Conversing Religion and Politics with Olivia Elder
August 10, 2020
Olivia Elder is a young professional who studied International Affairs, concentrating in Contemporary Societies & Cultures at the George Washington University. She is most passionate about working with minority, faith-based, and migrant communities, and she hopes to use her focus on religion and migration to empower directly impacted communities.
In conversation with IFYC writer, Silma Suba, Elder shares about her work in criminal justice reform, as well as her experience as a Black interfaith leader in non-Black spaces.
Your work has revolved around immigration issues and criminal justice reform. What sparked your interest in this field of work?
I started to understand the importance of this work around age nine. Hurricane Katrina had just happened, and we had to evacuate our home and go live with my grandmother in San Francisco, while my father, who was an essential staff at his job, stayed behind to help. We were lucky that we had only sustained some physical damage to our home. I saw other people lose everything. The community was devastated. In San Francisco, I heard my new classmates make comments like, “Everyone in New Orleans is dead. Your father’s dead!” I would see the news and see that all the people who were suffering looked like me, they had darker skin, and lived in Black communities – and I was just so confused. I remember asking my mom, “Is Daddy dead?” “Why do all the people who look hurt on the news look like us?”
My mom explained to me that my dad was okay. The hurricane was an act of God, and no one could have controlled it. But, she added, there are systems in place to protect people from these things, and people who look like us don’t usually benefit from them. The people who oversaw the rules and systems didn’t think of us while making them and didn’t think of protecting us. That changed my whole perspective on life as a young child, learning that there is a whole system in place that doesn’t necessarily exist to protect people like me.
How did that knowledge change the way you approached your education and career moving forward?
I thought about what my mother said for a long time. In high school, as I was growing into myself and learning about myself politically, racially, religiously, I started realizing that there were a lot of things that were not created with people like me in mind. That pushed me to learn as much as I could about civic engagement. I registered to vote at 17 and 10 months (the earliest you can in Texas!), and I interned at my mayor’s office during my senior year of high school. At my internship, I found out that more people had voted for my high school’s homecoming queen than for our mayor. It was eye opening for me to learn how so many things were stacked against people like me and how little will there was to change it. That’s when I had my heart set on focusing my career and education in politics.
I majored in international affairs at George Washington University and I started thinking about how interfaith movements and political movements have made a difference in our history. It’s also around that time that I got interested in immigration reform because there’s such a nexus between immigration reform, religious studies, and international affairs.
Can you elaborate on that? How do you think immigration reforms, religion, and politics are affiliated?
Well, I believe everything you do is political. When I was 19, I had begun to think about working in immigration reform, and I was interning at the Texas Civil Rights Project. That summer, a lot of the work focused around unmarked graves in South Texas. A lot of people who were taking the harrowing journey to cross the border did not survive – many died from starvation, thirst, lack of shelter. Many of these people were being buried in unmarked mass graves in plastic bags by the border police, and there was no requirement for them to even have a death certificate. I remember thinking to myself all summer – how can you believe in the dignity of human life when we’re allowing humans to die in these very dehumanizing ways and we’re not even giving them the respect of a proper burial or a marked grave. There wasn’t even a database to search for them. People would call the TCRP intake line and ask, “My niece was supposed to cross the border last week and I want to know if she’s alive or dead?” and there just was no way to look that up. You cannot believe in human dignity if you allow that tragedy at the border. That opened my eyes to the nexus between religion and politics for me – that they were not two distinct things but interconnected. As a Christian, I believe there has to be a drive to seek justice and correct oppression, and if you truly want to live by the ideals of the Christ, you have to try and make the world a better place and value every human life.
What are your thoughts around the recent months of national protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd?
It was very striking and painful to watch him being murdered on video. It’s something my family has been terrified of my entire life. My mom has always been afraid of receiving a call about our deaths, just like every Black family has been afraid of receiving that call in their lifetime. It’s truly awful, baseless, and inhumane, but what’s more shocking is that there are people around me who never realized that this is a reality for so many of us. I’ve had people who love me, who have known me for years, who know how outspoken I’ve been my whole life, reach out to me and say, “Hey you weren’t kidding! This is so real. This is so heartbreaking. Do you think about this every day?” The truth is yes, we do think about the possibility of being murdered or attacked every day. We are exhausted and heartbroken that this is our reality. I think the weight of this experience has finally caught up with non-Black people. I think George Floyd’s death really made a difference in these people’s lives and they are, for the first time in my life, truly interested in listening.
I realize that this is an opportunity to really have these conversations and make change where I can, but in the spirit of honesty, it’s exhausting to be the person who has to educate non-Black people about what it’s like to be Black in this country. It shouldn’t be my job to have these conversations with them. At the same time, I also realize that I am the only Black friend for a lot of my friends, and so they reach out to me to learn and to listen. Many of them are listening, and they are heartbroken just like we’ve been heartbroken.
Can you tell us more about these conversations? Who’s participating in them? How are you hosting them?
I was in a “Racism 101” bible study before the pandemic hit, but I (and I say this lovingly) find the genuine shock from people learning about racism for the first time a little hard to bear. An older Black man in our first in-person class earlier in the winter of this year put it this way — “Where have you been?” It is honestly shocking to see people be affronted with these issues for the first time as adults while Black people have been raised with our eyes wide open. Perhaps the worlds we grew up in were different after all, but the lack of understanding is almost unbelievable, and for a long time, perhaps intentional. I haven’t attended our virtual meets or signed up for the new semester in the fall.
An ally asked to share a short piece that I had written about the Tulsa Race Massacre on the 99th anniversary back in June. He said, “thank you for posting your writing. good read — beautiful and educational!” but when he shared it, he didn’t tag me. It’s not the tagging that bothered me, but it didn’t feel like he acknowledged the emotional labor that it took to put those words to paper. What I wrote wasn’t supposed to be a “good read.” It was a letter that I wrote to white people and to God, asking them to love us. I cried when I wrote it in my journal, and I cried when I posted it. I wrote it so that someone would read it and weep for me, like I wept for George and Breonna and Ahmaud and Elijah. That surface-level allyship felt very indicative of the response I’ve been getting at this moment.
I hesitate to return to white faith-based spaces. I understand that everyone means well wants to learn, but my pain is not for their public consumption. I don’t exist to teach you. My blood and my tears aren’t your research, and they shouldn’t be a “good read. I have since focused on intentionally Black spaces, where our Blackness is at the forefront of those conversations, and faith, spirituality, and culture are merely factors that unite us. There are several venues where those take place, whether it’s a group facetime call, a meetup on the Squad app, or a Zoom call with a few DC-based Black women whom I consider real faith mentors for me.
How are you taking care of yourself during this time? What from your faith is inspiring you to keep moving forward?
I have been writing and journaling a lot to help me process my feelings, and I find scriptures in The Word to be a great tool for that. A few weeks ago, when everything was feeling really overwhelming, I drove out to a trail in West Houston and I parked in front of the creek there. I cried, I talked to God, and I reflected a lot about what I needed from the white people in my life. I wanted to heal, I wanted miracles, so I turned to the Gospels to read about the works of Jesus. I was still in Mark and Matthew when I kept thinking about the verse in the book of John, “Jesus wept.” It’s the shortest verse in the bible.
This time, Jesus was called to Lazarus’ bedside to heal him from a deathly illness. Instead, He stays put. He tells Lazarus’ family not to worry and that his story would not ultimately end in death. Of course, Lazarus passes away from the illness, and Jesus goes to the grave to perform the famous miracle of raising him from the dead. He knows that Lazarus will live, but as soon as He sees Lazarus’ sisters distraught from his death, as soon as He sees the whole town mourning the loss of one of their own, He is deeply moved. He weeps. It almost feels ridiculous — why are You crying? You know that You could have acted earlier? You know that You have the power to turn suffering into joy, death into life. Why cry? That family’s pain broke Jesus. Seeing how Lazarus suffered while he waited for Jesus to act, seeing how much Lazarus’ community loved and valued him moved Him and broke Him as if Lazarus was His own.
Every single day, the Black community is mourning our dead just like this. We are deeply valued and loved by each other, and it feels like we lose family every day, be it from state-sanctioned violence, gun violence, death by incarceration, or coronavirus. And when we weep, the Christ weeps for us. When our hearts break, Christ’s heart breaks for us. Though this country was never designed for me or my family, the people our founding fathers had in mind really do have the power to change that, not only by changing their personal interactions but by changing the system that benefits them and hurts us. They have the power to turn death into life — seriously. Like Christ, I want them to spend a minute in our shoes, really know what it means to weep and mourn, and then get to work and start healing.
I go back and forth on whether I believe in “Judgement Day” as a literal day that will come. More and more, I feel that Judgement Day is a concept, an ongoing constant. Judgement Day was the day George Floyd was killed, but it’s also today, and tomorrow, and the day after that. Did you weep? Did you get to work?
American Civic Life