May 25 marks the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, which sparked a summer of global protest and public commitments to root out racial inequity. This tragedy inspired IFYC’s team to ask a simple question: what if Black people, stories and leadership were at the center of US interfaith cooperation work? Here, Rev. Fred Davie engages academics, activists, and civic leaders in order to center the Black experience in the context of the past year and look ahead to the year to come. The panelists discuss police brutality, systemic shortcomings, and spiritual hope. This conversation gets to the heart of how interfaith cooperation can be a part of accountability, justice, and reconciliation in America’s next chapter.
Moderator, Rev. Frederick Davie – Executive Vice President, Union Theological Seminary, Senior Advisor for Racial Equity Programs at IFYC.
Alia Bilal – Deputy Director, Inner City Muslim Action Network
“And we know that in this country we’re finally approaching 400 years we’ve been dealing with this Pharaonic state, if you will, also known as chattel slavery, also known as Jim Crow, also known as the prison industrial complex, as the carceral state, for these hundreds of years. And perhaps we’re finally finding our way, building our way towards the promised land.”
Anthea Butler, Ph.D. – Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania
“Black people in America have collectively been among the most hopeful people in this nation. If you disagree, consider this: African Americans have still wanted to engage the American project, despite the utter oppression of slavery, the relentless violence of racism, and the efforts to erase our humanity. And I think that’s the most important thing right now is that for us to even have this conversation today, means that we have some hope we have hope in the face of monumental issues.”
Rev. Adam Russell Taylor – President, Sojourners
“I really feel like part of what we need is more inclusive and invitational language that tells a new narrative for this nation, … I feel like we need to recast and reimagine what that looks like in our current moment. And one of the things that I find so powerful about the “beloved community” is, it’s a moral vision that I think could unite the majority of Americans across many of the political, ideological, and even racial divisions that we see.”
Rev. Eric Lewis Williams, Ph.D. – Curator of Religion, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
“But I also think that this is a moment where we kind of seize this moment, and try to awaken as many people as possible, that, you know, maybe, just maybe we can, we can move the needle a little bit. I’m the kind of person I don’t look anymore for victory and tidal waves. Flickers and flashes, we can get a few flickers. I think that we might be able to leave, leave the world a little better than we found it.”
Eboo Patel: My name is Eboo Patel I’m founder and president of IFYC. Thank you to Katherine and Becca for organizing this exciting webinar, and my job right here is simple and delightful: I get to introduce you to my friend and longtime mentor, the Reverend Fred Davie, who was actually one of the first people I talked to about IFYC way back in 1998 or 1999 , when he was at the Ford Foundation and I was just starting the organization and he was very encouraging back then, and not only have we stayed in touch, for the last 20 plus years he has guided the organization, and really as of today, joins the organization so I’m thrilled to announce that. Fred Davey is IFYC’s senior advisor on racial equity and interfaith cooperation and one of the initiatives that he and I have launched together is an initiative called Black interfaith.
And this brings together a set of the fellows the working group of Black interfaith for reflection session on what Black interfaith means in this particular moment in time. So welcome Fred, I am totally thrilled you are joining us at IFYC. Thank you for serving as a board member for a decade and as a mentor and friend for much longer, and this is a fitting launch to the next phase of our friendship and working relationship together. Over to you.
Rev. Davie: Thank you, Eboo, and it’s really wonderful to have this new iteration, if you will, in terms of relationship with IFYC. It’s been great to, to have been a board member over the years, it’s been absolutely wonderful and extraordinarily beneficial to me to be your friend and colleague over these years, I’ll just tell a quick story, some odd years ago I’m driving in a snowstorm on the New York through way, and I’m listening to this broadcast, and I hear this guy and I said, “who is this young man?
He’s going to be extraordinarily influential very soon.” and shortly after that, Eboo was in my office at the Ford Foundation by mutual introduction, and as he said, that was 20 some odd years ago and we’ve been on this path since then.
And it’s really been a pleasure and very beneficial to me to have this friendship and this relationship both with you and with IFYC.
And I’m also very pleased to join our friends and colleagues her., I’ve known, everyone here in some context over the decades, and it’s a real pleasure to now join everyone, as a part of a Black interfaith initiative with the Interfaith Youth Core with IFYC. And it’s great to have this conversation today, particularly as we consider what is transpired in the year since George Floyd, stuff which will have more to say about, and the need for an interfaith voice in this space.
So let me take a moment then to introduce this, this really illustrious and august group who
have gathered today to share it share their thoughts.
So we have with us, Alia Bilal who serves as Deputy Director at the Inner-city Muslim Action Network. A native of Chicago’s Southside she sits on the board of a Southwest organizing project and was an appointee of the equity Advisory Council of Chicago Commission on Human Relations.
We also have with us Dr. Anthea Butler, associate professor for religious and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her new book, White Evangelical Racism: the Politics of Morality and America, is out as of March on Ferris and Ferris, a division of UNC press.
Reverend Adam Russell Taylor is president of Sojourners and author of Mobilizing Hope: Faith -Inspired Activism for a Post-Civil Rights Generation. His forthcoming book, A More Perfect Union is out in September.
And Dr. Eric Williams is curator of religion at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and writes at the intersection of religion, history, and material religion. He is coeditor of the TNT Clark Handbook of African American theology.
Dr. Williams is currently completing a manuscript exploring theological significations in African American Pentecostal thought. So, I want to welcome all of you to say again, what a joy it is to join you in this conversation.
I’m going to kick things off with some questions that we have talked about, and then want to just open it up and give you all to interact in any way that you feel moved to in order to contribute to what I know it’s going to be a robust and rich conversation.
So, as we said we’re here in a conversation over a year after George Floyd’s murder, among our grotesque list of people, Black men and women, Brown folks, trans people, who have been killed at alarmingly high and disproportionate rates.
Dr. Martin Luther King famously said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. So I would ask you, each of you: how do you understand this time we’re living in? What we are experiencing in this unique moment?
What kinds of interfaith activities or engagement have you been involved with in this year to address this issue of everything from police violence to the need for fundamental social justice in America?
So, to kick us off, Alia, would you like to get us started?
Alia Bilal: I’d be honored. Thank you so much to IFYC for hosting us in this conversation. I’ve been really looking forward to this as, as we’ve been building as a committee, a group of folks working on this Black Enterprise Project I think the idea of interfaith as a tool, and as a tool that especially Black people know well, has been something that’s been really exciting to me, so I’m honored to be part of this conversation. You know, it’s been tough for me, honestly, these last few years.
You know I’ve been coming into my own, I’m now raising kids of my own trying to figure out how to, you know, how to, how to do that in some way shape or form.
And I’m in this place in my life where I have been really holding up the things that that I’ve been taught, and trying to weigh them against my experience now in the last couple decades.
And I have to say, you know, I fell into a bit of a rut a couple years ago.
And, you know, it was this rut, that had me looking at the world around us, my city here in Chicago, you know, our state here in the country and across the world really, and trying to ask myself: why is it always us?
Why is it always Black folks? why is it? Why are we always at the end of, you know, the bottom of the totem pole, or we always have, you know, the dire end of the statistic, whatever the statistic is: first people in jail, you know, longest incarceration, you know, mothers, you know, you know, the first to die in terms of, you know, folks, you know, accessing care.
And it really had me down.
And as an organizer, someone who does work for social justice for a living, is something that I really had to grapple with.
I feel privileged to have been raised in a deeply religious environment and in an environment that really centered the divine, that centered the creator.
But what I’m realizing as I get older, is that that environment didn’t necessarily center Blackness as a means to understand the divine.
And at one point in my life I probably would have thought that is unnecessary that but you know why. Surely the divine is, you know, greater than such petty things as race and identity.
But since that time, I have felt privileged to find my way into spaces that do exactly that that center Blackness as an avenue, as a means, to understand the divine plan and our relationship to that.
And so I’ve been able to reconcile some things and I’ll share, you know, just the explanation that was at the core of that reconciliation for me a couple years ago.
It’s an explanation that comes to me, probably third or fourth hand at this point, you know, from a Black Imam in Atlanta, to a brother-in-law of mine, through a sister, took another route and finally got to be, but it was something that really opened my eyes and allowed me to place myself in this time.
And that is the story of Moses, of Musa, peace be upon him, and the fact that, you know, he and his people can suffer through the tyranny and the oppression of the Pharaonic state.
And then they get free of that and then wander for 40 years, right? And he the way that I hear this or I heard this from those different routes was that, you know, the Imam says that, you know, in biblical times and in Qur’anic times and in language, you know, the forty years is not you know the length of time is a lot longer than we may expect and, you know, in the Quaran when it talks about seventy years, for instance, it could mean seventy years plus, many many many many years.
And so in this interpretation he says that, that 40 years may have been a lot more like 400 years, and.
And we know that in this country we’re finally approaching, those kind of 400 years we’ve been dealing with this for Pharaonic state, if you will, also known as, you know, chattel slavery, also known as Jim Crow, also known as the prison industrial complex, as the carceral state you know for these hundreds of years. And perhaps we’re finally finding our way, building our way towards the promised land. So, for me, you know I don’t believe that this earth project is, you know, I don’t, I don’t believe it was launched in vain.
I do believe in a, in a divine plan and I believe in a merciful and just creator and for me it means that I need to play my part in that.
And me playing my part in that is being an organizer and making sure that I’m working to dismantle these systems of racism and, you know, injustice in any way that I can every day.
Rev Davie: Thank you so much Alia. I’m going to turn to Dr. Butler
Dr. Butler: Good afternoon. Thank you, Reverend Davie.
Thank you, Alia. Also, I’m really struck by what you said, and this has been a hard year, let’s not lie about it, it’s been really really awful. And it wasn’t just about George Floyd, although that really took center stage last summer.
All of this happened in the middle of a global pandemic.
And lots of death, and lots of destruction around this. And I want to personally say, first of all, that, I think that many of us have tried to bury all of these feelings, feelings of despair and disgust and disillusionment with this country. As a historian I’ve never been surprised about what America is.
So I always know what it is and I know what I am dealing with, but I think this particular year has been about a battle, and that battle has been between the America that we have and the America that always has been.
Visa vis a way of thinking about America, that is naive misguided. And quite frankly, wrong.
And I think that one of the things that really strikes me about this past year for me is how have I been trying to deal with it. I’ve, I’ve been trying to deal with it by writing because writing is my way of getting the word out to people and thinking about that, and so in the midst of the murders of George Floyd and the subsequent murders by police of so many people that I can’t even begin to name, a litany of in the last year.
What I did, what I think my way of dealing with this is to write about the history, the history of racism in America to call out the truths that we are living under. I think many times that we talk about faith, and we don’t want to talk about the negative aspects of faith. We don’t want to talk about how faith supports the racial structures in America and how faith, for some people, is a way in which to enact their prejudices and their problems with Black people.
And I think that’s a really important way to think about what has happened in this past year and what we’re, what we are struggling with.
I also think that it’s hard to hope in the midst of despair, but I recently wrote a piece for Faithfully Magazine and I just want to read a little bit of it, only because I think that it adds to the question that you’ve asked today, and I wanted to say this:” yet hope, as scriptures tells us in Romans 5:5, does not disappoint. Black people in America have collectively been among the most hopeful people in this nation.
If you disagree, consider this: African Americans have still wanted to engage the American project, despite the utter oppression of slavery, the relentless violence of racism, and the efforts to erase our humanity.”
And I think that’s the most important thing right now is that for us to even have this conversation today, means that we have some hope we have hope in the face of monumental issues about taking away voting rights.
We have hope in the midst of, you know, the carceral state. We have hope in the midst of economic problems. We have hope in the midst of Black bodies being abused, whether that is on the streets of our nation, or in the hospital rooms where our people could not get help when they had coronavirus, and in our communities where there is a lot of disinformation and despair about whether or not you should take a vaccine.
And so I look at all of those things and I think about that this year and I think that this is not just, as Joe Biden says, a” fight for the soul of America”, it is a fight for our own souls, a fight for our souls to be able to live in the midst of this kind of environment in which Black people are vilified, in which Black people are put down at the bottom, and that the hope is that we continue to have hope in ourselves and realize the value that we all have in the eyes of our Creator.
And I think that is the important thing to take away, whatever we talk about today is that despite the ways in which people don’t want to talk about, you know, history, or racism, or they want to continue to perpetuate the lies that have supported the white supremacist structure of this country. What we do need to remember that we are a people rise and continue to rise and continue to rise up against those who will continue to oppress us.
Re. Davie: Thank you Dr. Butler. Thank you for those insights and we’ll look forward to discussing both your comments and Alia’s comments as we go along. I’m going to turn now to Reverend Taylor, to see how you would like to respond to.
Rev. Taylor: Well firstly I want to thank IFYC for the invitation. Congratulations to you, Rev. Davie, for your new position, and thank you to all of the other panelists, really grateful for what Dr Butler and Alia just shared.
I’m going to kind of take it back to the verdict, the moment of the verdict of Derek Chauvin, and I’ll admit that like probably many out there I had just a really anguished mix of emotions that day.
On the one hand I felt incredible relief that he was found guilty, and I know we’re still waiting on the actual sentence. Though relief because I felt deep in my spirit that if it had not been a guilty verdict, I would not in any good conscience be able to explain to my two Black sons, that there is any hope of equal justice under the law, anytime soon in this country. At the same time, I was filled with a great deal of righteous anger and dread on that day. I felt righteous anger because I was not confident that there would be the same degree of accountability for the recent killings of Adam Toledo, Daunte Wright and the over 300 other people who have been killed by police violence in 2021 alone.
I felt heartache, for the murder the killing of Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old girl who was killed just a day before the verdict took place.
And as I think about the arc of history, you mentioned that Dr. King quote. I have been a kind of student of the civil rights movement for most of my life, and I often felt that I had been born in the wrong era. I wish that I’d been born so I could grow up in the height of the civil rights struggle.
And I have to admit, on the one hand, I was very clear that my generation, Generation X, and subsequent generations inherit the unfinished business of the civil rights struggle.
I was a little bit naive, that my generation wouldn’t have to face a continuing struggle around something as simple and as sacred as the right to vote. 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, that cemented the right to vote to all Americans.
I think it’s important, as Dr. Butler kind of mentioned to just honor the fact that Black Americans have been the most powerful democratizing force in American history, and that signature achievement of the civil rights movement, while, you know, certainly there were some challenges to it felt like it was something that would be permanent. And yet, over 50 years later, we find ourselves in the context of a moment in which that right is under assault, where the ugly head of white supremacy is trying to undermine that right in all kinds of both overt and covert ways. And I’ll talk a little bit more about that in a second, but I really see that, right now, at an inflection moment, as a nation, there certainly have been others but I feel like we’re in one when now in part because of all that, the Covid crisis revealed the stark racial inequalities and injustices that we knew were already there, but I think are now made more known as result of a pandemic.
And then the other dual pandemic of systemic racism, which was also brought to light, not just by the murder of George Floyd but also by a whole series of high-profile killings that we saw over the course of this last summer that sparked a racial uprising and racial awakening.
I’ve tried not to use the word reckoning, yet, or as much in describing, where we are, because I think reckoning assumes or proves it presumes that there’s been significant structural change policies change as a result of the awakening that’s happened.
And I would argue that we are not close to being there yet.
We are in this moment where we can easily see either regress or progress and that’s the way that has been the case throughout our history. I am somewhat hopeful, and try to be very hopeful on my best days that we will see progress. But the fact that some just basic and overdue reforms and policing that are contained in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which is far from perfect, it’s just a series of very necessary but again imperfect steps, is stuck in the hyper partisanship of Congress right now.
And while negotiations are happening to try to get a deal around what’s called qualified immunity, it’s clear that so much more needs to be done to not only make some necessary reforms to our broken and racialized policing system, but to fundamentally transform and reimagine what public safety looks like so that we can create a system that does not criminalize and dehumanize Black and brown lives.
I want to just close this initial set of comments by focusing back on the fundamental right to vote. One of my heroes is congressman John Lewis, who we know went on to glory this past year.
And he described voting as the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democracy. Sojourners has been working with the National African American Clergy Network in the last couple election cycles to mobilize Black clergy with other white allies and other allies of other faith traditions. Actually, we were joined by many rabbis in this 2020 election cycle to try to raise awareness about the threat of voter suppression and to work tirelessly to push back against efforts to further restrict the right to vote.
And we literally worked in nine states to try to hold election officials accountable for a free, fair, and safe election, we mobilized over 2000 clergy to be poll chaplains to try to deter intimidation and violence from happening at the polling sites.
We see one political party literally doubling down on the big lie that this last election was stolen. And they’re using that lie as a pretense to literally, potentially steal a series of election outcomes in 2022.
And so I think, you know, one of the most critical things that we can do as an interfaith movement is to treat the right to vote as sacred. And to treat it as something that we have to continually defend, and we have to continue to fight for, and I’m hopeful that many of us will be working together to do just that in the next number of months and years.
Rev. Davie: Thank you, Reverend Taylor.
Thank you for those for those comments and analysis and, again, we’ll look forward to continuing the conversation. We’ll now turn to Dr. Williams to get his reflections on the question on the table. Dr. Williams.
Dr. Williams: Thank you so much for this opportunity to be here with you I’m delighted to be in such excellent company today. Congratulations to you, Reverend Davie, on your new position. And thank you all for letting me be a part of this marvelous conversation. I’m watching the time so I’m not going to bore you but in a word, how do I feel about this moment where we are? I was thinking of a quote by the late novelist, essayist, and filmmaker Zora Hurston, who said that there are years that ask questions, and years that answer.
And I think that this last year, has both asked some serious questions and attempted to provide answers for a lot of the questions that have been lingering in the human spirit.
I think about these, you know, the competing pandemics. Of course there’s the pandemic of race, there’s the pandemic of health, but then there’s also a pandemic of violence against Black, brown, trans bodies.
And I was thinking about this violence, and sometimes it’s not even what the violent things that, that actually happened to us, but it’s living in a kind of fear, how Black lives, brown lives are circumscribed by fear of what could happen.
So there’s also this, this, this, this pandemic of violence that promotes this kind of culture of fear.
The other day, interestingly, I was riding with the clergy person to a funeral. It was in Pittsburgh, we left Washington and four in the morning. We arrived at the church.
About 20 minutes before the, few minutes before the funeral was to begin, and the clergy person that I was with, he was fully dressed, but he didn’t have on his collar.
He said, there’s a little construction site over there.
And do you think I can just, we can ride over there, and you can help me get this collar on.
And I thought immediately about Ahmaud Arbery. I said, brother I don’t think that’s going to be safe.
Because, I mean, this fear is real because of the things that happened in our world but then also, there is also I think a pandemic of untruth. Because there’s so many lies, my mother didn’t like us to say that word, lie, for whatever reason as a southern thing I guess, but there’s been so many lies told you just don’t know what’s going on, some lies you can tell but some of them sound kind of kind of real and it’s creating a lot of problems, all of the lies that are being told. I was thinking about the George Floyd case, all of those, you know their questions about how, what was the cause of death was it the exhaust fumes. Was there something in his system. Was there a Covid possibility.
What about those nine minutes?
So I think this as well. But I would also say that this is also an extremely, for many people, a hopeful time just to see how many people were, I don’t know they were awakened, or momentarily awakened by this visible display of injustice that played out, and then the whole world saw it, so I think this is the best, and the worst of times.
But I also think that this is a moment where we kind of seize this moment, and try to awaken as many people as possible, that, you know, maybe, just maybe we can, we can move the needle a little bit.
I’m the kind of person I don’t look anymore for victory and tidal waves. Flickers and flashes, we can get a few flickers. I think that we might be able to leave, leave the world a little better than we found it.
Rev Davie: Great, thank you Dr. Williams.
Any other panelists want to respond to any of anything that’s been raised before we before we move on to serve another topic of conversation?
I’d just like to put one thing out , you know, to take us a little bit far afield but I’ll bring us back.
In addition to the work that I’ve been doing at Union and now, IFYC, and I serve as chair on the New York City’s Police Oversight Board, called the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
We handle the Daniel Pantaleo case, who killed Eric Garner, the police officer who killed Eric Garner on Staten Island. Got a guilty verdict and administrative trial, got the commissioner to ultimately agree with us and the judge that Pantaleo should be fired. And then we get the, you know, and so we hear a lot from law enforcement, about, and we’re hearing it in the mayoral race in New York City, about all well and good to go after, the sometimes not all good officers.
But what about what’s going on in places like New York now with young people, men, primarily men of color, the young people color, engaging in violent acts upon each other.
How are we to understand that?
So I ask you as faith leaders, as interfaith leaders:
One, how do we respond when the detractors who want to divert us from the ways in which the state is using force to in some cases, murder and injure people in the form of policing, but also to this reality that they point to violence particularly gun violence, particularly among young people, and more specifically in our urban areas.
So, what do we think about them using that argument, and then two what do we think about the circumstance now from a from a faith or an interface perspective, and I’ll reverse sort of a little bit, start with Dr. Williams, do you have any, any thoughts on that?
Dr. Williams: I was, I was forming my thoughts and then you called me.
But I think that you raise am interesting question. One of the things I always like to think about is the system, the brokenness of the system. When young Black men, or brown men use weapons against each other, it becomes very clear that the full force of the law will be meted against them. But there are some cases in our world, and some people, they commit crimes and they’re almost above the law.
And the guns are just the problem. I was telling a friend, he said, ‘what can we do about these guns?” I said, “I don’t know, do you just, you know, raise the cost of bullets to make them not affordable?” but the guns are a problem we need to get rid of the guns, somehow.
But yeah, I think that you raise a very, very, very interesting question. And I’m curious to see how my colleagues will respond to that.
Rev. Davie: Well I saw Dr Butler unmuted almost immediately, so Dr. Butler do you have thoughts on this?
Dr. Butler: Yeah, I do have a lot of thoughts about this. First of all, you need to point out to your policemen friends, and I’m putting friends in quotation marks, that the red herring about this is that there’s a couple of things. One is the inability to deal with the structural racism and the structural economic inequalities that are in our communities.
That’s the first thing. I mean, I think that a lot of this has escalated in the pandemic period in part because we have people who don’t have a regular income in my own neighborhood in Philadelphia. We’ve seen an uptick in violence, and carjackings, and robberies and all these things, and I live in a pretty quiet, mixed-race neighborhood. And that has really changed a lot.
And so, I’m thinking part of this is about what this particular time is and that the normal flows of commerce, have been stopped. And it seems strange to link this to an economic piece but I think it’s really important.
The second piece that I’ve had some experience with, in my community, in part because of the kinds of things that the police have done in the communities like about eight blocks from where I currently live there was during, sort of, you know, the kinds of times where people were tearing up stuff because of different things that had happened. They brought out tanks, they tear gas people’s homes that didn’t have anything to do with this. And so I want to put back the question to them and say, why must you come with so much firepower into our communities?
And you’re worried about the guns that we have, when you come in with tanks. I mean this is the inequality of all of this right so don’t let people gas you, and I’m saying it just like this because I think it needs to be said.
There is the gassing of us in our communities , talking about why do you have the problems with guns. Why are you shooting everybody, when in fact who is bringing in the guns? Who is making the laws to make guns easier to get in the community? In my home state of Texas right
Now, you don’t need a background check anymore. You don’t have to go get a class to carry a gun. They let you just go buy a gun from, I believe age 21, but for some it might even be as low as 18.
So when we hear these things you need to have the facts to push back on people about this. Because I get really annoyed and disgusted with the fact that everybody wants to blame this on the Black community, when the Black community don’t own Colt. They don’t own Smith and Wesson, they don’t own none of this stuff that everybody has been doing and we need to understand where this is coming from.
And let me add this because I want to make everybody mad today, when we have white evangelicals who are talking about God guns and babies, and this is all they have to say about anything, and then they want to talk about law order, which comes from the pattyrollers in the 19th century controlling Black folks. Then I asked you: what is the point, you see I could not be on this commission that you’re on right now, because I have no respect for this stuff. Alright, let me just be blunt, okay, because we need to break it all down to where it is to the white meat, okay, because it’s happening to us. How are we supposed to deal with this, when they are happy that we are shooting each other, so they can come and kill us?
That’s my that’s my question.
Rev. Davie: Understood. Thank you for that response.
This obviously generates a lot of thoughts and comments, but Alia, any thoughts here? And then Adam we’ll turn to you.
Alia Bilal: I had some thoughts, but I don’t need to say them anymore, because I think that they have been said very, very well by Dr. Butler.
And the only thing that I would add is that, you know, yes I would concur, I tried my hardest not to engage with detractors of that sort anymore, for my own mental health.
But the short and simple of it is that the violence that we see in our streets, is a violence of neglect, of hopelessness, of absolute desperation, and you cannot equate that with what happens to us by the forces that we have to deal with every day.
And that’s just not an equivalent.
I’m with Dr Butler on this and that I can’t really, it’s hard for me to have this conversation, it’s hard for me to engage in this because I feel like it’s an exception, where the question itself is a question that is that is completely dismissing the humanity behind the people that are in question here. It is a question that is designed to, to create an exception where there shouldn’t be one.
We have lives and we deserve to live them period in peace period with justice period.
You know, and until that is understood then I don’t even know what the point of the conversation is on that front.
Rev. Davie: Understood. Thank you. Reverend Taylor?
Rev. Taylor: No, I mean I’m grateful for all that’s been shared, I underscore Dr. Williams’ point about gun control. I mean it is absolutely insane that we have a complete impasse, mainly because of the GOP and the NRA, around passing any kind of sensible, let alone comprehensive, gun control. So I think that is a starting point and one of the key issues. The other is, I kind of alluded to this but I’ll just say it directly is, you know we have communities that have been dis-invested from for decades, and many cities that spend a quarter, a third, some cases almost half of their budgets on policing.
And so the answer is not simply to try to solve every problem through policing, particularly when we know that it has been so racialized and has been responsible for so many senseless deaths.
And so I think this kind of call to defund is controversial and how that sometimes can sound is important. We have to interrogate the budgets that utilize our taxpaying dollars and try to start investing a lot more in programs that are going to help uplift, empower, support and encourage our young people, many of whom are dealing with all kinds of very dire challenges that were described before, so I think, I think this kind of “reinvest”, I prefer the word “reinvest” just because I think it’s probably gonna be more effective politically. But the bottom line is we really have to focus our energies there as well.
Rev. Davie: Thank you.
Just to shift gears slightly, and obviously we could talk about these issues for hours but to think about the communities we all come from, the ways in which we, in our interfaith work, try to engage difference and bridge difference.
And I would ask, can you talk about sort of encounters of difference, particularly as it relates to faith and faith engagement that you’ve had, and particularly within the Black community itself, and how that’s had an impact and effect on both how you see the world and how you respond to some of these to some of these issues. And Reverend Taylor let’s start let’s start with you.
Rev. Taylor: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, the most recent example that’s given me a lot of hope is an initiative that Sojourners, and many other organizations, have been co-laboring around called Faith for Vaccines.
Actually, IFYC has also been engaged in it.
It basically started a couple months ago, when a number of faith leaders including Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi recognized that faith communities could be the real game changer in the context of addressing the COVID pandemic, both in the context of trying to ensure that houses of worship could be places where people could get the vaccine, as the vaccines were starting to become more available, and as a way to try to convince people, persuade them to get the vaccine, both to protect themselves, for their own health, but also to protect others. Kind of as a Christian tradition as a core commitment to the golden rule. And so, you know, a number of different organizations including National Council of Churches and some Muslim Health Association and so many others came together in order to form this coalition, in order to engage with the Biden administration but also with local and state health authorities to really try to make this case and get them to make it easier for houses of worship to become vaccination sites.
That’s also just critical because people at a community level still tend to trust their religious leaders. Although there’s certainly significant challenges with our religious institutions they still enjoy a great deal of trust and so they could be some of the most important and accessible places where people could get the vaccine. And fortunately, we’ve seen quite a bit of progress and traction in enabling that to happen.
We’re now really working together to try to support President Biden’s push over the next month to try to get over 70% of American adults vaccinated.
And I think, you know, as Dr. Eboo Patel and others would say, the last mile in this is really going to come down to personal relationships, literally people engaging with people in their social networks in order to get them accurate information and to have real conversations with them to try to walk them through why getting the vaccine can be such a moral imperative, but also I would say it’s an important imperative for the common good.
Rev. Davie: Thank you. Alia, bridging difference particularly in the interfaith context to address some of these issues. Thoughts on this?
Alia Bilal: Well, you know, what I would say is, we’re coming up on the 55th anniversary of Dr. King’s march into Marquette Park here in Chicago in August this year.
And you know, a few years ago, five years ago in fact, Iman led an initiative to create the first permanent living memorials, as we call it, to that moment. To Dr. King, to the Chicago freedom movement in Marquette Park, and really bring together a lot of these communities that even from 50 years ago has not really reconciled that day. And you know we remember that occasion, 55 years ago as the one when Dr. King and other marchers, they marched into Marquette Park and they’re confronted by, you know this mob of 5000.
You know men, women, children, elderly wielding rocks and stones and bottles. This is the place where Dr. King would get stoned in the head and fall to the ground and that you know that really epic picture of him, and he would go on to say t that though he’d face the racism of the South that he’d never seen mobs as hostile or as hate filled as he had here in Chicago on that day, and further, that if he had the chance to do it again, which is what one of the reporters asked, that of course he would because it was important to bring the evil out of darkness and into the light.
You know, this year actually, we lost the giant in Rabbi Robert Marx, the founder of JCUA, Jewish Counsel on Urban Affairs. He’d been a mentor for many of us at Iman and many folks in the in the Chicagoland area.
And the thing that I take from this you know is actually something that we placed on the memorial.
And that was that, you know, 55 years ago he wrote this letter for us, this epic letter because it forms so much of the basis for how we both, how we both agitate folks in our communities and outside of our communities.
He wrote this letter to the Chicago Board of Rabbis, you know, telling them that he intended to be with the marchers on that day in Marquette Park with Dr. King. That before that he attended a march as a silent observer, but that his faith, his Jewish faith would not allow him to be on the side of, of those who are simply observing. His Jewish faith mandated that he be with the marchers, be with those who are demanding justice. And that’s something that for me, I just, I think I look at today and I’m grateful for the fact that I feel like there are people that are doing that kind of thing these days, and they’re doing that kind of thing for issues that are not just stereotypically their issues. That we see our faith communities responding in ways that I think are just are a little different than at least I’ve experienced in the last, you know, several years.
In this moment and I think everyone is responding in this moment, of course.
But I think there’s a new, unique opportunity for our faith communities to do so in a way that that is really resonant with our particular expression of our faiths.
But that ends in something that is meaningful and that will actually drive change in our neighborhoods so that that story really stands out to me.
Rev. Davie Wonderful, thank you.
Eric Do you want to come in here and then we’ll go to the doctor.
Dr. Williams: Just briefly, I think that, one way in which, in my work at the museum, I tried to create space and bridge these divides is through programming.
And often, the programming and even these kinds of museums and it’s kind of cultural spaces that there are certain dominant traditions that their voices are always lifted up, but to create space so others can hear about how people from traditions that they find so different, how they understand freedom how they understand issue around morality, and those kinds of issues. And one of the programs that I’m working on now is Black Unbelief, which is a program where we allow the voices of atheists humanists Black free thinkers to share their experiences. So much of the work at our museum is predominantly Christian really, because that’s how the collecting everything. But trying to trying to create space and then of course, this God talk initiative that we have on Millennial dis-affiliation with religion and allowing these voices that don’t always have an opportunity to speak to give them opportunity to testify, as we say in my tradition.
Rev. Davie: Thank you, Dr Butler?
Dr. Butler: Yeah, I’ll just briefly talk about a couple of things.
I had a chance to do a talk back in November, about the history of Blacks and Jews with the CAT Center of the University of Pennsylvania, and that opened up a whole kind of other world of me giving talks and strategies about how can we improve relationships between the African American and the Jewish community in the country. So that’s one the second one I want to just tag on to what Eric has said is that it’s really, really very important for us to be talking to people in the communities, I know this is like interfaith, but I think we need to be cognizant of the fact that there are people who are agnostic who are atheists who are nones, who are within our communities, both African American and beyond, who are, you know, disillusioned with faith for a variety of reasons, and yet still want to work with people of faith, and that is part of the work that I’ve been doing. I did a talk for Black atheists in Atlanta last summer.
And I’m hoping to do more of that work because I think you know especially as a religious studies scholar, for me it’s really important to reach across all lines of faith, and to try to engage people in this conversation and the bigger work of justice that we have to do in this country.
Rev Davie: That’s great. Thank you so much. And it is really important for us to do just as you said, to remember that in this diverse community, in the Black community of faith, there are people who choose to have no faith as we understand it, or choose to be agnostic or humanists. And I’m pleased that humanism is a part of this Black interface initiative that we have here, at IFYC.
I’m going to turn now, as I see the clock approaching the top of the hour, to ask the staff at IFYC who have been monitoring the question and answer box, if there are a few questions that they’d like to pull out and have our panelists reflect on. Becca or Katherine?
Becca: Yes, thank you. There’s a lot of gratitude and expressions of being moved by this important conversation. And an interesting question just about language, how people understand or careful about using language that is both accurate and Invitational.
So the example here is from Harriet Dart: gun safety instead of gun control, community investment, instead of defund the police. Just a comment of affirmation on that so that really stood out to me.
Rev. Davie: Dr. Butler, any thoughts?
Dr. Butler: Yeah, I think it’s incumbent upon us to do two things with that, everybody has different languages of which they speak. I have a lot of friends who want to say defund the police. And I’m not mad at them, because I understand exactly where it’s coming from. And I think part of the questions about language is that you have to know what the language means, and you have tou nderstand what the questions are. I do agree that there are conversations in which you might need to change that language in order to get people on board.
But I think the other part is to understand that while we are buying tanks, or what was the latest thing I just saw in Nashville, Tennessee, where they spent millions of dollars on three police helicopters, as opposed to fixing schools and doing everything else. I think we need to understand that when people say defund the police, they say for a particular kind of reason they say it because of stupid stuff like this. And I lived in Nashville.
Nobody needs three police helicopters to go over the city of Nashville, you barely need one okay, I know it’s gotten bigger, but you barely need one. And, you know, I think it’s really important. While it’s it is a natural thing to want to police language, it’s like this: if you can’t police cussing you can’t police language. You need to make sure you understand what people are talking about. If you get into the conversation, in which you need to think about how you talk to people who are recalcitrant on gun control or defunding the police, then I encourage you to use that language where you can, and some of us are going to keep using the language that we use.
Rev. Davie: Thank you, Alia?
Alia Bilal: I don’t have anything to add to that, thank you.
Rev. Davie: ok, Rev. Taylor?
Rev. Taylor: Yeah, I would just add a kind of additional frame, and I’m saying this in part because I’ve been thinking a lot about this and writing a lot about it in this forthcoming book. The full title is A More Perfect Union: a New Vision for Building the Beloved
Community, and I chose this focus on the Beloved Community very intentionally. In part because it was a moral vision that animated the civil rights movement, not just by Dr. King but other key leaders like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hammer and others.
And because I really feel like part of what we need is more inclusive and invitational language that tells a new narrative for this nation, and in some ways it’s not new because certainly civil rights leaders and others have been telling a different story of America for a very long time, but I feel like we need to recast and reimagine what that looks like in our current moment. And one of the things that I find so powerful about the beloved community is it’s a moral vision that I think could unite the majority of Americans across many of the political, ideological, and even racial divisions that we see. And I’m not naive that like every single American is going to jump on that bandwagon per se, but I do think it is one that enables, it creates space for people who are very secular humanist, for people who are deeply religious, to talk about the ways in which there’s so many ways that other faith traditions also have their own way of describing the beloved community.
And at its best, it is a nation, a country, even a world where everyone is seen as respected, as valued, and everyone can thrive, and of course have their fundamental rights respected as well. So anyway I, I just want to offer that up as kind of an invitational frame that I hope can offer some, some hope for the future.
Rev. Davie: Thank you, Dr. Williams.
Dr. Williams: No, I won’t add anything to this. Thank you.
Rev. Davie: Thank you. So we’re four minutes before the top of the hour. Maybe a way to end this a little bit of the way we started, and Dr. Butler you raised the issue of hope in your initial comments about how Black people in various struggles, have been sort of, it may be quintessential. Or that we’ve epitomized examples of hope in the midst of some of the most horrendous struggles that any communities of humanity have faced. So in the interfaith context, can you give us, and I’ll ask each of you to do this, what would be a word of hope, what would you posit that we should aspire to be inspired by in this era, as it as it unfolds before us?
Dr. Butler: I’m going to say we should aspire, and this is going to sound like a very crazy thing to say, we should aspire to be as together as our detractors are.
And the reason why I say that is because right now, it is very clear to me that, I’m going to just lay it out here, Republicans, conservative Christians, and others are very much on their program, and they are on their program 24/7.
The problem for us is how do we come together to work together to get some of the things that we need to get done in our communities done, and to stop the tide of violence, whether that be police violence or violence in our communities, or to stop the kinds of things that are happening with coronavirus and to make sure that we get our communities vaccinated, to make sure that our faith communities don’t die out because of the economic and social situations that they are in.
We need to take a page from the conservatives, they are on the game 24 hours a day 7 days a week, however many seconds, there are in a year. And if we could achieve that same kind of determination, there is not anything that we cannot do. So my hope is that we will take a page from this in the face of mounting and very serious opposition to go forward this year and to go forward into 2022, to try to make sure that we don’t lose the gains that our forefathers and foremothers have made for us in this country.
Rev. Davie: Thank you, Alia?
Alia Bilal: So I sometimes claim my status as a millennial to explain why I often feel very jaded, and a little skeptical about just what it takes to make real change happen. And if change is really happening, if it’s possible. And as an organizer I know that I need to live with one foot in the world as it is and what you know in the world is could be. Today I feel some cautious optimism about the fact that we are clearly being loud enough. And at this point, in some ways resonant enough to when it comes to issues of equity, you know, at least.
I think that there is, you know, there certainly there are local governments now, there are you know major corporations, there are institutions, that are realizing that the old status quo, that the old diversity platitudes, if you will, areno longer going to work.
You know, in general, I find cancel culture to be very problematic in many ways, but I can be totally down for it, when it means that we can put the fear of God in some of these major corporations, especially those that have been sucking the blood and the life out of, you know, Black and brown communities for decades.
And so I see hope in that. Honestly, and you know I’ll say that something else that is giving me hope is that people beyond just the regular old, you know, organizers, activists, academics that have been maybe preaching this for years, I think people are finally starting to connect issues in ways that they haven’t before. And for me as someone that has, you know, been very local, hyper local in Chicago doing this community organizing work for the last 12 years, but also has a very global outlook, that is something to me that is, that is really interesting. And I want to be honest in saying that, you know, something that makes deliberately interfaith circles sometimes difficult, I know at least for people like me, is that I feel there’s a tendency sometimes to stay on some of those safe subjects, and to really kind of dance at the periphery of some of the subjects that are not as safe.
So I’ll say that something else that gives me hope is the fact that more people are beginning to connect issues of racial justice and inequality in this country to what’s happening across the world.
In places like Colombia and places like British Columbia where they just, you know, found the bodies of these 215 indigenous children that were clearly killed in these assimilation schools, but also in places like Palestine and Israel.
And I know that anytime that Palestine and Israel are brought into an interfaith circle in interfaith conversation there’s a palpable change that happens in the room and it’s probably happening right now.
But I don’t think that our interfaith conversations are going to mean much if we can’t use them to address injustice wherever we find it, whether that is on the south side of Chicago, or the east side of Jerusalem.
And my hope, and my prayer is that people are beginning to connect to those issues and see those as their struggles just as the struggles that we know we have been facing in this country for years have been our struggles. That is the hope that I see and that’s my prayer for how we move forward.
Rev. Davie: So, given the lateness of the hour, Dr. Williams and Dr. Taylor, I am going to leave it with the last word that we got from Alia. I would ask you to share your thoughts, maybe, if you would, with us in writing and we’ll ship it out to all of the people who’ve joined us here today.
I’m going to take this opportunity to thank all of you. You give me hope in the work that you do. I have hope in this Black interfaith initiative. Hope in the work that places like IFYC, and Union Theological Seminary, and Sojourners, and the African American Museum in DC, and others do around the country and around the world, and an hour is never enough for these conversations but hopefully it’s leaven, it’s some yeast that will yield greater and bigger and more promising results in the months and years ahead of us so thanks to all of you.