‘Justice and Joy’: A Celebration of Black Interfaith with the White House
February 25, 2022
Invoking the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., acknowledging the contributions of interfaith efforts to decrease vaccine hesitancy, and paying tribute to his wife, the first Black woman to serve as vice president of the United States, Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff on February 23 helped launch the Black Interfaith Project at IFYC in a White House-sponsored Black History Month webinar. Emhoff is Jewish and Vice President Kamala Harris, the daughter of a Christian father and a Hindu mother, was raised in the 23rd Avenue Church of God, a predominantly Black congregation in Oakland, California.
“As an interfaith family ourselves, we know that the same commitment to justice is a thread that runs through so many religions,” Emhoff said. “And because of that, diverse communities of faith are an inspiration to us.”
The hourlong event began with welcoming remarks from the Rev. Frederick Davie, Senior Advisor for Racial Equity at IFYC, and Eboo Patel, IFYC’s president and founder.
“I am an American citizen because of Black interfaith,” Patel said. “My parents, Ismaili Muslims from India, were allowed to come to the United States because of the Immigration Act of 1965,” a legacy of the Civil Rights Movement pushed forward by Black faith leaders. “That legislation effectively ended a century of racism in American immigration and opened the doors of America to people from all over the world.”
The Black Interfaith Project is supported by a $1 million grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.
Emhoff was followed by panel of Black faith leaders, all from different traditions, who serve their communities in different ways: Alia Bilal, a Muslim nonprofit leader who is helping open a fresh produce store in a struggling Chicago neighborhood; Rabbi Sanda Lawson, a Reconstructionist Jewish leader who is helping her denomination confront and atone for racism; Jermira Trapp, a Buddhist police officer from Chicago; and Yolanda Pierce, a professor and dean at Howard University School of Divinity who studies the rich diversity of Black religious experiences.
Pierce began with an historical perspective, noting that many put forward the idea of an “empty vessel, that people of African descent, enslaved persons, came to the shores of this nation and somehow encountered the divine. That can’t be farther from the truth.”
In reality, as many as 30 percent of enslaved people were Muslim, and others were Christian or practitioners of African spiritual traditions, and atheism, free thought and humanism are also “part of this early American cauldron,” Pierce said. This “rich religious environment gave birth to American religion.”
Telling the full Black interfaith American story, Pierce continued, “we start at the beginning, and we stop pretending that we came here as a monolith and are a monolith today.”
Alia Bilal is the assistant director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, which runs a clinic as part of its many community outreach efforts in Chicago and Atlanta. Many of their partnerships are interfaith, she noted, describing a recent event that focused on the need for fresh groceries in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.
“You had this Muslim-rooted organization, playing a music video made by a Hebrew Israelite, hosting this really powerful conversation with our longtime partners at a Pentecostal church,” Bilal said.
Jermira Trapp shared her experiences as a Chicago police officer and her concerns about mental health. Her partner committed suicide in 2018, she said. Buddhism has offered her a way to find peace and strength, she said, and she is working on a proposal that would incorporate meditation and other coping techniques to improve officers’ mental health.
“My coworkers are not okay, and they cannot be a positive force for themselves, let alone the citizens that they have to serve daily,” Trapp said. “My practice of chanting … really gives me the courage to stand up in an environment that tells you ‘this is just the way it is.’ “
Rabbi Sandra Lawson quoted Hebrew scripture, noting that that when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery, a “mixed multitude of people went out with them,” meaning people from all backgrounds and walks of life. “Our values, our most holiest text, says that we have always been a mixed multitude of people.”
In closing remarks, Pierce of Howard University School of Divinity noted that justice was a common theme in the Black Interfaith Project.
“All of the communities that are represented here, and many others, really center justice,” Pierce said. “The work of justice for our people is a vital component of this. But the second part is Black interfaith is also about joy — joy that we have in our communities, in our families, when we gather, when we have these kinds of conversations, even when we debate. Justice and joy.”
Pauli Murray is being currently rediscovered for her activism against racial, gender, and economic injustice and her advocacy for reconciliation between all Americans. But her trailblazing work as the first Black female Episcopal priest in United States and her lifelong commitment to spiritual values often goes overlooked in discussions of her legacy. IFYC was honored to feature the Very Reverend Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, the Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, as our keynote speaker for this discussion. Dean Douglas, as one of the first ten Black women ordained in the Episcopal Church USA, is directly inspired by Pauli Murray’s legacy.