Bill Mefford is the Executive Director of the Festival Center in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington DC. The Festival Center is an outreach of the Church of the Saviour, designed as a hub for supporting community centered ministries and nonprofits, and to train faith leaders for mission and justice.
How would you introduce yourself?
I’m a father to two amazing boys, a husband to an absolutely amazing wife. I’m a friend of people that God has brought into my life that are absolutely incredible. And I feel like I’m just kind of a fellow conspirator in the work of justice and following after Jesus.
Where is the work that needs to be done?
Well, it’s everywhere. I mean, it’s obviously in places where there’s war, where there’s strife, but it’s places like Adams Morgan, where there’s this enormous chasm between those who are affluent and have access to positions and people in power and people who are the very opposite who are struggling literally day to day to survive.
I think the need for justice is in bridging the gap and trying to provide and build community among people that are systematically and generationally ostracized, and those who are systematically and generationally privileged.
I look frankly at my own life and my own struggle first, when I think about God’s liberation. I come out of evangelicalism. I spent a childhood as an evangelical. I identified as evangelical all the way up until 2004 when I was 30-something years old. And I finally could not reconcile the evangelical community that I was surrounded by—that had raised me and shaped me and informed me—with the national embrace of this horrific and extremely unjust war that we had engaged in, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. So for me, the liberation was the continued work of God’s spirit in my life to—beyond justification—an intense form of sanctification that brought me out of this kind of nationalistic understanding of my faith that saw Jesus as an American and saw me as much about spreading my faith in Jesus as spreading a faith in a nationalistic understanding of him.
So in many ways, my liberation was tied in the deconstruction of what my faith was, which I think was so bound up in this form of white nationalism. And so liberation has historically been applied—and rightly so—for groups that are dealing with injustice and oppression. And it’s a way for folks to come together and have a voice, create power among themselves, to be able to push back against that oppression. And for me, an increasing number of folks that are privileged, I think a form of liberation is coming into relationship with people who are directly impacted by injustice and then redemptively utilizing our access to resources to gain that same access to those same resources for those whose access has been restricted or denied.
So, you’re talking about proximity. Getting close to issues, community and people.
I think liberation outside of proximity is not liberation. I think liberation and immersion are inextricably linked together. I mean, it’s no wonder that my renunciation of evangelicalism as the way in which I identified myself, came out of having spent years living and working in poor communities. Because I saw firsthand and shared with neighbors and friends, the hopes and dreams, the fears, frankly, the miseries and sufferings that people were experiencing, seeing that and experiencing that and living that. And that was the key—was the living among—that is finally when I said, “I cannot continue.” At least for me, identifying something that is perpetuating that kind of misery and suffering of people that I’m living among. That’s what ultimately brought me to say, “I can’t sustain this identity anymore. If I’m going to be serious about following Jesus, I’ve got to lay that aside.”
Let me ask you this. So when we have closely held beliefs that we’ve spent decades of our life with, we sometimes protect them and we’re reluctant to shift away. When you sensed yourself moving away from that sort of theology into a new, more liberation theology, was that difficult for you to let that go? Was there some identity wrapped in that that was hard to reckon with?
Yeah. The tough thing for me was that it wasn’t just an overnight kind of decision because as an evangelical, I had accepted Christ as my Lord and savior. Jesus had moved powerfully in my life in that way. But really, the process of unlearning things that I had counted as true—that are core to our identity—is a painstaking process. It’s a hard process. And frankly, at times it’s a very lonely process. There’s a liminality to it. And there was a lot of time where I was like, “Okay, it’s one thing to publicly renounce your identity with a certain theological category. It’s another thing to live into the new reality of who you’re called to be.
I am still unlearning a lot of those things. I’m still relearning a lot of those things. In fact, there are times where I get frustrated, because I feel like I renounced it in 2004. I’m still dealing with some of those preconceptions, some of those inherent biases and prejudices and unacknowledged privileges and all of that. But that’s when I fall on God’s grace and God’s goodness and have to acknowledge that God’s grace and God’s goodness and God’s community is enough for me.
I’d served in the church, a United Methodist church in various positions. There were a lot of folks that were very disappointed, and frankly, there’re still disappointed in some of the things I started doing and saying and laying claim to.
But at the same time, I’m also amazed. I still have an accountability group of good friends. We’ve been meeting since 1997. They’re all evangelical except me and these guys still stand by me. They get mad at me and they get frustrated, but it’s fun. I get mad at them and I get frustrated with them, but we’re committed to each other. And so I love those guys. I mean, I love them as much as I love anybody on this earth. I’ve had lots of long conversations and they’ve been hard conversations and there’s been anger at some of the things that I’ve said and done because they didn’t understand it, but they’ve constantly strove to understand. And they’ve constantly been willing to listen and the same with them right now.
I mean, they’re all United Methodist pastors. And so we’ve been talking a lot about what’s happening in the United Methodist church. And so we’ve had lots of conversations about that and I won’t say that we agree. Part of, I feel like living into a more liberative following of Jesus is that you have to be brutally honest. But you know, the thing that amazes me about the body of Christ and about the way in which the authentic church really does function is that brutal honesty is present. And so we’re very honest with each other. We do not agree on a lot of stuff that’s happening within the United Methodist church, but at the end of the end of the day, whichever way they go, I still love them because I love them. And they still love me because they love me.
I left evangelicalism because of the embrace of the evangelical church of the illegal invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States. That was a very challenging time. They understood that I was against the war. They did not understand why I was so passionate against it. I believe the goodness of God and the faithfulness of community is that even when we are at an impasse and we can’t even fully articulate why we’re at an impasse—because the emotion of it is so strong—you still stay committed. So there were many times where there were incredibly hard conversations and there were times where we didn’t speak for months at a time, but even when we weren’t speaking, I knew that I loved them and I knew that I was loved by them. And so that commitment was there.
This may not sound very good. I’m not a big believer in building bridges because I think half the time, building bridges are more for our own kind of exotic… we want to say we’re in relationship with this peculiar person that were never in relationship with. And so we find a random way to be able to maybe kind of connect with them, but we haven’t really built a bridge because there’s nothing [real.] The minute that anything hits that relationship, it goes away. There’s no foundation to it.
And so I don’t consider myself someone who goes around trying to build bridges. That’s horrible, but that’s the truth. I feel like what we have to be, is we have to be honest. And then if bridges come out of that, then they’re good bridges and they’re walkable bridges, and you can use them for meaningful conversation and more than anything for advancement of justice or something that that’s going to benefit other folks. And I say that because as a full blown political liberal that has grown up and existed in evangelical circles for most of my life, there were a lot of exotic friendships that I felt like I was the object of. Like people wanted to be friends with a liberal Christian so they could check the box. And I was the one. And honestly, it drove me nuts. And so I used to say things and do things that would pretty much ensure that if that was the reason for their friendship, it wouldn’t last long.
This is why I love what I do. I feel like this is part and parcel of what we do at the Festival Center. We’re called to build movements for justice. You know, movements for justice are inherently about relationships and relationships have to be about honesty and solidarity and collaboration and a sharing and joining of similar passions that come together to say, “Let’s envision something that’s better and bigger than what we’re currently living in, and let’s work together towards it and see how we can accomplish it.” Relationships are integral to that.
The inherent core essence of who I am and what I felt called to when I first heard God calling me—which was back in college—was about linking together a passionate love for Jesus and a passionate love for justice, particularly among people who again have been systematically marginalized. And so relationships are absolutely integral to that, but they have to be honest relationships.
Tell me about the Festival Center.
We come out of the Church of the Saviour, which was started in 1947 by Gordon and Mary Cosby. I have to say first and foremost, I’ve been at the Festival Center since February of 2020. I’m not an expert on Church of the Saviour, but I’ve known about Church of the Saviour for decades. And it’s been absolutely one of the biggest blessings in my life to come into the space and to be associated with folks that are so grounded in knowing who they are and at least seeking after what God’s calling them to. And so the essence of Church of the Saviour is to emphasize both the inward and outward journeys. To know God, to know God’s call on our lives and to live that out in mission and love for our communities.
The Festival Center, we are located in Adams Morgan. We’re actually at Adams Morgan and near Mount Pleasant and Capital Heights neighborhoods. So we’re kind of at an intersection, but what we like to say is we live at the intersection of hospitality and justice. It’s not just about welcoming people into our doors. It’s about entering into solidarity with people who’ve been systematically marginalized, systematically dehumanized. Being in solidarity with them and then finding creative ways to mobilize the body of Christ and the larger community of faith to act in ways that are hospitable.
We focus on a lot of inward journey stuff. We do classes around deeping our prayer lives, around having a more consistent means of observing Sabbath in creative ways and exploring ourselves spiritually and really deepening ourselves spiritually and making sure that we’re replenished. But we do that all with the purpose of, we want to love people more and we want to serve people more effectively. And so that’s really the essence of where we live, is bringing those two together in a way that that is effective and honest and true.
It’s an incredible neighborhood and I love this place. It’s also in many ways, a picture of what’s happening in Washington DC and in many cities across the country. Out of control gentrification, which has been a factor in cities for decades now. Even along this block, you see row houses that have been bought by developers that are absolutely magnificent and worth more than a million dollars while there are other row houses that people are getting priced out of where there’s multiple families that live in them, or they don’t have HVAC. They don’t have some of the other things. So there are people living side by side, but again, it’s not just proximity. It’s got to be immersion and solidarity.
And right now in this city, we have proximity. We don’t have immersion and solidarity. And so we have a favoring in the city of developers and people moving in and buying up houses to price out the people that have lived here for all their lives. And then in order to protect, unfortunately you have messages of, “we need more police.” We need more protection of these propertied classes to protect them against the very people that they’re dehousing, the very people that they’re pushing further and further to the margins. And so I see that as a reality that affects this city that I think affects most cities and our role in that is to first and foremost, come alongside people who are being de housed, come alongside people who are objects of over policing, who are objects of systemic racism and oppression.
And then to mobilize many of the folks who are people of faith that also are in some of these propertied classes that are benefiting from overpolicing that are benefiting from the tremendous chasm that’s being developed and find creative ways to actually build justice that benefits first and foremost, the people who are directly impacted by injustice, but also the people who benefit from injustice. It’s a lot of work.
I can give you an example. I just throw around some big terms, but just to kind of bring it to the ground. One thing that we’re deeply involved in is being led by a group called the National Domestic Workers Alliance, domestic workers in DC. There’s about probably around 9,000 to 10,000 domestic workers. And these are folks that are home care workers, nannies, people who work in people’s homes, they don’t have basic civil and human rights protections.
I found this out last summer. I didn’t know this before last June. And I feel like I’m someone who knows a lot about paying attention. I paid attention, but I didn’t know that in the early 1930s, when a lot of labor protection bills were passed in the Roosevelt administration, the Fair Labor Standards Act. There were several that gave labor the right to organize, the right to collectively bargain, that really established basic civil and human rights for workers. In order to get the votes of Southern democratic lawmakers, they had to have carve outs. They didn’t want domestic workers or farm workers, field workers to have access to those rights because the Southern democratic lawmakers didn’t want to have their black nannies and black field hands to be able to collectively bargain.
And so they were carved out of those labor protections. And so now you have people that are working in people’s homes where there’s no standard of treatment. They don’t have to have written contracts. There’s no process of accountability for employers who may exploit workers. And they do it all the time through wage theft, through sexual harassment, through all kinds of exploitation. We found this out last year, we were like, we need to get this fixed. And so through the leadership of the domestic workers themselves—and these are primarily women, they’re primarily women of color and they are absolutely amazing people—they’ve been leading a campaign and we’re working with council member Silverman here in DC to establish a basic domestic worker bill of rights.
And really this needs to happen nationally. It’s happened in New York. It’s happened in a few other cities and we’re trying to get it passed here so that the more municipalities we get it passed in, then hopefully we begin to change the culture. That builds the momentum and the public understanding of the issue. We’ve been able to mobilize faith leaders. We’ve done a number of listening sessions where domestic workers share their stories and share some of the things that they’ve experienced. And let me tell you something, these are people in Washington DC have been sexually harassed on the job, they’ve been treated poorly, they’ve had their wages stolen from them. They’ve worked far more than what they’ve gotten paid for, and this happens time and time and time again. And one of the things we know is that a lot of their employers are people that attend worship services.
So we created bulletin inserts for faith communities to use. And on one side it tells someone’s story. One of the domestic workers, and on the other side it has some basic facts. We did a pledge, a letter of support where we had 45 faith leaders from across the city sign it. Last Thursday there was a hearing on the domestic worker bill of rights. We had 10 to 15 faith leaders testify in front of the DC city council. We need to change this. In fact council member Silverman said she’s never seen this many faith leaders come together on a specific issue as they’ve come together around this one.
This is part of our work. But most importantly, this is the way I believe that you see how justice can be done in a way that builds community, that establishes solidarity, that respects the leadership of people who are directly impacted. Everyone knows that the leaders of this campaign are the domestic workers themselves. It’s not faith leaders out there in front doing things on behalf of domestic workers who stay silently in the back. It’s domestic workers out in front, very loudly proclaiming what they need and us coming alongside saying, “Yes, we believe and we agree that what they’re saying is true.”
It hasn’t passed yet, but we’ve got nine of 12 or 13 council members who’ve signed on. So that’s a very specific way in which we have seen how building community, among people who are systematically disenfranchised and among people who benefit from the current status quo can help bring about—hopefully—what will be a just result.
I’ve worked for a long time. Worked for 10 years for the United Methodist church on Capitol hill in their legislative office. So since 2005, 2006 or so, I’ve been working in one capacity or another around the issues of mass incarceration and immigration and refugee justice and all these kinds of things. And you look today, we are nowhere near…I mean, I did not think back in 2006, that we’d be in 2022, and we’d still be talking about the need for comprehensive immigration reform. And here we are. So these are not quick solutions and it takes a lot of work and the end result is not always assured. But faithfulness demands that we continue on. And so if it’s going to be 2044 and we’re still talking about comprehensive immigration reform, we’re gonna still need to do that. We’re gonna still need to show up. We still need to be passionate because that’s the right thing to do. That’s what we need. It takes a while and there’s a lot of speed bumps in the way—too many speed bumps—but it’s a matter of faithfulness.
I think it all begins with call. Call can happen in such a myriad of ways. It’s not always a burning bush and it’s not always a voice that’s like a thunder clap out of the sky. The call around the domestic worker issue came from a friend of mine who’s an organizer with the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance. Her name is Alana Eichner. We met for coffee and she started telling me about the need for domestic worker bill of rights. And when she told me the story about the Southern democratic lawmakers and their refusal to include domestic workers or farm workers within those labor protection laws, it just clicked for me. I told her, “This isn’t about fixing a problem that happened almost a hundred years ago. This is about fixing a problem that’s never been addressed.”
That’s the call. And it happens in community. I didn’t just read about it in a book and decide on my own to do something. We can’t, that’s impossible. That just doesn’t happen. It happens in community. There’s so much that’s horizontal, in our call. We tend to think about call in terms of the vertical. In terms of God speaking to us. I believe that God still does that, but I also believe that God speaks through other people, through context, through situations, but especially through people. And so our call happens in community and the call has to then result in some kind of benefit to other people. And that’s where justice comes in.
There’s no easy answer. I do think that oftentimes when we look around and we see the enormity of the problems and the enormity of the injustice and the democratic norms of this country, which are being continually eroded and attacked every day, I think it’s also a good practice to look and say to ourselves, “What is God doing?” Because God is active.
I’m convinced that there’s more good happening than there is evil, but evil gets the press because it’s the funnest thing to report on. There’s a reason why when you watch local news, the first 24 minutes are about all the nastiness of the world. And then they always like to end with the feel good story at the very end. It’s the way they do their things, but I’ve often wondered what if we flip that?
I don’t think that would be healthy. I think we actually do need to highlight some of the things that are happening. But every once in a while it might be good to have a newscast where they flip it and they do 24 minutes of people doing really amazing things. And then the three minutes at the end about the nastiness. And just telling people, listen, we’ll get back to the nastiness tomorrow, but don’t fret. It’s still there, there’s a lot of good that’s happening.
I’m getting to an age now where I think I’m a little more patient. I don’t demand my way, but I’m not shy about what I think or say, but I kind of allow things to maybe not be exactly the way in which I want them to be, in terms of working out the details of this campaign or working with this group. And I just kind of allow people to be more free about who they are, Knowing the whole time that maybe the road that we’re gonna walk down together is not gonna be as long as I would want it to be, but it’ll be as long as it needs to be. And we’ll be honest with each other, we’ll be encouraging towards with each other and we’ll work together on this specific thing.
And then if that’s all we work together on, we don’t have to try and force the other person to see the world the way I see it. I don’t have to force them to try and respond to the world in the way in which I want them to, but just allowing them the freedom to kind of be who they are to live out their call, whatever that may be and to do the things that they need to do. And we will walk as long as we can down that road. And if they need to walk somewhere else, if they need to leave or if we need to leave, that’s all fine and good too.
You find that the walk, even if it’s temporary, is so much more pleasant, because you’re not trying to make sure that this walk happens forever. You’re just enjoying it. So I feel, frankly, a lot more existential now than I was when I was young, and I was pretty existential then.
The more people get in touch with what they’re passionate about, and if they need to build the community around them to share that passion and to live that passion out, I think the better off we are. The more people are living out their passion to love people and to love their communities, the better the world.
-Have you ever had to reassess some of your closely held beliefs?
-Are there people you are close to who disagree with some of your closely held beliefs? How do you navigate that?
-Who keeps you accountable?
-Bill says, “We like to say, we live at the intersection of hospitality and justice. It’s not just about welcoming people into our doors. It’s about entering into solidarity with people who’ve been systematically marginalized, systematically dehumanized.” When and where have you done that in your life?
-Is there an injustice you have recently become aware of? Why do you not think you had seen it until recently?
-Have you ever been priced out of a neighborhood? Do you know someone who has?
-Do you believe in building bridges? Have you seen it work?