Last month I traveled to Selma, Ala., to commemorate the anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. Fifty years ago, images of the “Bloody Sunday” brought the horrors of racial terrorism into the living rooms of the American public, as brutal images of marchers left bloodied and severely injured dominated the evening news. As a young African-American clergywoman and interfaith organizer, I am the fruit of the labor of civil rights pioneers in places like Selma, Ala., Greensboro, N.C., and Jackson, Miss. Today, the work continues through the organizing and activism of young people across the country catalyzing a 21st century interfaith movement for civil and human rights.
On April 14, I will join together with many of these young leaders in celebration of Better Together Day. An initiative of Interfaith Youth Core, Better Together Day amplifies the power of interfaith cooperation as a tool for positive social transformation.
This year participants are encouraged to have a conversation with someone with a different moral and ethical belief system than their own as a means of breaking down barriers and combatting bias. Research shows that when people get to know someone different from them, their sentiments toward that entire group shift for the positive. Put simply: Our biases decrease when our encounters with “the other” increase. The event could not come at a more timely moment. The headlines of major newspapers over the past 12 months, from the killing of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, N.C., to the rise of the #blacklivesmatter movement, show that there is much work to do in confronting bigotry and systemic oppression in our nation.
I experienced the transformative power of interfaith encounter and exchange firsthand in the fall of 2009. Fresh out of college, I took a 6-month position as community organizing fellow at a small food justice organization in Nashville, Tenn. My assignment was to support a new campaign designed to engage religious communities as advocates in food deserts — communities with little to no access to affordable, healthy food. New to the South and to the working world, I arrived my first day with a stomach full of butterflies and anxiety. A woman with dark curly hair and slight Southern drawl greeted me at the door and my nerves immediately subsided. Her name was Miriam, and in a few short months, she would change the course of my life.
Miriam was the lead organizer of the campaign that I was hired to support. A Tennessee native and member of the local Orthodox synagogue, her organizing career had always been deeply rooted in her understanding of Jewish values. As a young organizer, she participated in the Jewish Organizing Fellowship, a yearlong program in which participants became full-time organizers for social justice organizations and explored their Jewish identity together. For Miriam, her faith could not be separated from her pursuit of building a more just and sustainable world.
Growing up in a historically black church tradition, I often heard stories about the role of the church in the great civil rights struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet, in my own experience, talk of social justice in the church was reserved for Martin Luther King Day celebrations and the occasional Sunday sermon. In Miriam, I found a model for how to live out one’s faith in a way that made a difference in people’s lives. Seeing Miriam’s dedication to her own tradition inspired me to look deeper into the rich theological resources of my own tradition in grounding my social justice work.
Over the course of six months, I would learn a lot from Miriam. She taught me about the complex knot of institutional racism, class divisions, and unjust housing and zoning policies that led to the creation of Nashville’s food desert communities. She showed the historic local civil rights landmarks that were crucial to the successful 1960 sit-ins that desegregated businesses downtown. It was in Nashville that leaders like James Bevel, John Lewis, and Diane Nash, key organizers of the Selma campaign, were first trained in the art of disciplined nonviolent resistance. These conversations gave way to the deeper lessons about the importance of renewal and self care in sustaining ourselves to continue doing movement-building work. From Miriam, I learned about the Jewish tradition of lighting candles on Shabbat as a means of ushering in peace and tranquility on the holy day each week. To this day, I remember that ritual when I seek to find centering and balance in the hectic grind of my daily life.
It is now six years later and Miriam’s influence is etched into my life. As Founder of the Faith Matters Network, my work focuses on equipping faith-rooted organizations in the South with tools to confront economic injustice in their community. There is no doubt that the seeds for the organization were first planted through my work with Miriam all those years ago. As I gather with young people across the country to celebrate Better Together Day this year, Miriam will be close to my heart and mind. On April 14, try having a conversation with someone from a faith or ethical tradition that is different from your own. Who knows? You might just meet the person, like Miriam, that will change the course of your life.
Rev. Jennifer Bailey is an ordained minister, millennial, and emerging national leader in the multi-faith movement for justice. She is the founder of the Faith Matters Network, a new interfaith community equipping Southern leaders with tools to challenge economic injustice in local communities through story and action. Rev. Bailey is an ordained itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.