Just as Selma opened in wide-release I began to receive requests for advice on how to lead churches and faith communities through discussions of the film. Years ago, I used to lead these kinds of dialogues in my capacity as the Greater Los Angeles director of racial reconciliation for a college-based parachurch ministry. Some of our most fruitful conversations came after we saw films like Selma or read a book together or had a common experience of racial injustice that we needed to process.
The film Selma is an incredibly helpful dialogue centerpiece at the moment. But like all things, other dialogue opportunities will rise and take center stage in the coming weeks and months. Other films will be released, helpful books will be published, and public events will provoke us to need to dialogue again. When those opportunities surface, I recommend using the format below as a template for similar dialogues moving forward. I’ve collected my Top 5 recommended resources to help guide your community dialogue on racial justice and Selma.
I was first introduced to the Talking Circle in the context of a Pilgrimage for Reconciliation. Twenty-five of us piled into a bus and traveled through 10 states over four weeks retracing two major people groups’ histories on American soil through the frames of the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the African experience in the U.S. from slavery through the Civil Rights era. It was one of the most transformative and informative experiences of my entire life. I believe one of our community practices that deepened the impact was our daily Talking Circle. Dr. Randy Woodley (Keetoowah Cherokee, Director of Intercultural and Indigenous Studies at George Fox Seminary) led our journey and introduced us to Talking Circle; a dialogue and deliberation construct to help communities go deeper. Woodley calls it “a sacred means to listen to one another’s hearts and to foster respect and dignity for others.”
Here are three rounds of questions I recommend asking your group to reflect on around the Circle before transitioning to a time of open dialogue. If you have more than 10 people, feel free to break the group into smaller groups of 4-5 people. Each person gets three minutes to share per round:
Round 1. Share the moment in the film that you identified with most or the moment that made the deepest impression.
Round 2. Share the story of the first time you realized that action you took in the world could make a difference.
Round 3. How does Selma connect to the #blacklivesmatter movement for you?
I recommend that faith leaders use Talking Circles to help their communities debrief Selma and continue to process issues of race that come up in the public square.
2. 'Beyond the Dreamer,' by Gar Alperovitz (Sojourners magazine)
One of the hard-hitting functions of the film, Selma, is to yank Martin Luther King Jr. out of his familiar innocuous frame and introduce Dr. King, the shrewd organizer and prophet who courageously pointed fingers, not only at Southern segregationists, but he also at a reluctant White House, complacent northern white liberals, and hesitant black clergy across the country. Gar Alperovitz, author of the article, was a collaborator of King’s at the height of the Civil Rights era and offers a revealing and helpful perspective on the work of Dr. King.
I recommend this article for pre-reading before groups screen the film Selma and engage their Talking Circle dialogue.
The biblical concept of The Image of God is a key theological frame connecting the Civil Rights movement with the current #blacklivesmatter movement. These two articles were written soon after 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson, as I reflected on my time organizing and standing in solidarity with protestors in Ferguson. I was struck by how much I found the themes in these articles woven throughout the film, Selma.
I recommend this article for pre-reading before groups screen the film Selma. They will help lay a theological launch point for the discussion.
4. [AUDIO] 'David Oyelowo on Playing MLK and What it Means to Be a Christian,' by Jim Wallis (Sojourners)
In this incredible interview, David Oyelowo shares with Jim Wallis about the thick sense of calling he felt to play Dr. King, how the Holy Spirit worked in and through him as he stepped into Dr. King’s shoes for the role, and the implications of the Selma Movement on the hobbling of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in 2013. It’s a must listen.
I recommend this article and audio interview for pre- or post-screening reading and listening.
5. ‘Response to Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ and ‘Study Guide' by Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A.
Birmingham came before Selma, but it was while sitting in a jail cell in Birmingham, in 1963, that Dr. King articulated his call to the American church to engage the fight against injustice. In the margins of a newspaper and on rolls of toilet paper he smuggled his thoughts out into the world where they continue to stand as a theological compass for social engagement. In these scribblings Dr. King outlined the theological, social, and economic reasons why the African-American church could not wait for incremental change. For 50 years Dr. King’s letter to the churches went unanswered. In 2013, Christian Churches Together, the broadest network of denominations in the United States, including historic Protestant, Evangelical/Pentecostal, Catholic, Orthodox, and historic black church denominations responded to Dr. King’s letter. In CCT’s response, your congregation will find confessions from each arm of the Christian church in the U.S. recognizing their culpability in the sin of racial injustice that led to the need for a Civil Rights movement. Readers will also find confessions of ways the churches have complied with current-day injustice. CCT’s “Response” comes with a study guide to help congregations process and integrate the lessons of Dr. King’s “Letter.”
I recommend CCT in the U.S.A.’s Response to Letter from Birmingham Jail as an excellent tool to follow-up your Talking Circle on the film. This resources will further educate and move your congregation through a process of confession. It lays a strong foundation for ongoing learning, repentance, and action.
Blessings over you, your faith community, and your work in your community. And feel free to contact me at Sojourners with any questions on this material or possible resources for further engagement.
Lisa Sharon Harper is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith.