Becoming JEDI

The VIDEO below shows my friend Dena Byrd and I introducing a new ministry team at our church—the JEDI Ministry.  It’s one small example of what a church can do to engage some of the major issues of the day, something the Christian church has often failed horrendously to do.*

No. Not this kind of Jedi.

JEDI began as a the Full Inclusion Taskforce, working to make our congregation a Reconciling Church, one which fully included LGBTQ persons.  But “reconciling” had, in our minds, a larger scope than sexual orientation, and even before the murder of George Floyd earlier in this tumultuous 2020 year members of the Taskforce had wanted to keep working on full inclusion, now focusing on issues of race.  As we worked to define our mission we began focusing on four things: justice, equity, diversity, and, sticking with our original charge, inclusion.  “Hey,” said Michelle Braxton, “that spells JEDI.”  I blame her for bringing it up, but the name has stuck.  We’re the JEDI Ministry, and as we invite members of our church to join us, we sometimes talk about “becoming JEDI.”

You can read our Vision Statement and Goals HERE.  Basically, we believe that for a church to become a Beloved Community, one where members grow closer to God, to each other, and to its community, it must also embrace—along with its traditional emphasis on our personal relationship with God—justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.  We have often thought this embrace at odds with personal piety, thinking that a “social gospel” will take away from an emphasis on the individual and on the church as something “holy” and therefore separate from the corruption of “the world.”  We don’t want politics or social issues in the pulpit, we say, and many times that is right.  But much of the work of the church occurs outside of the pulpit as well.  JEDI seeks to break down this division and show that as the church seeks to fight the world’s corruption we grow as Christians because we’re doing this together and we’re engaging more fully one characteristic of Jesus that many pious people often got after him for:  he refused to separate himself from the world, even those parts most people thought were totally corrupt.  And even before Jesus’ physical appearance, the prophet Micah (in 6:8) famously said, “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”  Fighting against injustices in the world, in other words, increases our love of mercy and our humility before God.

So JEDI does three things, has three goals.  First, we study together as a ministry team, guided by our own interests, expertise, and the most important issues of history and today.  Second, we select from what we’ve read or watched those things we think might most benefit our congregation, then invite the whole church to read or watch and engage in special discussion sessions.  Finally, based on what we’ve studied as a ministry team and discussed together as a church, we try to move beyond study and discussion to action.

Our action plans are led by ministry team members according to their own interests and expertise.  Others in the team come along-side to help as they can, and we also put out calls to the congregation to help with this or that plan.  So far we’ve developed plans around four issues:  Voting, Poverty Reduction, and Advocacy, and we continue our interests in LGBTQ issues.  For example, two of our members who were interested in Voting and connected to The League of Women Voters held a voter registration event and sponsored an informative talk on voting by a LWV representative.  I chipped in by doing a video and article called “Voter Suppression 21st Century Style,” and produced a two-page summary of these for the voter registration drive.  I suspect our interest in this will continue, probably focused on resisting or rolling back efforts to gerrymander voting districts.  Because of my connection to The Neighbor Project, much of which began as our family foundation Emmanuel House, I will be leading a long-term project in conjunction with The Neighbor Project to help working families escape debt, build credit and savings, gain financial stability, and possibly even purchase a home.  Home ownership is the single greatest driver of the wealth gap in the United States, and especially the racial wealth gap.**  Others in the JEDI team are interested in advocacy for policies increasing Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in our society, and against policies that decrease these.

Perhaps the operative phrase in the paragraph above is “long-term.”  At a Laity Convocation in February 2020, I said that IF we worked really hard we could begin to see a less racist, less exclusionary, United States in 40 to 100 years.  A person on the panel at that Convocation said he thought I was being too optimistic.  I was.  But there are things happening all over the country to fight racism, as much or more now than at any other time in our history.  We can only hope everyone understands they must be in for the long, long haul.

*  I’ve spoken about this in my sermon “Who Do You Stand With?

**  There’s no better place to gain a sense of The Neighbor Project’s work and vision than the talk executive director Rick Guzman gave at TNP’s 2020 Virtual Gala.  We need both vision and action and “Every Person’s God-Given Ability to Contribute” gives us a great example of how to articulate this.

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Every Person’s God-Given Ability to Contribute

Rick Guzman is The Neighbor Project’s Executive Director, and so important was his talk during The Neighbor Project’s 2020 virtual gala that I have posted a VIDEO of it below all by itself for anyone who did not watch the whole 45-minute gala (which you can still watch HERE), or even the 19-minute Gala Highlights I recently did for this site.

His talk highlighted The Neighbor Project’s impressive growth since early 2018, when Emmanuel House merged with The Joseph Corporation to create The Neighbor Project, and casted a vision for its expanding service to financially vulnerable families and individuals for the rest of 2020, then 2021 and beyond.

He casted this vision in the larger context of loving our neighbors enough to invest in them, saying, “We have to believe in our neighbors enough to invest in them, invest in others the way we would want to be invested in…[so] we can keep working to break down the barriers to home ownership, which are the single largest driver of this nation’s wealth gap.”  That wealth gap is unbelievably enormous (see my article “Graphic Inequality”) and even larger is the Racial Wealth Gap.

He set all this in the largest context of all by quoting from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote.  “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

This talk is an example of what we need more of in this time of protest and soul-searching.  It ties practical action into a deep vision of our mutuality, and vice versa:  it ties that deep vision to practical steps that make that vision a reality in our everyday lives.  And more, it’s also a question of Who Leads?—a question playing out in the protests and other anti-racists actions across our nation today.   Writing in 1970, Robert Greenleaf, who started the field of Servant Leadership, said,  “…the next 30 years will be marked as the period when the dark skinned and…the alienated of the world assert their claims…” and were not “led by a privileged elite…It may be that the best that some of today’s privileged can do is to stand aside and serve by helping when asked and as instructed.”  Guzman expresses his belief that, “If we enlist and empower and engage financially vulnerable populations with opportunities…these otherwise vulnerable populations can quickly become contributing members and leaders for our communities.”  That’s an expanded version of a core belief he’s expressed many times: “Every person has a God-given ability to contribute.”

♦  Go to The Neighbor Project’s website to donate and get involved, and to “Emmanuel House Becomes The Neighbor Project” for a bit of history.

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Voter Suppression 21st Century Style

The VIDEO BELOW stitches together excerpts from three clips on Voter Suppression from 2010 to 2020, a decade which has seen voting rights seriously rolled back from its high point in 1965’s Voting Rights Act, an Act inspired by the courage of Civil Rights Leaders like the late John Lewis, whom we lost on July 17, 2020.

On March 7, 1965, Lewis was one of the leaders of peaceful protestors who, as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, were viciously attacked by state troopers, county sheriffs, and a horse-mounted posse.  Many were injured, including Lewis, whose skull was fractured.  The incident became known as “Bloody Sunday,” and the shock and outrage of many of those watching TV coverage was one factor in the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year on August 6th.  About 19 months earlier, on August 28, 1963, John Lewis, then just 23, had been the youngest speaker at the famous March on Washington.

The Pettus Bridge was named for Edmund Winston Pettus, a former Confederate brigadier general, leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan…and U.S. Senator.  This year, ten days after Lewis’ death a bill was introduced proposing to name the Voting Rights Advancement of 2019 (H.R.4) after John Lewis.  It passed the House, but though nearly every Republican in the Senate paid tribute to Lewis—known widely as “The Conscious of Congress”—only one GOP Senator voted for the bill, and it was defeated.

John Lewis speaking at the 1963 March on Washington. He was just 23.

H.R.4 sought in part to remedy the damage done by a 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County vs. Holder which struck down Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Details are in the VIDEO below, which also explains that within 24 hours of this decision three states began enacting suppressive voter ID laws.  The situation has gotten worse since then, though there have been legal victories attempting to counteract voter ID laws and other tactics meant to suppress voting, especially by people of color, the poor, and other marginalized groups.    

In April 2016, for example, the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina ruled that the state’s new voter ID laws did not place unconstitutional obstacles between the state’s residents and their voting rights.  However, three months later, on July 29th, a three-judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth District overturned that ruling.  Here’s a paragraph of the decision, written by Judge Diana Gribbon Motz.  It contains the now famous phrase which I’ve italicized, bolded, and underlined.

“In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its action, the State offered only meager justifications. Although the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision, they constitute inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist. Thus the asserted justifications cannot and do not conceal the State’s true motivation. ‘In essence,’ as in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry (LULAC), 548 U.S. 399, 440 (2006), ‘the State took away [minority voters’] opportunity because [they] were about to exercise it.’”

Those cures for problems that did not exist include voter fraud, which does exist, though in vanishingly small numbers—perhaps, according to one study, 31 in 1 billion votes: 0.000000031%!  Still, many Americans believe fraud is “rampant.”  “Dirty Tricks: 9 Falsehoods That Could Undermine the 2020 Election,” a piece from the Brennan Center for Justice, is a good summary of false notions about the integrity of elections.

Voter suppression tactics are often presented as rational, commonsense actions to “protect the integrity of elections,” but it becomes clearer each day that racism is at the root of them. The title of Grace Panetta’s article for Business Insider seems to say it all:  “Black Americans still face obstacles to voting at every step of the process.”  This piece is a good summary of those obstacles, obstacles that dishonor the legacy of John Lewis and everyone who has placed the Right to Vote at the center of their fight for Civil Rights for everyone.


Other Resources.  After watching the VIDEO below, dig deeper.  First, three pdf’s of longer reports on partisanship, voting and democracy:  1) From the Economist Intelligence Unit — “Democracy Index 2019,” which calls the U.S. a “Flawed Democracy,” ranking it just the 25th best democracy in the world.  Though the link to Voter Suppression is not as strongly made as it could be, given the evidence cited, there is a significant indictment of partisan politics. 2)  From the Bipartisan Policy Center — “The 2018 Voting Experience,” which definitively cites race as the major demographic factor in voter suppression.  And 3) From the Brennan Center for Justice — “The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification,” giving exhaustive details on seemingly reasonable laws which actual target specific populations to take away their voting rights.  Finally, a Short Summary of the article above and the video below used for a Voter Registration Drive.

  Go to the TEACHING DIVERSITY main page.

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How Racism Hurts Whites

Racism hurts whites deeply, down to the core of their identity, which is what Dr. Hendrik Pieterse addresses in the VIDEO below.  A white African who grew up in Namibia under the rule of South African apartheid, Henk gave the talk below during the opening session of the CPRES (Clergy Peer Reflection and Engagement Series) pilot program launch on September 15, 2020.  CPRES aims to help clergy in the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church speak about racism in the pulpit and lead anti-racist activity in their congregations and communities.

But before getting into the depths, I wanted to start with something more common and every day, which I consider just as important as what’s “deep,” because the two are, in reality, inextricably linked.  One of the many ways racism hurts whites is just because it keeps them from being everyday friends with blacks and other people of color. Diversity works to enrich and regenerate every aspect of life.  In business, for example, we know that diverse teams just function better, working more effectively, insightfully, and creatively.  In terms of your friends, if they’re not diverse enough then each day you will get more squeezed down because your view of the world, your opinions, your aspirations come through such a limiting network of people who are pretty much like you. It may feel safer, but it’s an impoverishing situation.  You don’t grow, and your world stagnates and shrinks.

I was the other speaker at the CPRES pilot launch (see below), and as Henk and I talked about what we were going to say, I asked him what the blacks on his family’s farm in Namibia thought about this or that situation, this or that mode of thinking.  He replied that to his great shame he didn’t know because it never occurred to him to simply ask them.  That just wasn’t done, so the everyday conditions of their lives, their everyday thoughts, were unknown to him, and with that he lost a chance to expand his world by simply knowing another human being different than him.  His video below shows that this shame and shrunken perspective hurts and haunts him to this day.

As the CPRES Planning Team, of which Henk and I are a part, structured this pilot program, we worked on many things, including goal statements like this: “To learn about the history, stories, and trauma done to communities of color due to racism.”  I wrote the team: “Though these communities of color must remain central, I think it’s also important to acknowledge that perpetrators of racism, both conscious and unconscious, also suffer significantly in their own way.  For one thing—just one—they spend lots of psychic time denying their racism, shutting themselves off from the reality of their humanity, being therefore unable to deepen that humanity, and often becoming more monstrous as a result.”  This is not at all to equate the suffering of white people to the suffering of people of color at the hands of whites, but to say that whites also hurt themselves, and that hurt makes them take it out on people of color—and women—even more.  It makes them less human, a condition which is one of the greatest drivers of racism.

Writing in 1951, James Baldwin said, “Our dehumanization of the Negro then is indivisible from our dehumanization of ourselves: the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his. Time and our own force act as allies, creating an impossible, a fruitless tension between the traditional master and slave.  Impossible and fruitless because, literal and visible as this tension has become, it has nothing to do with reality.”  Nothing, that is, because as Martin Luther King, Jr. would write in his iconic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Our difficulty in understanding these words begins in the everyday reality of a separation that blocks our everyday friendship.  American whites keep American blacks, as well as other people of color, at arms length, treating them as social phenomena.  Therefore, to paraphrase Baldwin slightly, “They are a social and not a personal or a human problem.”  They don’t know blacks as real people, even friends, which keeps all our anti-racist activities and good intentions safely impersonal, a condition that protects us from having to dig deep into our souls to discover how small racism has made them.

  Watch my talk at the CPRES pilot launch HERE.

HENDRIK PIETERSE is Associate Professor of Global Christianity and Intercultural Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL.

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