My new friend and sister in Christ, Neichelle Guidry, preached the closing sermon at this year’s Justice Conference in her adopted hometown of Chicago. The founder of She Preaches, Neichelle and I first met the way a lot of folks my age do — on the Internet. We were both blessed, and surprised, to be listed as two of 12 New Faces of Black Leadership by TIME, and finally made the face-to-face connection over dim sum in St. Louis. She had been traveling to my city a lot in recent weeks, coming to support the movement in #Ferguson, the now famous municipality 12 minutes from my childhood home, where I first tasted tear gas.
Through the website, I was more than pleased to witness just a snippet of the truth Neichelle shared at the Justice Conference. As a former teacher and executive of an education non-profit, her words made my soul jump.
“When schools are shut down, and prisons pop up in their place, God’s heart is breaking.”
I let out a hearty “YES!” at the stoplight, before hearing the honking cars behind me. (Note to self: Don’t scroll and drive.)
The effort of people of faith to fight oppression is the Christian tradition in which I was raised. Sermons like that were my late father’s sweet spot – he lived to rattle the cage of oppression and manufacture discomfort and action where complacency and inequity set in. Thus, I knew early on that the fight for justice was my calling. Working toward culturally competent educational equity for students in every zip code is not just my day job — it will be my life’s work.
And the fight for the preservation of black and brown lives, that took unexpectedly deep roots in Ferguson and has now spread across nations, was a fight many of our students quickly came to lead, and folks like me have followed.
But many of these young people are not Christian, and frankly, the perception that local congregations lackadaisically approached this movement before it became a national headline — and brought a healthy, condescending dose of respectability politics and patriarchy along with their eventual involvement — is not making most of the millennial set excited about the prospects of salvation.
But local faith leaders like Rev. Traci Blackmon and Rev. Starsky Wilson, and others raised in faith like my friend Rich McClure and me, have clung to the radical example of Christ that guides our collective and individual action.
The four of us sit on the Ferguson Commission. With Rev. Starsky and Rich as our co-chairs, I do not believe it is an accident that two men of faith, one black, one white, are helping to lead the charge toward justice in our region through the implementation of community-driven policy solutions on issues of police brutality, inequitable municipal governance, education, and economic opportunity.
When Isaiah describes the wickedness of Judah, he plainly describes oppression and systemic inequity managed by the ruling class. He also admonishes us to do something about it: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression … ” (Isaiah 1:16-17)
The kind of evil, trauma, and violence communities of color face at the hands of the criminal justice system are now front-page news, due to the heroism of young people who continue to unflinchingly look injustice in the face.
But poverty is also violence. The overrepresentation of black men in prisons is violence. The erasure of women of color from critical conversations on equity is violence. Allowing children to go to a failing school hungry and without proper health care is violence.
And as people of faith, our silence is violence.
Our legal and political systems are not governed only by the voting public; they are influenced by the power the people exert in the streets and the pressure that institutions organize to apply. Our faith should dictate that we not only work in the familiar realm of charity, but that we provide the kind of solidarity that oppressed communities request to move urgently toward justice.
Solidarity for this movement can look many ways, but it should begin with us unashamedly telling the truth about how our current system of laws and policing are not only killing black people at alarming and unjustifiably disproportionate rates, they are perpetuating a lethal injustice that is very simply not of God.
Brittany Packnett is executive director of Teach for America in St. Louis and a member of the President’s Taskforce on 21 st Century Policing.
Image: Elena Dijour / Shutterstock.com