An LTSP Teach-In explores “Moving beyond racism and violence”
watch the recording of the event
It was a compelling evening of expressive reflection at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) December 16 in the wake of tragic events during which the names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, and others have stirred the conscience of America.
Billed as “A Teach-In: Moving from Fear to Flourishing after Ferguson,” six leaders on the program shared their thoughts in a truly interfaith call to action.
At the event’s outset, Dr. Jon Pahl, the event organizer, said the recent string of deaths had heralded a “new Jim Crow” era with an attendant reign of fear known before in the annals of American history when “too many remained silent” including those in churches. But, he added there is “clear, compelling evidence that the backlash is ending” as shown in a dynamic and growing public response espousing, “Black lives matter.” “It is not a negation but an affirmation,” said Pahl, the Peter Paul and Elizabeth Hagan Professor of History at LTSP. “Our lives and traditions – each life is a gift. Our calling and collective vocation is to make it possible for each life to flourish.”
Lead keynoter was the Rev. Jewel Herder, who is studying for a PhD at LTSP, focusing her thesis on abuses of power in church leadership. Herder has a Baptist background and earned a Masters in Theology at Villanova University. She led off her presentation with the words of James Cone, featured in a heart-rending song, “Strange Fruit,” by late jazz vocalist Billie Holiday. The song tells the tale of brutal lynchings of African Americans in the Jim Crow south.
Herder powerfully traced the history of violence against African Americans “who were hung, beaten, shot, raped, tortured for hours and days” at a time by whites in the south. The lynchings, she said, were seldom talked about. “Respected members of the society had themselves proudly photographed near hanging bodies.” She said 10,000 unarmed people, men, women, and children received such treatment in an ultimate devaluing of Black lives. “Few whites have understood the long-term effects of the lynchings,” she said.
“I had thought in the twenty-first century lynchings no longer occur until I saw the video showing the body of Michael Brown lying in the street for four-and-a-half hours (in Ferguson, MO), and I felt shock and outrage.” She repeated Eric Garner’s New York City story, where police officers, using handcuffs and excessive force “for no reason,” killed a man selling “loose cigarettes… in broad daylight” employing a chokehold. Garner was an asthmatic.
Citing these and other episodes, Herder told her audience that they reminded of the fear-filled period in America between 1885 and 1960 when lynching episodes “restricted all aspects of Black advancement” as whites “burned Black businesses and homes.” In those days lynchings were considered by many to be “a divine right” when Black human beings were deemed to be inferior by whites, she said.
She added that the failure by grand juries to indict police officers involved in the Ferguson and New York City incidents had “galvanized the nation toward justice.”
Imam Muhammad Abdul-Aleem of Magdijullah Islamic Center spoke of growing up in Harlem 44 years ago. “I learned there that it is better to build than it is to beg,” he said. “Until you learn how to build you are a victim.” He said unless society as a whole begins to build toward solutions the challenges of racism will be “cyclical.”
Abdul-Aheem cited religious imagery that has afflicted African Americans. “White supremacy enslaved Black people who were also presented with a white image of God,” he said. “The image of enslavement became the same as the image of salvation.” He compared the experience of Blacks to that of Jews in World War II Germany, who saw Hitler being espoused as the image of salvation.
“We must be willing to go deeper and look beyond color consciousness and see what is bothering the collective conscience of the American people,” he said. “Great tragedies bring out the real human being in all of us. We need to engage and view each other as human beings, bring back the focus onto human life and be willing to dialogue about how we see each other as human beings.” He urged the audience to find ways to support those who lack a sense of empowerment, developing strategies and methodologies through their studies of scripture “by focusing on our common human essence.”
Natosha Warner, who works in community relations and public affairs for the U.S. Department of Justice, has been with that department for 25 years. She graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia.
Warner, who is African American, said she can see “why we are here today” after working 26 years on the “front lines” in communities where she meets people “who look like Michael Brown and me.” She said she gets paid “for doing my passion.” She identified the key issues she encounters as “the wealth gap, alarming unemployment, and lack of trust.” She also described “the lack of educational resources. Reading is fundamental. It takes us places. When we know our history we can use our voices more effectively and effect possible change.” Warner also cited “mass incarceration rates” of African Americans, considered by some young people as “a badge of honor.” She cited an experience encountering a young person with a vision of becoming a dealer of drugs. “Become a pharmaceutical representative instead,” she urged him. “You can make good money, and you can keep it.”
She urged her audience to get out in the community to become mentors. Describing herself as fond of urban gardening, Warner she said she believes the “solutions are in this room” when it comes to dealing with challenges posed by racism. “Many of our young men don’t know how to address a police officer,” she said. “They need help to know what to do when they encounter an officer. They don’t know how to respect authority. Make a phone call to a school. Volunteer to read to a child. Kids want and love teaching. Plant a seed and watch it grow.”
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founding director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, is the author of 22 books focusing on such issues as racism and the use of non-violent action. He said the events involving the police and African Americans follow the same patterns as decades ago, and the recent events “have sparked vigorous, assertive, nonviolent action.” Waskow said he has been discouraged by the latest episodes of violence involving the justice system, but encouraged by the peaceful demonstrations that have resulted “involving people like you.”
Waskow referenced a remark by slaveholder and forefather Thomas Jefferson. “I can hardly get my head around it,” Waskow said of the remark. “I tremble for the country when I think that God is just,” Jefferson said. “And I still tremble for the country,” Waskow added. ”We have ‘disease domination’ when it comes to the failure of the justice system to act justly.”
He called for a restructuring of the American economy, noting that more Blacks cannot get jobs because they have been robbed of them by the economic system. “We are not talking about unemployment but dis-employment,” he said.
Waskow touched on other topics — disease domination when it comes to voting rights issues, involving sexual violence and rapes in the military and colleges and universities that are not justly dealt with, and involving earth-shattering policies by giant corporations regarding abuse of fossil fuels. “Nobody makes them stop,” he said.
The Rabbi called for sit-ins and peaceful demonstrations to deal with practices of domination disease. “Move from place to place, challenge the country and the public to pay attention. Make change happen.” Demonstrations and sit-ins are often practiced by “dreamers who have a vision for the future and are willing to embody that vision in the present,” he said.
Bishop Dwayne Royster holds a Master of Arts in Religion from LTSP, serves as pastor of Living Waters United Church of Christ on Philadelphia’s Oxford Circle, and directs POWER, an advocacy initiative involving some 40 congregations and 40,000 individuals in the region. POWER recently played a major role in gaining improved wages for subcontracted low-income employees who work at Philadelphia International Airport.
“We are at a CHYROS moment,” Royster said. “We are at war, in the midst of great violence. God is doing something special in the midst of the sin sickness of racism.” He said POWER has been working with hundreds of young people who have been engaged almost nightly in protests stemming from events in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York City, and elsewhere. “I have been witnessing a lot of white folks, more whites than Blacks on the streets,” he said. Royster was critical of the failure of churches to respond to injustice. “They see it and have chosen to ignore it,” he said.
He spoke of being on the ground personally in Ferguson and spoke of an “implicit bias” involving police activity. “Since when is selling loose cigarettes reason for a death sentence?” he said. “We need to figure out how to plan to change the world and the role we create to accomplish it. We need to confront ourselves about race.”
The airport workers situation resulted in an increase to $10.83 an hour of the pay rate. Of situations like that one he said employers are “unwilling to share the profits with their workers. We have a plantation mentality going on.”
Royster spoke passionately about injustices in the educational system where research has revealed “there is an $1,800 disparity per student per year favoring white students over Black students in Pennsylvania.” Royster called for a “full fair funding formula” to correct the situation.
“Mentoring is not going to solve this problem,” he said. “This is a systems failure, and we’re not going to stop fighting until it gets fixed. If you have not preached about Ferguson from your pulpit, you have a race problem.” He said the first step in finding ways to counteract injustices is first to examine oneself inside.
He urged his audience to become part of POWER and take up “sustained systemic engagement” to understand the “inherent pain and feeling” felt by young people who are leading street protests.
In Philadelphia, he called for the institution of a civil review panel under jurisdiction outside the police department and the District Attorney to review controversial police cases. A lesson from Ferguson he said “is that we can’t allow police states in our cities.”
Yashpal S. Bains, representing the Sikh community in the Philadelphia area, spoke briefly to say, “We are all about peace and human equality and justice for all. Injustice anywhere is a loss of justice everywhere.”
Also speaking briefly, police officer Curtis Ghee said he had always made it a point to take to heart training he had received “not to develop an ‘us against them’ mentality.” He said that unfortunately there are prejudices on both sides involving police and citizens. He cited an anecdote of meeting and getting to know a young man in North Philadelphia. “I was fortunate to find him a job in two weeks,” he said of the encounter. “As a police officer it is important to get to the heart of the matter and talk with youth. Every situation you encounter is different,” he said. “Sometimes you have to meet force with force, but there is such a thing as too much force.”
Welcoming the teach-in’s participants, LTSP Dean Jayakiran Sebastian said the event marks “a somber and disturbing moment” in time and also an opportunity “for us to think, talk, and act together” in a period “when hope seems to be an elusive dream…Welcome to a place where public leadership is debated and practiced and where we try to make sense of humanity in a fragmented world…”