Faith and Justice

It takes a long time, this pursuit of justice. Sometimes it feels like things move slowly. Sometimes it feels like nothing changes at all. 

When I interviewed Rev. DeMett Jenkins in Charleston last year, she spoke about her grandfather, Esau Jenkins and the civil rights work he did back in the day. DeMett said, “We’re dealing with the exact same type of stuff that my grandfather had to deal with. Not a different fight, the same exact one.”

Change is slow, but it does happen. We have a long history to prove it. Slavery was abolished. Child labor ended. Women’s suffrage became the law of the land. Washington is filled with reminders of that change as well as the work that remains. 

At the National Archives, I stood in line and saw the original Emancipation Proclamation, on display for Juneteenth celebrations. But on my walk to the museum, I passed the Supreme Court where people on both sides of the debate for reproductive choice gathered outside the security fences to await the ruling that would challenge Roe v. Wade.

On Saturday, I marched with the Poor People’s Campaign on Pennsylvania Avenue, along with tens of thousands of others, many of them from faith communities across the country. The movement is an extension of…or a continuation of…maybe a revival of…Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 that called attention to the issues of poverty. 

On some level, it seems absurd that as a society we are still talking about the same issues that have gone unresolved for the past 50 years. On the other hand, the work isn’t done until the work is done. And those with their eye on the prize need to stick with the movement and see it through. I heard it from so many different directions here in DC.

At the U.S. Institute of Peace, Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, the Director of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program, gave a lecture and shared a recent poll that indicated trust between Palestinian and Israeli youth was at an all time low. It’s discouraging, of course, but it is also—as my friend Ray would say—an opportunity.

Change doesn’t start and end with legislation or with agreements. A signed piece of paper makes a good headline, but it’s just a marker. There are years of effort leading up to an agreement, to do the community work and shift the societal narrative that will lay the foundation for an agreement. There is education, advocacy and community organizing that prepares the soil and will eventually offer the political cover for politicians to sign an agreement. 

Then, after an agreement is signed, it’s up to civil society to make sure it takes root. The people need to be on board. They need to believe it. There needs to be a shared vision and a commitment to make it work.

So even if peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems far away at the moment, there is important groundwork to do, to build capacity and develop leaders who can usher peace forward, when the time is right.

At Sojourners, Political Director, Lauren W. Reliford, MSW talked about the small windows of opportunity she is always watching for. It’s hard to get things done in DC, especially these days. But there are rare moments when the stars align…moments when political will, societal attitudes, leadership momentum and the news cycle all come together and present the opportunity for change. 

During the in-between times, you need to do the work of preparing for the opportunities. You have to build capacity. You have to develop relationships. You need to strategize and build momentum and pay attention, so that when the time is right, you can act.

Michael Skoler, of Weave: The Social Fabric Project (a part of the Aspen Institute) spoke about letting go of outcomes. It’s important to keep your goals and work toward your objectives. But as a simple act of self-preservation, sometimes you need to let go of the outcomes. If you measure your worth and your effectiveness and your success by the headlines you see in the newspaper, you might get discouraged. You might burn out. You might give up.

We move toward justice, because it’s the right thing to do. You might never see the results of your efforts in your lifetime. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to quit.

Hassan

In Portraits of Peace, Searching for Hope in a Divided America, I asked Hassan Ikhzaan Saleem about the justice work he does. “I’m not Mahatma Gandhi. I’m not Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela,” he said. “My parents said to me, ‘You might never change the world, and you might never see the change you want to see, but at least you tried. At least you can be accountable.’ So that’s why I try, and that’s the goal. One day, there will be peace. Maybe I’ll not live to see it, and maybe my kids won’t live to see it, but we tried. That’s why we do it again and again.”

I’m not a patient person, but I’m seeing a pattern here. It’s not hopeless. It’s all a part of the process. And while we wait for all this effort to bear fruit, there is work to do. You can till the soil. I am reminded of the liberation slogan that has sustained so many through difficult seasons, “They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.”

As I looked out over the crowds at Saturday’s march, that’s what I saw. Seeds. The Poor People’s Campaign is building a movement. Reviving a movement. Expanding a movement.They are planting seeds of energized leaders from across the country. Lifting people up and encouraging them to have a voice.

Rev. William Barber is one of the the co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign, and he said this about the work:

“You can’t have the levels of injustice that exist now and think the nation is built on a solid foundation. The issue is not a scarcity of money. It’s not a scarcity of ideas. The only issue is a scarcity of moral consciousness. And the only way that changes is for us to realize we have work to do. We will do it. We have to do it. Because we refuse to give up on the possibility of America.” 

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