Preaching and protesting. Salvation and social change. Jesus and justice.
Leaders of the American civil rights movement did not believe you could have one without the other, as they believed in justice for all of God’s people.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a turning point. The boycott, which was sparked by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat at the front of the bus for a white man, lasted for 381 days between 1955 and 1956. Today it is still known as one of the nation’s largest, longest and successful nonviolent protests. However, the work didn’t stop there.
Members of the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his partner in crime Ralph David Abernathy. They, and other protest groups met in January 1957 to discuss and organize future protest activities throughout the segregated South. With the goal to “redeem the soul of America,” the Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration was established. Later on,the organization’s name was shortened to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
King and Abernathy issued a statement declaring that civil rights are essential to democracy, that segregation must end, and that black people should reject segregation absolutely and nonviolently, and held the first official SCLC meeting on February 14, 1957 in New Orleans Louisiana.
As young African American social justice advocate who has spent her whole life in the church, I can’t help but to acknowledge the elephant in the room in the sanctuary on Sunday morning – injustice in our communities. Thankfully, my pastor, Dr. Howard John Wesley of Alfred Street Baptist Church speaks out on injustices from the pulpit, and implements programs in which the congregation can join to contribute to community change. But, the black church has seemed to become slightly distant from the issues we continue to face – the same issues Dr. King and Rev. Abernaty were protesting.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve scrolled through my social media timelines and seen “God is control,” “Trump is not my president, God is the head of my life,” or “I’m just trusting God to turn this around.”
Okay, but what if He’s trusting YOU to turn this around? What if He’s entrusting US to get mad enough, buckle down, and be the change we want to see in this world?
King and Abernathy believed that God had total control over His kingdom, but they also believed it was their duty as God’s people to work while we’re here. We were not given this life to sit back and wait for God to relieve every pain, lift every burden, break every chain, nor defeat every Goliath (similar to the one we’re facing now).
I recently read an article about Calvary Episcopal Church, a historically black episcopal church in “gentrified” Northeast Washington, D.C. The church has a reputation for social justice and action.
There is currently a “black lives matter” banner hanging at the entrance of the building – a decision the leadership of Calvary says did not come easily. “Some folks have taken offense to it … and I think some people really appreciate it,” said the Rev. Peter Jarrett-Schell, Calvary’s rector, during a recent interview with Episcopal News Service. He says it has been an opportunity to spark conversation.
Calvary has initiated conversations through educational and informative forums particularly over the past two years, on conversations about race and social justice: police in the community; the black church; and white spaces off limits to blacks. One forum “Ferguson: Could It Happen Here?” took place shortly after the police shooting of Mike Brown in 2014, and united church and community members, and law enforcement officials.
With the contribution of a grant from the Episcopal Evangelism Society, the church initiated the Center for the Study of Faith in Justice, which allows the forums to continue.
Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, the author of “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God,” says, “The black church was formed because of injustice. And so if we pick up that mantle again to do justice, which we find in the mission of Christ when he read from the scroll of Isaiah in the temple – it was about doing justice.”
Calvary Episcopal Church serves as an excellent example of an African American spiritual body using its resources to create social change during such a time as this, and as a result, upholding the legacy of King, Abernathy, and the rest of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.