What Would Jesus do about Racism in Community?

Reflections on the Building a New World Symposium

By Thumbs Cambia


Clockwise from top left: Participants in workshop, First Methodist Church, Reverend Gracie bowl of soil demonstration, Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, Brother Anton and Carlos.


I rolled into the community long after sunset, and slipped my truck between the first gathering of parked cars I spotted, thrilled to be reunited with my numb lower back.  The cows gazed at me in the unimpeded glow cast from a moon sliver across the broad horizon of a southern savanna. I peered around the building closest to me and spotted a humble one room kitchen and communal space, which vaguely matched the description of the campsite kitchen I was told of.  I slipped in the door, and groped the wall till a satisfying switch clicked, lighting the room, and inspiring the letters written on the wall that proclaimed “[insert inspiring text] GOD [rhetorical question] [insert male pronoun][righteous command].”…oh yeah, I remembered, this was a Christian community.


The host community for Building a New World symposium was Koinonia Farm, a 75 year old community that is steeped in the civil rights movement of the Southern United States and global christian service.  Koinonia has lived their activism through lifestyle by functioning as a multi-racial farm where all workers receive equal pay for labor, sat at the same table for meals, and practiced their faith in communion.  Mid century 20th century this egalitarian agrarian lifestyle was a vexing contrast to the local chapter of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, who used violence and boycotts to attack Koinonia Farm. In innovating their farming business and non-violent persistence they became a national hub for the civil rights movement, eventually establishing Habitat for Humanity and spreading their lifestyle of equal opportunity internationally.


Briars in the Cotton Patch (2005) is a documentary which traces the story of Koinonia Farm from the founders inspiration, Clarence Jordan, through the Ku Klux Klan resistance and into the creation of Habitat for Humanity.


I dipped into the flow of the workshops, thankful that the nature of talking head workshops means the audience can be either physically or mentally absent without actually influencing the presenter.  My experience of the first workshop was the familiar dis-ease of hearing how inspiring the civil rights work of the mid century was, with the whitetop mountain range of an audience agreeing and smiling proudly, while I felt the gapping distance between myself and political activism.  I wanted to throw myself under a bus, to prevent humans from being deported of course, but still, throw myself under a bus.


After a traditional southern lunch of green beans and peach cobbler washed down with iced tea we gathered in the humble chapel, where a brief, unscheduled dialogue became an inextricable briar in the fluffy rhetoric of the symposium.  In an open forum folks shared their work in community, and riding on the wave of hope the stories were stirring, two older white men spoke of their valiant actions of moving into brown neighborhoods and bringing culture to places that had no leaders.  Their work was so brilliant, that other houses were being renovated as well and the community was improving. Take cover white knights piercing truth is about to pop your altruistic illusion.


“I don’t mean to be that black guy, but I’ve got to call out Gentrification” announced a black young person from the crowd.  They articulated the plight of brown and black communities being infiltrated by Whites, and that even well intentioned white neighborhood immigrants were disempowering the community by taking over leadership.  Pastor Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove spoke quickly, even gently interrupting the black man, to redirect the discussion towards positive affirmations of everyone’s work. However, this briar hadn’t been removed, and later they would take their grievance to the center stage where it could not be ignored (they preferred gender neutral pronouns).


After getting back in stride Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Rev. Erika introduced the pillars of nonviolent direct action which guide the Poor People’s Campaign, A National Call for Moral Revival.  This event has established civilian leaders in 33 states to hold 40 days of civil disobedience by holding daily protests in front of state government buildings and organizing activism events throughout their community starting on Mothers’ Day 2018.  They are holding many logistical details in secrecy to protect their activism plans from the powers that be, but you can find out more by joining the movement at PoorPeoplesCampaign.org.


In Washington, D.C. and more than two dozen states across the country supporters of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival will kick off 40 days of “moral action” to highlight “the human impact of policies which promote systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and environmental devastation.” in May of 2018.


Reverend William Barber’s stage entrance matched his larger than life personality by lighting up a movie theater size projector screen.  With a beaming face looking down on us, and his momentous voice erupting through concert worthy sound system I felt the waves of energy a southern preacher can send pulsing through the audience.  Tuning out the words I realized his delivery felt like standing on the beach and watching awesome waves approach the shore, building with each sentence and climaxing with a thunderous proclamation, but only finally gently touching your toes when he finished the verse with a gentle utterance of God.  The true power of his delivery came to light, when the projector went out, he finished the sermon from the speaker phone of a cell phone held up to a mic, and still the audience rumbled with sporadic “Amen” and closed with a standing ovation.


Reverend Barber’s speech was an unforgiving criticism of modern political and corporate corruption.  He recited verses in the Bible about religious institutions conspiring with political powers to twist God’s words into weapons to validate their agenda at the cost of the well being of the poor and immigrants.  His sermon spiced up the namesake evil fearing southern preacher rhetoric by unearthing the origins of the 2nd amendment as being a political negotiating tool to appease Southern United States through sanctifying slave patrols to uncomfortably familiar government budgets which clearly prioritize the military at the cost of impoverished women and children.  His presentation of current news stories had the stinging blows of comedy news with the laugh track replaced by “Amen”, and the thunderous voice of conservative radio, all held in the studio set of the world’s largest religious party, made me feel how a sermon could inspire a congregation to take the streets.


When Reverend Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove took the stage the following morning his tall, lanky figure seemed proportional to the heaven bound architecture, and his sermon stepped directly into the tension of whiteness.  He spoke of it as a religion all of us are born into that distorts our perception of reality. The time has come for white folk to step off the stage, and into the roles of support. White folk can open themselves to be led by others through closing their mouths, opening their ears, and permitting their spirits to be changed.  And in living his word he passed the mic to the silky-smooth linguist, and dark skinned Reverend Gracie.


Walking into the church that morning a couple humble bowls of dirt straddled the altar.  Reverend Gracie spoke of finding the source of the difference from which our perceived differences have grown, and if we trace it all the way back we will reach the soil.  By putting out hands back into that soil, the soil of Georgia that is fertile with the blood of discrimination and the fertility to bring forth new possibilities, we can each step to the altar and bury what is holding us back.  In solemn rows, we each shuffled along and sowed our fluorescent post-it-notes into dirt that looked progressively more like the contaminated earth of the Anthropocene.


Sarah Thompson jumped from the choir to the stage to perform a speech which had the staccato cadence of a singing cardinal,  yet told stories that tore at your passive acceptance of global exploitation. She was the executive director of Christian Peacemaker Teams which she outlined as an organization who approaches peacemaking with the same strategic, well trained, and organized techniques that militaries wage war.  The audience was jarred awake when she quoted Shailja Patel “What the NRA is to the American population, the US government is to the global population. A cult of mass murder, lost to morality, rejecting humanity, refusing culpability.”  She followed this by leading us down harrowing story she lived which illustrated how a “green” company subcontracted to international development thugs, but multinational non-violent activism and campensino permaculture turned the tides of exploitation.


Brother Anton set the tone for his minutes behind the altar by speaking of his “sheroes” and handing the mic off to an El Salvadorian refugee.  Brother Anton stood beside the young man, translating every sentence to feed us, bite by bite the story of the young man holding his little sister tight by his side for their Northbound escape of blood thirsty criminals.  I saw the young man, I heard his story, and yet the grit and foreignness of that life was too many degrees beyond my own for me to grasp it. Brother Anton knew this, and followed up that story with videos of a sister city relationship he has midwifed between a remote Mountain town in Mexico, La Libertad, and the city in Georgia many of its resident travel to work in, La Grange.  He brought this beautiful story arch home by weaving in a story of personal tragedy so raw it brought the heady ideals of immigration policy down to the muted emotions of my heart with a stream of tears connecting mind and body.


Carlos escaped gang violence in El Salvador with his sister, traveling all the way to the states across land and eventually finding sanctuary with Brother Anton.


The afternoon Plenary started with three brief introductions of various organizations, and here the briar would agitate the white progressive façade again.  The black person stood behind the mic with their head lowered in a humble way but their arms span spread wide like a bird of prey-judice sweeping over the crowd.  They said in this self-righteous space, where villainizing other, dangerous, close minded Americans had become one of our shared identities, there were still microaggressions making them and other black participants uncomfortable.  If there was still tension in these private interactions, then wasn’t the foundation of our progress crumbling. The black person would not take the onus of articulating the charges by retelling specific interactions but asked everyone to look within themselves and own up to the mistakes they were making.  The audience was quiet, the symposium schedule rolled on, but blood from the briar prick was still staining the white cotton.


You probably haven’t met Kathleen Kelly, but she defines an archetype that stirs inspiration in the most jaded cynics.  This petite woman of Irish descent glows with warmth and tells stories of spending time in prison with the same awe for the wisdom gleaned from the experience as I’m used to elders beaming about their grandchildren.  She spoke of throwing birthday parties in Iraq with widows that couldn’t escape the city while the bombs poured like rain outside. Stories of watching her fellow inmates cry after seeing the images of abu ghraib, not because they pitied themselves, but because they knew disgrace that miserable was the product of universal disrespect in the military effort.  She may have not given the audience an easy access point to start their walk towards activism, but she illustrated beauty in scenarios the news has painted as a soulless, monotone of misery.


***SHOW TIME***Within the first few selling points of my description of this symposium, I’d always mentioned there would be performance of the Cotton Patch Gospels musical.  I wasn’t sure what it meant, but now I was about to find out, or at least find a bit before the bad taste in my mouth made me leave at intermission. Initially the shortcomings of the performance were hometown sweet, with actors referencing their script book while on stage, costume discrepancies, and missing the high note, but once I noticed no black actor came on stage to represent the back roles, and that light skinned Jesus was going to be lynched I couldn’t laugh it off.  Now I better understand how good intentions can pave the road to hell.


Have you ever heard of the Red Letter Christians, I hadn’t, but now I’m definitely going to glean their treasure trove of creative non-violent activism to build community that serves people, not an ideal people must serve.  The Philadelphia steel industry has been replaced by the opioid trade, yet in that fiscal poverty Shane Claiborne has harvested an abundance of community.  As a charismatic white male I was interested to see how he’d navigate gentrification, and if I had to summarize his technique, it would be “create the space and let the people fill it.”  For example, he has navigated bureaucracy to have their city block off limits to cars during the summer months so local children can choose their mayhem. Red Letter Christians requests people donate their guns, and then gives the blacksmithing hammers to childless mothers to forge the gun barrel into a garden hoe.  Red Letter Christians paints a street art letter on the wall of a vacant lot asking the city to donate this to become park land, and then 1500 local residents show up to sign the letter on the wall. Shane Claibornes actions speak so much louder than his words I walked away almost unable to see the white knight in the sea of brilliant local community.


Beating Guns to Plows Video

Inspired by the biblical image of ‘beating swords into plows’, Shane Claiborne and friends have begun to turn guns into garden tools. For more information on weapons conversions, check out the RAWtools website (www.rawtools.org).  


Riding on a wave of moist eyed hopefulness we were once again jostled to awareness of the tensions within our own community when two young women announced that a closing workshop was going to be an open forum to discuss the interractional microaggressions during this symposium.  When I walked into the venue space the architecture of the chapel screamed hierarchy so loudly with pews obediently kneeling at the feet of one alter I wondered if an equality conversation could be had here. While the conversation strode proudly then stumbled and fell, like a first time ice skater moving forward but flailing in every direction, the fragility of white folks self-confidence became clearer.  Some white folks were unwaveringly resistant to admitting that they had made someone else feel insulted or in their ignorance had perpetuated racism. Male identified white folks were requesting, even demanding, clarity on what offenses they had committed, but the answers were not forthcoming. Most people walked away from this feeling at least confused, but many even angry, distraught, and discriminated.


The unresolved tension felt in that open forum is my personal invitation to let this symposium continue to affect me.  I remember first hearing the public complaint of an unidentified aggression between participants, and immediately I began rummaging through my rolodex of interactions grasping to find where I’d gone wrong, so I could validate the misgiving as quickly as I thought of it.  After soothing myself, I was able to ask how I could improve that behavior the next time, and walked away from this self-conscious frenzy with wisdom to guide my next mistakes. I eventually engaged one of the individuals I thought I may have hurt, only to find out they were unphased by my perceived misgivings.  While I was relieved to be absolved, I also promptly stopped thinking of my previous actions impact, and became that much more blind. Resolving specific conflicts can be a false sense of progress when we live in a culture where the fog of discrimination can permeate our very thought process. Instead finding a deeper self-love to sustain one living in a constant awareness of their mistakes, may help us move to a solution that is not a game of politeness but an experience mutually flawed beings striving to co-exist peacefully.


After a few days to let the buzz of the conference quiet within me, I realized that this conference was able to hold space for the pain of inequality around that world and within our own communities by balancing harsh truths with community singing.  Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove shared that “The point of song is to get us singing and the point of singing is to get us to community”. Communal singing wove together the space between workshops and reunited the community after a break out. Even when technology glitches would leave the speaker awkwardly silent on stage a few verses of song would be lifted into the air space, and soon the entire congregation was swaying and singing together.  Forget the hymn books, these were simple songs about life that any denomination could rally under, which is a fitting way to welcome all color, class, and career into the same life song.

What Would Jesus do about Racism in Community?