As Christian leaders, we urge Congress and the administration to give moral priority to programs that protect the life and dignity of poor and vulnerable people in these difficult times, our broken economy, and our wounded world.”

UrbanFaith has not yet found any explicit Christian endorsements of the Gang of Six plan. CNN reports that the  plan, drafted by three Democratic and three Republican senators, would “impose” $500 billion in budget savings, reduce marginal income tax rates, and ultimately abolish an alternative minimum tax, but create three tax brackets to generate an additional $1 trillion in revenue, require cost changes to Medicare’s growth rate formula, and cut the Pentagon budget by $80 billion.

Is the Religious Right driving the fight?

At The Huffington Post, anti-evangelical curmudgeon Frank Schaeffer, as he is want to do, blamed the current debate on the “religious right”:

“The reality is that the debt ceiling confrontation is by, for and the result of America’s evangelical Christian control of the Republican Party. It is the ultimate expression of an alternate reality, one that has the mistrust of the U.S. government as its bedrock ‘faith,’ second only to faith in Jesus.”

We’ll spare you the rest of his diatribe.

Finally, is this debate really about racism against President Obama?

Believe it or not, there’s a race angle to this fiasco, as well.

At National Review, Andrew Stiles quotes Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas) as “strongly suggesting” racism against President Obama is at the root of Republican opposition to raising the limit. Said Jackson Lee:

“I do not understand what I think is the maligning and maliciousness [toward] this president. … Why is he different? And in my community, that is the question that we raise. In the minority community that is question that is being raised. Why is this president being treated so disrespectfully? Why has the debt limit been raised 60 times? Why did the leader of the Senate continually talk about his job is to bring the president down to make sure he is unelected?”

If the reader comments on the post are any indication, the congresswoman may have a point.

What do you think? Is the federal budget a moral document? If so, is it immoral to keep borrowing against the future? Or does the current controversy amount to just another racially motivated political attack against President Obama?

Our Summertime Blues

As unemployment grows, partisanship deepens, and war lingers on, things certainly don’t look as hopeful as they did 20 months ago when Barack Obama took office. But there’s still hope. We just need to remember where to look for it.

Remember January 2009? That month, the country witnessed the historic inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America. “The skinny kid with a funny name” upended the political establishment, running on a campaign of hope and change. So many of us expected that his administration would usher in a new, golden era of progressive policy and thought in Washington. No more politics as usual, we all agreed. Some heralded the start of a new, “post-racial” era in American life. It was hard for even the most jaded pessimist not to get suckered in.

Fast-forward to the present: summer 2010. While there have been some landmark victories and accomplishments, they have been overshadowed by the plethora of watered-down compromises and outright defeats. Politics has indeed departed from its usual course, but only in that the level of partisan bickering seems to have reached an all-time high. Plus there’s rampant unemployment; the massive national deficit and the accompanying looming specter of what that means for our future; and a war effort that is only getting worse with no easy exit strategy. On top of that all, along came the Shirley Sherrod incident, eradicating any holdouts still desperately grasping onto the myth of a “post-racial” America. Now the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy threatens to pull us further apart as a nation.

And it appears despair is contagious, because progressives aren’t the only ones suffering the doldrums. Americans of all ideological backgrounds and partisan bents seem to be in dour moods. A majority of people believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Politicians from both sides of the aisle (and even those in the middle), are quaking in their boots as the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiment has swept the nation. It’s simply a hard time to be an optimist.

For the average citizen, it is tempting for us to bury our heads in the sand. To lament the sad state of affairs that has developed and to promise that we have learned our lesson. We won’t get involved, we say. After all, what’s the point? Nothing will change; nothing ever changes. Besides, aren’t our own lives — the stresses and pressures of day-to-day living — complicated enough?

It is in times like these that we should remember Paul’s exhortation to the Galatians. He encourages them to be persistent in their efforts and endeavors, writing: “Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9).

Just as Paul urged them to persevere in their efforts despite the negativity around them, so too must we not take our hands from the plow despite what we see or what the pundits say. There is simply too much important work to be done. Immigration reform. Revamping our nation’s outdated and damaging environmental policies. Reforming our schools. Restoring the livelihoods and habitats destroyed by the black, oily trail along the Gulf Coast. Our country can’t afford for people of good conscience to abandon their advocacy on these issues.

While we have been suffering through a summer (and perhaps a spring and winter) of depressing news and bleak outlooks, we must remember that a new season is just around the corner. And, lest we forget, autumn is harvest time.