Category Archives: social justice

Empowering Students to Confront Violence

In the aftermath of the shooting of a peer, young people in Evanston, IL came to Sharon Weeks and asked,

“What are we supposed to do?
Who is going to speak for us?”

Evanston IL anti-violence march and rally

When Sharon Weeks signed up for the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry as a part of SCUPE’s class for seminary students she didn’t know what she was getting herself into.  Come Thursday morning she would be one of the 300 Congress attendees at an anti-violence rally in front of the Illinois state building.

Sharon describes the rally as transformative:

“I was so excited I didn’t know what to do with myself… It was already something that I stood for and believe, in and to see so many other people feeling that same way… I was exhilarated!”

Anti-violence march and rally in Evanston ILA couple days later, when students from Evanston Township High School came to Sharon, she told them of her experience of public witnessing against violence at the Congress and they jumped on the idea.

Within minutes the students were busy creating signs and t-shirts, calling and texting friends, and planning for the march.  For Sharon it was clear that the students saw the march as “a way they could get the community to pitch in and understand that they don’t want to be target”

The march proved to be a great success in gathering the community around youth violence. In a few short days, students had mobilized a large cadre of support.  Along with strong participation from students and community members also in attendance were:  the Mayor of Evanston, the Evanston School District Superintendent, teachers, business owners, police officers, several aldermen, and the President and Dean of Students of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

The group plans to continue the work of strategically confronting, addressing, and educating the community on youth violence by organizing forums, workshops, classes for parents, and by including students at area Middle Schools and Alternative Schools in the anti-violence efforts.

Evanston IL students and communty march for peaceSharon Weeks is the sponsor for two of the youth groups that sponsored the march: the Evanston Township High School chapter of the NAACP and the Youth Works Committee for the city of Evanston.

When young people came to her looking for their voice Sharon Weeks told them, “Speak for yourself and tell people how you’re feeling” – and then she gave them the tools to do just that.

For Sharon Weeks, being a part of empowering young people is part of being open in faith to God’s moving. When asked about her role, Sharon simply replies: “God, this is you.”


Points of Light towards the Beloved Community

Dr Martin Luther King JrA couple weekends ago I was down in Atlanta visiting my brother and we had an amazing Sunday down at the King Center and Ebenezer Baptist.  As someone who has idolized Dr. King since high school and who has found his writings and sermons to be constant companions along my journey of understanding racism, equality, and social justice based in a vision of the Beloved Community it was truly a pilgrimage for me.  Standing outside of the house where Martin was born on Auburn Avenue and to see it preserved brought all of the books I have read about King growing up and developing come to life in a way which connected me with, not only the history of the civil rights movement but also, the possibilities of his dream for our day and age.

Ebenezer Baptist ChurchI was also very pleased to see that the exhibit didn’t just stop with Dr. King’s work in the civil rights movement but also touched upon his work as it developed to address the related evils of poverty and militarism.  I was honestly biting my tongue anticipating that the Poor People’s Campaign and King’s  speech and marches against the Vietnam war would be excluded.

Walking through those pictures just down from the street where he grew up and the church where he pastored when he was killed made this man and the movement he has come to exemplify come to life in a way which begs the question: why not now?  What is holding the people of this country from rising up again as a un-ignorable voice and force for peace and justice?  What would it take for we the people, in the midst of this increasingly global awareness, to believe that the world which God intends is indeed a possibility and that we have an enormous power as united people to bring this new world into being?

Michael Pfleger at International Civil Rights Hall of FameOn the way back to the car I made a more intentional stop at the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame as was cheered as I saw the foot prints of Michael Pfleger.  In addition to working with Father Pfleger in his role as co-chair of the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry I also had the privilege of doing an internship at the Faith Community of St. Sabina.   This amazing church and its faith-filled congregants have taught me more about living out faith than three whole years of seminary.  Quite a portion of my hope for the continuation of Dr. King’s dream comes from having experienced this community and having been deeply moved by their spirit and faith.

Good work is being done  in the churches, synagogues, mosques, and community development organizations across this county.  We must learn to lift up these points of light in spite of the seeming prevailing of darkness and to encourage our communities to be inspired by the Spirit which is surely at work even now.

Here’s a recent, ten minute interview with Rev. Dr. Michael L. Pfleger on the Tavis Smiley show.


Jim Wallis on Building Faith-based Social Movements

Jim Wallis speaks at 2006 CongressI’ve been going through some of the old recordings from the past plenary speakers at Congress on Urban Ministry.  As we approach these mid-term elections in a frenzy of political polarization, attack ads, and electioneering I was struck by the relevance of this plenary Jim Wallis did back in 2006.

Jim WallisJim Wallis is an author and the founder/editor of Sojourners.  He has been a crucial voice for American Christianity that crosses the normal, hard and fast, boundaries of left and right, liberal and conservative.

Listen here or below as Jim Wallis  speaks at the 2006 Congress about moving from partisan politics (and partisan religion) towards creating and nurturing a movement for social justice based on faith and hope.

One of the highlights for me is near the middle where, for a couple minutes, he hits upon this idea that the Beloved Community must be built up by moving from ministry to models to movement.  Wallis gives credit to ministries (saying at one point that if everyone in this room stopped their ministry there would be many cities that would literally stumble) but also pushes the Congress to move past ministry and even models that help extend ministry toward movements that bring ministry to bear upon systems and structures of injustice.

Jim Wallis at 2006 CongressI wish Jim would have pressed a bit harder on this as I think many socially mindful/active Christians (Jim Wallis included) are still searching for the way to build a movement.  The civil rights movement is an extraordinary exemplar but, times have changed and I would contend that the powers that benefit from the status quo have successfully developed methods to diffuse social movements created with familiar paradigms.  We must create a new paradigm of movement and then allow it to adapt.  I would contend that the best way to do this is by listening and being responsive to the Spirit.

If you are reading this from a Chicagoland location you might be interested to know that Jim Wallis will be participating in an informal debate out at Wheaton College on this coming Thursday.  He will engage Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, in an informal debate: “Does Capitalism Have a Soul?”.  Here are the details:

Thursday, October 28th – 2010
7pm at Edman Chapel
Debate to be moderated by Washington Post Columnist Michael Gerson.

More info here.


The Role of Art in Social Transformation

Bill MalloneeThis week I’ve been looking at the connection between art and faith.  There is good precedence for these two uniquely human forces being a critical concoction behind social transformation.  I received a flyer for the Kairos Conference earlier this week and was pleased to see that Sweet Honey in the Rock will be involved.  Kairos is a gathering “discerning justice & taking action on America’s death penalty” to be held in Atlanta this November, 2010.  Sweet Honey will be doing a public benefit concert at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Tuesday of the conference.  How perfect that this group, so deeply rooted in the civil rights movement and the sacred music of the Black church, will be performing at the church of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as we address the injustice of the death penalty.

Sweet Honey in the RockI wish we could say that we are as far along in our planning as Kairos but we do have quite a bit more time still left to prepare.  What I can say is that we do have some amazing things simmering over the wood fires!  Please tune in here every now and then as we share information about the artists who will be involved in the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry.

On Wednesday, as we shared the news about Bill Mallonee, I was struck by the way this artist has increasingly focuses his art to causes of social justice.  Most recently, in the mini-albums he’s been releasing about three times per year.

This past summer Bill Mallonee released his newest Works (in) Progress Administration Ep: Dust Coal Soul.  In the wake of the recent mining disasters, both stateside and elsewhere, this song cycle lifts up the issues of one of the world’s most dangerous professions.  And yet, far from being sterile and abstract, the heartcrafted lyrics do much more to personalize and create an intimate connection characters of these songs.  Bill writes:

Bill Mallonee - Coal Dust Soul Ep“The songs for Coal Dust Soul were written after the Massey Mine explosion, in Montcoal, West Virgina on April 6th, 2010.  There were no survivors.  The death toll was 29 in the country’s worst mine disaster in four decades.  Another mining disaster in China, less than one month later (the facts regarding the number of deaths from this explosion and subsequent flooding were almost impossible to verify), continued to call attention to the perilous conditions miners labor under.

These songs, almost all of them written in the “first person,” took shape over a couple of weeks.  I was deeply moved as I watched the coverage of the disaster, the rescue attempts, the frail expectations of those who awaited better news, and the eventual failings of the team’s efforts to rescue the 4 trapped miners.

But mostly, I was humbled to the point of hushed silence by the faith and courage of the families who had lost loved ones.  The risks their loved ones daily undertook were great; the losses their surving families now bear seem almost incomprehensible.  I sat numb and helpless before the screen every night as I tried to comprehend it.

They now began a different journey: a journey of grief.   It is a journey I know little about in my own life.  But I know enough to say that it will be a journey on a road of confusion; a journey in search of answers; a journey in search of justice that may one day create better working conditions than those miners currently face down every day…

And finally, they are on a journey that will produce all that is noble and imperishable in the human spirit when it must grieve.  I am convinced that those who must grieve give us a “gift.”  It is a “gift” (however fragile) whispered in their prayers, written in their testimony, traced in their tears and offered in their eyes.

That’s what these songs are about… Maybe that’s what the best songs have always been about.  It is my hope that these songs maybe of some comfort to any and all sharing in a similar journey.”

Bill MalloneeIn case you still need some reasons to give Bill a listen – here are a couple:

1.  Bill Mallonee is quite possibly “…the best folk-rock act nobody’s ever heard of…”  – New York Press

2.  Bill came in #65 in Paste Magazine’s “100 Greatest Living Songwriter’s” Poll

3.  Bill has recorded over 23 cds.

4.  Bill’s deep love for early Dylan, Neil Young, Alan Lomax’s legendary field recordings, Flannery O’Connor, John Steinbeck, hymnody and other writers of the “American experience” left an indelible mark on his work and vocal delivery.

5.  Blue-eyed soul rocker Edwin McCain (of “I’ll Be” fame) covered two of Bill’s songs “Babylon” and “Welcome to Struggleville”

6.  Bill has played with these artists:

  • Edwin McCain
  • Sean Mullins
  • Sufjan Stevens
  • John Mayer
  • Dwight Yokum
  • Emmylou Harris
  • REM
  • Buddy & Julie Miller
  • North Mississippi Allstars
  • Allejandro Escavado
  • Pierce Pettis
  • Pedro the Lion
  • Denison Witmer
  • Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket)
  • Peter Case
  • Peter Mulvey
  • Bruce Cockburn
  • Gin Blossoms
  • Derek Webb

Check out this touching Bill Mallonee ode to Autumn posted over at the Heroes of Indie Music blog.


Bill Mallonee at the 2011 Congress

Ernst Fischer quote

Art is irrevocably intertwined with social change.  Art is both the tell tale on the mast of culture signaling a change in the direction of the wind and, in many ways, art is the wind itself.  Listening again this morning to the stories of Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon (NPR) it became unmistakably clear that even the most stalwart of injustices don’t stand a chance when art is wound up with faith.

St. Sabina praise dancers

This is a conviction that the past 15 Congress gathering have attempted to embody.  Music, dance, drama, visual art, and poetry have been the crossroad companions to our journey of faith and justice.  They have consoled us and given voice to our lament just has they have given wing to our joy and worship.  Art has been the marrow in the fortitude of our faith and has challenged us to express this faith in new and bold ways.  In short, art is essential.

Bill MalloneeWe are pleased that for the 2011 Congress we will have one of the songwriters of our age… Bill Mallonee.  In fact, his critical credentials are only outdone by the well-kept-secret nature of his 3 decade spanning career.  Bill has been alternatively heralded as one of “the 100 Greatest Living Songwriters”[1] (two spots in front of Conor Oberst and three spots behind Sting) and “the best folk-rock act nobody’s heard of”[2].  Bill Mallonee will be bringing his heartbreaking, life-affirming, faith-filled cast of songs  to the 2011 Congress where he will appear in concert as well as lead a workshop on the relationship between art and religion.

“Bill Mallonee… [has] remained fascinated with the shadowy emotional toils and struggles inherent in the American experience, compelling, insightful, [he] continues to probe through Americana rock and roll proving that sometimes the only story worth telling is that of the journey.”
Rolling Stone

We’ll be sharing a bit more about Bill in the coming days but, for now, visit Bill on Myspace if you’d like a taste of his music and lyrical prowess.

[1] Paste Magazine

[2] New York Press