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Feeding the flame for racial justice

Black and white photo of Selma march crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge
Photo: Penn State Special Collection / Jack Rabin Collection

Watching Selma in a crowded theater, the connections to the Black Lives Matter movement were very apparent. As Vanessa Julye and Barry Scott said in their Acting in Faith post earlier this week, “The struggle for equal voting rights along with the dehumanization of African American lives and experiences continues in 2015.”

Although I was not surprised by Selma’s political relevancy, I did not expect to be so moved by its depiction of activists deeply rooted in faith and spirituality. Seeing Spirit at work in Selma was a great reminder of its ability to heal and transform individuals and communities. It was even more powerful to see activists follow Spirit even when confronted with violence, murder, and hardship every step of the way.

This portrayal of Spirit-filled activism forced me to ask myself: what can faith communities do to support the Black Lives Matter movement today?

Leading temple in prayer at a march for Dontre Hamilton (Photo taken by flickr user Light Brigading: Creative Commons)

A recent article from Religion News points out that, for a variety of reasons, the Black church does not hold the same place of leadership today as it did in the Civil Rights Movement. One clergyman proclaims, “The church is jumping in to lend its support — not to lead it — which is a different place from where the black church has been historically.”

While the lack of religious leadership or spiritual language might be striking to some, it is clear that this movement is evidence of what Friends would call “Spirit rising.” Faith leaders may not be leading the movement, but that does not mean that faith communities aren’t supporting it.

The black faculty at Garret Evangelical Seminary recently wrote in a public letter to the Christian Church that “the devaluation of Black people…is a moment of theological crisis” for the church. They urge the church to participate in and support the work of Black Lives Matter because the “gods of white supremacy are inconsistent with the God of Life…who values Black life, and who desires that all people of goodwill do the same.” The statement calls the church to “[separate] itself from the idolatrous bondage to white supremacy.”

Arch Street Meeting House (Photo by Phil Anthony)This past Saturday, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) held a historic “Called Meeting on Racism” in PYM, and more than 400 people attended, the largest gathering in PYM in many years. We were asked to commit, as a community and as individuals, to undoing racism in ourselves and in our meetings. We were asked to put this commitment at the center of all that we do as a Yearly Meeting.

Hopefully this is an indication that anti-racism work will finally happen on a larger scale in the Religious Society of Friends. The action plan put forth by the Undoing Racism Group of PYM provides a clear path forward. This internal work must be done if faith communities are to truly worship the “God of Life,” not the false “gods of white supremacy.”

We are being asked to follow the leadership of those most affected by police violence and white supremacy, and many communities of faith are doing just that. During Hanukah, a coalition of Jews and Muslims gathered in front of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to urge Commissioner William Bratton to “bring an end to ‘discriminatory and abusive Broken Windows policing.’” The website posted, “Our hearts are broken that in 2014 it is still urgent, necessary and even radical to affirm that #BlackLivesMatter... But it couldn’t be more important…” [Source].

Regardless of whether or not the movement is framed in spiritual terms, doing social justice work in community is inherently meaningful/spiritual. There are unplanned moments of presence and depth when we connect to that which is larger than ourselves and discover hidden strength and sustenance.

Strategy, tactics, coalition building, and organizing all need to take place but so does gathering in community to tell our stories, be vulnerable, and share new visions that can replace the old ones. Safe spaces for communion, sanctuary, and healing are needed in a world that is too often aggressive, hostile, and dangerous, especially for marginalized communities. What if faith communities can help to create those spaces?

Vigil for Dontre Hamilton (Photo taken by flickr user Light Brigading: Creative Commons)At our best, faith communities can offer a glimpse of the world we are trying to co-create. There is still a lot of internal work to be done to make our congregations places of healing and transformation. We can also acknowledge that those moments and spaces also happen outside of congregations.

Spirit is at work all around us. When we catch a glimpse of the world that we’re working towards, we can draw strength from that experience and those relationships when times get hard and our vision grows dim. Our light can shine brighter when we feed the flame.

What role can faith communities play in the Black Lives Matter movement? How is your faith community getting involved? Post your responses in the comments below.


About the Author

Greg serves as the Friends Relations Associate for AFSC in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born and raised in rural Northeastern Pennsylvania, Greg grew up attending North Branch Friends Meeting at the Curtis family farm in the Poconos.