Following Sabbath lunch on October 19, the final breakout sessions of the Jesus and Politics conference included a panel entitled, “Jesus among the Social Issue Activists.” The panel was chaired by conference-organizer Michael Nixon, Andrews University VP for Diversity. On the panel were Claudia Allen, PhD Student and content manager of Messsage Magazine, and Sandy and Larry Feldman, a social worker and psychiatrist, respectively, and founding members of the Race Relations Council of Southwest Michigan.
Claudia began her opening remarks with examples of the range of issues amenable to social action: climate change, human trafficking, migrants and refugees, prison ministries, and race relations. She would be focusing her remarks on race relations. Claudia observed that people who are white often believe that because they are not racist, that they do not play any part in perpetuating racism. That makes discussing reparations a difficult conversation. It has been 400 years since slavery. Even though slaves were liberated, what does it mean for this country to repair the brokenness that this country has inflicted on black bodies?
Claudia suggested that it’s easy to become defensive about this because of our money, and it’s easy to think that this is not a spiritual or theological issue. But God is in favor of repair. Jacob offered to pay Esau, and Easu said, I don’t need all this. What Claudia wants is reconciliation. Regardless of race, we are still brothers and sisters. The task of white people is to be willing to pay forward. The task of African Americans is to be open to reconciliation. Heaven will not be segregated, she concluded, so how can we heal the nations now?
Sandy spoke next, pointing to the problem of putting people in boxes and othering them. In a conference she attended in Berkley, the participants were encouraged to turn to one another and say: sowabonga; I see you. When she and her husband, Larry, moved to St. Joseph, Michigan, they saw the river that divides the two communities, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. They were stunned that people lived with this racial divide. They had been active in the civil rights movement and wanted to do things. John Lewis had said, When you pray, move your feet. Sandy and Larry decided they were not just moving to Michigan to take it easy. They started a Race Relations Council with black, brown, and white people. They outlined projects to make change. They started programs for grades 1–4 to interact across races, developed stories to keep their batteries charged for days when they were weary, they started a multiracial choir, and they started programs for white people to recognize their implicit bias and privilege. Sandy and Larry tried to make love a verb.
Christ’s teachings inspire them, but also teachings in Judaism. Specifically, tikun olam: repair the world. Sandy and Larry wrote a book called Building Bridges Across the Racial Divide. The principles they talk about can happen in the elevator. What they want is for us to be constructively self-conscious. Especially if you are white, Sandy said, it’s your job to get beyond those blind spots.
Sandy closed her remarks with an inspiring quote that is an interpretive summary of Talmudic commentary on Micah 6:8: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Larry spoke next, relating that based on decades of research, they think it is critical to bring people together. If one can reduce stereotypes and prejudice, maybe one can reduce discrimination. And if one can reduce discrimination, maybe American can be an equal-opportunity country. For Larry, the question is not whether but how to do reparations, and the time is now.
Larry summarized the research thusly: Children and adolescents who live in diverse settings learn the skills to work in diverse environments. They develop the ability to perceive and integrate different points of view. Diverse groups make better decisions. Diverse juries make better decisions. People who grow up in diverse communities are more likely to worship in diverse churches and send their kids to diverse schools.
Sandy, jumped in, pointing out that Martin Luther King Jr. embraced the principles of Martin Buber: The closest we can come to experiencing God on a personal level is when we have a connection with another human being that sees all the value in them and more. That is Buber’s I and thou relationship. Greed transforms a thou into an it. When you strip the humanity from the other, you can do anything to the other. We have to see the other as thou, and that means asking how can a person can flourish, that is, be all that God made them to be.
Larry resumed, noting that in their work, he and Sandy have been guided by Allport’s intergroup contact theory: Bringing people together across differences is the best way to reduce prejudice, but not just any way. Four features must be there: (1) equal status and equal opportunity, (2) personal acquaintances being made, (3) accomplishing something together—for example, being on an integrated athletic team versus having a white and a black team—(4) authorities who can help guide the experience.
Questions from the Moderator
At this point, Michael had some questions for the panelists.
Q. How does white supremacy rear its ugly head in Adventism? What should Adventism do as far as repairing the damage that has caused?
Claudia: The Adventist Church has a history of structural racism. Ending that will take more than desegregating conferences, because that would probably mean black leaders losing their positions. We have to share stories and deal with the history of the past so that we can move beyond it.
Larry: What our government; local, state, and primarily federal; needs to do is to say that damage has been done and our government has participated in that, and the way to repair that damage is to say that all poor communities, which would disproportionately impact people of color, would get debt forgiveness and investment in public education.
Sandy: You can see why our opinions are not welcome in white, comfortable, prosperous, St. Joseph. We bring kids from the other side of the river into their spaces, and they’re saying, Where did they come from? In our classes white people ask, Why should I give somebody else a step up; I worked for everything that I got. I don’t say to them that your life wasn’t hard, I say that it wasn’t additionally hard because of the color of your skin. It’s hard to hate somebody whose story you know. Encounters over time turn people into warriors for social justice.
Q. What do you do for self-care and for rest? How do you deal with the pain of people rejecting your message?
Claudia: Baldwin said that being black in America is like being in a constant state of rage. If you are black in America it feels like you are in a constant state of mourning. Every black person is not responsible for doing the work of racial reconciliation. If you have to deal with racism on a daily basis, you have a right not to do this work. And the way I deal with it is by having friends who are not in this heavy work, who don’t always talk and ask about it. But I do have a tendency to overbook myself.
Larry: I schedule the middle of every day from 12-2 for self-care. Includes exercise, lunch, and a short nap. If I do that, I am in much better shape. Before I look at the news news, I look at what the Chicago Bulls did. Working with adults can be very frustrating, and working with kids mostly fills my heart with joy.
Sandy: It’s very hard to do self-care if you feel passionately about the work. As I’m getting older, I feel like we’re running out of time. And with this political episode of regression, I feel I need to put it into high gear. I bought duplicate pieces of art with this saying of Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”
Questions from the Audience
By then there was time left for a couple questions from the audience.
Q. Look at the difference between how Germany teaches the Holocaust vs. how the US teaches slavery. How can we bring that in?
Sandy: Don’t make black people do all the work of educating the resistant white people.
Larry: We need to vote in local elections, and we need to ask whether the person we are voting for is going to take this kind of action?
Q. Is throwing money into school with deeper, underlying issues really a solution?
Claudia: In the 1940s–1950s you had a black nuclear family, but kids were getting a bad education. If you do not have the funds to properly educate someone, to hire qualified teachers, hire a school nurse, to take kids somewhere on a field trip; education does not work. The differences between Benton Harbor and St. Joseph are connected to finances.
Larry: I don’t want the government to just put more money into schools. I want the government to put more money into poverty. There is an example of Geoffrey Canada’s program in Harlem where they put the money into every aspect of how poverty affects children.
Sandy: A lot of the studies that say, Don’t just put money into it, aren’t looking at all the other variables that are going into the problem.