PORTLAND, Ore. — Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou has helped organize nonviolent resistance in Ferguson, Missouri, since the death of a young, unarmed black man in a police shooting there in August 2014.
On June 22, Sekou, an activist and Pentecostal minister, challenged members of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship to reach across the gulf of misunderstanding that may separate them from the kinds of young people he trains in methods of nonviolent resistance.
Speaking at the Peace Fellowship’s peace breakfast during the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Sekou likened Ferguson to Tahrir Square, the site of massive demonstrations that led ultimately to the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Delivering what amounted to a rapid-fire Pentecostal sermon, Sekou called for Presbyterians to summon the faith and compassion they may need to form common cause with people such as those in the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
Young people like those he works with, he said, may seem angry, mistrustful and unwilling to follow social norms, and they reject traditional leadership — in part because they see through its mythmaking about its own past.
“One of the myths we tell young people is that everyone over 51 marched with Martin Luther King,” he said. “If all the people were on the bridge (in Selma, Alabama) who say they were on the bridge, the dadgum thing would have collapsed.”
Young people in America who are isolated by their difference, alienation and poverty see around them a bleak, failed modernity, he said. They see “one black man in the White House and one million black men in prison.”
He told his listeners that if they feel greater distress when young people like that curse the police than they feel about the system that oppresses them, “there is something wrong with you and not them.”
To reach across the gulf of difference and embrace the hostile young, it’s not necessary even to understand the reasons for their hostility, Sekou said.
“Let us be clear that comprehension is not a prerequisite for compassion,” he said.
Compassion shouldn’t be reserved, either, he said, for those who ask for it at the proper time, in the proper place and in the proper way.
“It’s easy to talk about time and place when they aren’t shooting your babies down.”
At the peace breakfast, a regular feature of the biennial General Assembly, Evelyn Chumbow and Jill Bolander-Cohen received 2015 Peaceseeker Awards for their efforts to combat human trafficking. Chumbow, who spent seven years as a domestic worker after she was trafficked from her native Cameroon, now serves on the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking.
Bolander-Cohen heads the Lifeboat Project, which advocates for survivors of labor and sex trafficking, and is a co-founder of the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force.
Bill Coop received the Peaceseeker Award for 2016 for his lifelong contributions to peacemaking, spanning the decades since the 1960s, when he was involved in the antiwar and civil rights movements.