They arrived one by one, weaving their way through the buzz of excitement that pulsed through the Kellogg Conference Hotel at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. They had come for The Summit, Sojourners’ annual gathering of 300 top leaders from multiple justice movements, to engage in critical conversations that lead to common understanding of critical issues of the day. For the next 48 hours, faith leaders, advocates, artists, business leaders, philanthropists, educators, theologians, and media outlets would dive deep, sharpen each other, and fill each other up for the next leg of the journey.
This year, the central theme of The Summit was the intersections of the political and social constructs of race with every movement we lead. Summit sessions wrestled over the implications of our racialized world, the challenges faith leaders face as we seek to dismantle racism inside and outside the church, and the profound question: What will it take to repair what race broke in the world?
As I reflect back on The Summit 2016, five snapshots serve as markers of the profound work God did among us:
1. Truth spoken, truth received
Asked how the church can begin to address inequities, former bishop of the United Methodist Church in Alabama Rev. Will Willimon shared how he has seen it in building bridges with immigrant communities. This strategy has been promoted for decades as an effective power-sharing model that helps bring equity between affluent and disadvantaged congregations.
But Kathy Khang, a senior leader in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, pressed in. “I’m not so sure I agree with that,” said the Korean-American co-author of More Than Serving Tea.
She shared, without caveat or equivocation, what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such an arrangement — how immigrants often feel like the arrangement is transactional, not relational; that they don’t have shared power; that they are renting, not co-owning the space.
They feel put up with “as long as their food doesn’t smell too much and their children behave,” Khang explained. Worse, the transaction usually takes place under the pretense of building relationship, but the immigrant community feels unknown and used.
As Khang spoke, I realized it was the first time I ever heard an assessment of this strategy from the perspective of the immigrant church. Tempted to explain himself at the beginning of the interaction, Willimon soon laid down his defenses and listened intently. It was beautiful. And we left that session knowing we may have witnessed the spark of a shift — because truth was spoken, and received.
2. Forgiveness is power
Rev. René August, Dr. Llewellyn MacMaster, Caroline Powell, and Msizi Cele claimed their directors' chairs on stage with Jim Wallis and me for a special South African forum. Our topic? The relationship between forgiveness and restitution.
When asked how South Africans are thinking of restitution now, Powell explained that they know it will not come from the government — at least not anytime soon. But there is a rising movement led by the church in South Africa calling on white families to give back all or a significant portion of the land to the original people who lived on that land. Parents are sitting their children down and preparing them now for the reality that they will not have the inheritance they expected upon their passing.
When I asked Rev. August how God healed her from the personal impacts of Apartheid on her own soul — her damaged sense of self-worth, shame, lack of belief that she was created with the call and capacity to exercise dominion — this is how she answered: “Forgiveness.”
Forgiveness, she said, released her from the need for her oppressor. It cut the spiritual ties — and by extension, silenced the spiritual lies — that the oppressor had attached to her. Through forgiveness, she was set free and able to reclaim the image of God within herself.
And the testimony of our South African brothers and sisters laid strong foundations for the conversation we engaged the next morning that dared to ask: “What will it take to repair what the construct of race has broken in the U.S.?”
3. God is with us
It was the first morning, after the opening evening session. It was early — 8:30 am. Spiritual director Naisa Wong and worship leader Kimberly Williams stood before the D.C. gathering — people usually dressed in black suits and accustomed to “briefings,” White House meetings, and “happy hours,” used to living in their heads in workspace, used to taking stress into their bodies and letting it tighten straight backs and constrict walking gaits.
Williams played guitar as Wong led us into our bodies and through our bodies into the arms of God. Three hundred Summit participants raised their arms over their heads, reaching to God. We opened our reach, allowing God’s love to flow in. We brought our arms down and out in front of us, opening our reach to those we would encounter that day.
The third time I reached for God, and opened my arms to receive God’s love, tears fell.
That was a gift.
4. Movement leaders, prophetic vision
Another gift came from our emcees. Rev. Michael Mata, Leroy Barber, and Kathy Khang modeled freedom, grace, light-hearted humor, and sharp discernment as they guided The Summit through the choppy terrain of race. As the blessing ceremony began, and we took time to celebrate the commitments made by 15 issue-based and field-based convenings to move forward in common actions and commitments, I sat transfixed. I read the waves of powerpoint reports as Khang used her voice like a soundtrack to the visual celebration. She spoke from the heart with spiritual authority, calling the gathering to continue to believe God’s capacity to complete the work begun among us over the past 48 hours. As the powerpoints scrolled, she riffed on, offering encouragement and exhortation until the final slide faded to black. It was perfect, and beautiful.
5. Blessings on the journey
Rev. Jim Wallis explained the history and significance of the blessing ceremony, a time when the elders among us offer prayers of blessing over each Summit participant as they walk forward to receive prayer from the elder of their choice. The Summit musicians — Tracy Howe Wispelwey, Joy Ike, Kimberly Williams, Peace Ike, and members of the Carnival de Resistance — led the gathering into worship as national movement leaders rose from their chairs and lined up in front of the faith leader from whom they wanted a blessing.
I was first in line for Rev. John M. Perkins. He took my hands and prayed a simple prayer of blessing over my life and ministry. After releasing his hands, I walked to the back of the auditorium and surveyed the long lines of leaders seeking the blessing of our elders. It reminded me of the mere humanity of these spiritual giants. And tears fell from my eyes again when I saw Jim Wallis walking back from receiving a blessing from his elder. We stood together at the back of the auditorium, overwhelmed with gratefulness as Peace Ike led the room singing, “We shall overcome.”
I asked Jim if he would bless me. He prayed the heartfelt prayer of a mentor over a mentee, full of passion and grace. When he finished we hugged. Then each of us gravitated back into line to receive one more blessing from one more elder.
Jim turned to me and said: “We’re greedy — seeking a second blessing.”
I smiled wryly: “This is my third.”