Movement

Short Takes: Erika Totten

Rick Reinhard

Bio: Erika Totten is a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement in Washington, D.C., and the black liberation movement at large. She is a former high school English literature teacher, a wife, a stay-at-home mom, and an advocate for the radical healing and self-care of black people through “emotional emancipation circles.”

1) How did you get started with “emotional emancipation” work?
Emotional emancipation circles were created in partnership with The Association of Black Psychologists and the Community Healing Network. I was blessed to be one of the first people trained in D.C. I had been doing this work before I knew what it was called. My organization is called “Unchained.” It is liberation work—psychologically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.

I want to tell people to be intentional about self-care. Recently, we had a black trans teen, who was an activist, commit suicide. A lot of times you need to see a counselor or therapist, which is often shunned in the black community. Because of racism, we are taught that we need to be “strong.” But it’s costing us our lives. As much as we are dismantling systems, we have to dismantle anything within ourselves that is keeping us from experiencing liberation right now.

2) What does liberation look like to you?
It’s a multitude of things, and it changes every day. But mainly it is having the space to be. To just exist. To not have to perform. It is the ability to exist and live life unapologetically. You don’t have to accept me, but my life shouldn’t be in danger because of my skin. And for my children, liberation means walking down the street and not being harassed. Liberation means living.

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Despair is Optional

AS POPE FRANCIS prepares to release his encyclical on climate change, it’s worth remembering exactly how far the conversation on religion and the environment has come in the past quarter-century.

When I wrote The End of Nature back in the late 1980s, there was very little religious environmentalism. Liberal churches believed that ecology was a subject to be addressed once you’d finished with war and poverty; conservative churches viewed it as a way station on the road to paganism. And Christians in general still reeled under the idea, propounded by Lynn White in an influential essay in Science magazine, that the Genesis call for dominion had led directly to the destruction we saw around us.

In those early days, there were a few wayfarers on this path. Thomas Berry, for instance, and even more important a pair of academics—Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim—who picked up his clues and sweated blood to assemble theologians from around the world and search every tradition for the roots of ecological thinking. Episcopal Power and Light—now Interfaith Power and Light—was an early and successful effort at congregational action; Shomrei Adamah (Guardians of the Earth) was an early effort in the Jewish community that has blossomed into many flowers.

More senior figures began to join. Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of 400 million Eastern Christians, became known as the “green patriarch” for his straightforward reckoning that environmental desecration was just that, a sin. Desmond Tutu has called climate change the “human rights challenge of our time.” Now the pope. “It is [humanity] who has slapped nature in the face,” Francis said. “We have in a sense taken over nature.”

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'Hands Up! Don't Shoot!'

ON AUG. 9, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death by Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson. A collective groan was let out across social networks—people began the lament “Not again.”

Just four days prior, John Crawford III, a 21-year-old black man, had been gunned down by police in a Walmart in suburban Dayton, Ohio, without warning, while shopping for a BB gun. A few weeks earlier, Eric Garner, an African-American man, was choked to death by a New York City police officer.

For young black men, each incident is a reminder of how easily our lives can be taken away by police aggression. For the people in Ferguson, however, over-policing is all too familiar. In a city where 67 percent of the residents are black, there are only three black police officers on a force of 53.

A 2013 report from the Missouri attorney general’s office revealed just how bad relations are between officers and black citizens. Out of the 5,384 traffic stops made last year by the Ferguson Police Department, 86 percent of them targeted black drivers. Black drivers were searched and arrested at nearly twice the rate of white drivers, although contraband was found at a rate 13 percent less than that of white drivers.

The shooting death of Michael Brown was the tipping point. The gathering anger and frustration bubbling on the streets of Ferguson from an abusive and militarized police force finally erupted.

What followed was astonishing. A generation often criticized for its supposed apathy toward social issues organized and protested while being tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets. Peaceful demonstrators took to the streets each night to demand the arrest of Darren Wilson and were met with an aggressive response by law enforcement. Police used dogs, tear gas, and stun grenades to disperse the crowds exercising their right to assemble—events eerily similar to ones decades ago during the civil rights movement.

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A Summit for Change

IN JUNE, SOJOURNERS decided to take part in a little experiment. What would happen if 300 faith and social justice leaders gathered together for a few days to discuss some of the most pressing issues of our time? Our first ever Summit, under the leadership of chief strategy officer Timothy King, had as its tagline: “World Change through Faith and Justice.” Only time will tell how this experiment will play out in the long run, but in the short term I would consider it a great success.

Held over four days in June at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the conference brought together 296 leaders from churches, faith-based organizations, NGOs, media outlets, business, and politics. Fifty-three percent of attendees were female, and half were people of color; they were drawn from a wide range of Christian and other religious and spiritual backgrounds.

On the first night, when I saw who was there, I knew the Summit was going to be a powerful and wonderful time. Some participants were local Washingtonians. Others came from as far away as Ethiopia to attend. The group included icons of the social justice movement such as Ron Sider, Marie Dennis, Yvonne Delk, Otis Moss Jr., and Tony Campolo as well as newer leaders such as Otis Moss III, Rachel Marie Stone, and Daniel Varghese, a Georgetown undergraduate who celebrated the Summit’s “radical egalitarianism.” As Timothy King mentioned in our opening session, the group looked a lot like the kingdom of God!

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Getting to Work

1. Awakening: It is impossible to build a transformative movement for justice if people remain in the dark about the magnitude of the crisis at hand, its origins, and its racial, economic, and political dimensions. I wrote The New Jim Crowbecause I strongly suspected that most people simply had no idea what was really going on and that education was a necessary prerequisite to effective action. I still believe that’s the case, and so urging people of faith and conscience to commit themselves to raising the consciousness of their congregations and communities is extremely important.

Encourage people to hold study groups, film screenings, public forums, and dialogues to help others awaken to what has happened on our watch and become motivated to join the movement. The Unitarian Universalists, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Veterans of Hope, and PICO are all engaged in consciousness-raising work and have created study guides based on The New Jim Crow and other resources.

2. Building an Underground Railroad: Obviously, consciousness-raising is not enough—we will have to get to work. In my view, that necessarily involves building an “underground railroad” for people trying to make a break for true freedom in the era of mass incarceration and who desperately need help finding shelter, food, work, and reunification with their families.

This is work that every congregation and faith organization can undertake; many already are. The important thing is for people to frame and understand this work as part of a larger effort to end mass incarceration, and to view those who are being helped not as merely recipients of charity but as equals and potential partners in this work.

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'Don't Be Left Behind Now'

On Feb. 8, tens of thousands of people gathered in the North Carolina capital city, Raleigh, for what organizers called the Moral March. It was a follow-up to last year’s “Moral Monday” movement that started in April 2013 when Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, and 16 others were arrested inside the North Carolina legislature for protesting sweeping voting restrictions proposed by the Republican-controlled state government.

I ALMOST DIDN’T go to the Moral March. I kept looking for excuses. There was all that work to be done for next week. I told my professor I’d miss Friday’s preaching class. I hoped she’d chide me and I’d feel guilty enough to stay. Instead she said, “Great, go with my blessing.” I told my tutor I’d miss tutorial. She said, “I’m so glad you’re going to the march.”

Why couldn’t I go to a normal graduate school where no one left their rooms? But instead I went to seminary, and to Union, of all places!

I said, God, I’m crazy to go. Mild laughter was the only response. I glared at my reflection in the dark window. The reflection raised her eyebrow and said, don’t be left behind now.

The little voice in the window stayed with me as I put an extra pair of thick socks in my bag. Don’t be left behind, reading books about other people’s marches and other people’s spiritual revelations and other people’s religions. This march is historic, my reflection informed me. Go and be part of history. This is your history.

This is your time.

But a “this is someone else’s march” voice also lingered as I boarded the bus. I’m from California, and we’ve got a whole ’nother set of complications that seem pretty distant from North Carolina.

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The Revolution is Upon Us

Sweet Lana / Shutterstock

Revolution vector. Sweet Lana / Shutterstock

Religious historians say that every 500 years, Christianity goes through a “massive transition,” as noted religion writer Phyllis Tickle puts it.

Around 500 A.D., “barbarians” sought to subjugate Rome by wiping out its underlying religion. Christianity went underground. In abbeys like Iona, monks painstakingly copied Scripture and civilization’s great writings, in effect saving Western civilization itself.

Around 1000 A.D. came the “Great Schism,” when the Western church based in Rome and the Eastern church based in Constantinople fought over creeds and doctrine, political power and cultural hegemony. That split endures to this day between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism.

Around 1500 A.D. came the Protestant Reformation, when nationalism born of exploration in the New World and new commercial wealth demanded an end to Rome’s domination of European life. That split, too, endures.

Now comes a new millennium, and Christianity wears so many different faces that it’s difficult to speak of a single “Christian movement.”

Wandering Stars

Photo: Star gazing, © MR.LIGHTMAN / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Star gazing, © MR.LIGHTMAN / Shutterstock.com

I learned from an article in The Sun magazine that the word eccentric comes from a Greek word that describes objects in space that don't revolve around the earth. The Greeks in ancient times saw Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn and observed that they wandered through the sky moving in a seemingly aimless way. They called these planets asteres planetai (wandering stars). The planets were not, however, wandering. They were revolving around the sun. It was the finite view of human beings that made them seem like wanderers.

Human eccentrics move in a seemingly aimless way, too. Their movements make them seem like wanderers to other human beings with finite views. They don't wander aimlessly, though. They revolve around a different center.

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