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Who are your people? Jennifer Harvey connects race and social connection at Next Church

SEATTLE – “Who are your people?”

That’s the question that Jennifer Harvey, a professor of religion and ethics at Drake University and the author of “Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation” and “Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America,” put to Presbyterians at the NEXT Church 2019 national gathering March 13.

Jennifer Harvey gave a keynote on race during the Next Church national gathering. (Photos by Jodi Craiglow)

Harvey contends that it’s “who we name and claim as our people that determines how we understand what the path towards liberation is.” In other words, it matters who we see (or do not see) as part of the family — who it’s worth taking risks for and worth journeying out with into the shark-infested waters.

And she says white Christians have much to account for – including a history that favors racial reconciliation over lament or reparations for wrongs inflicted.

“If there was ever a time to be praying and agitating and creating on the question of what it means to be church, this is it,” Harvey said.

Harvey started with truth telling, citing the string of incidents in recent years – from the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to the presidential election in 2016, plus a lot more – that remind people of color that they are particularly vulnerable to violence.

She said the 2016 presidential election, in which the white Christian vote helped Donald Trump claim victory, “sits like a gaping, traumatizing wound, a wound upon a wound, and our churches are by no means exempt, even the liberal ones.”

What’s happened is evidence that “we have not got it right on racial justice,” Harvey said. “The dissonance we’re experiencing should have taken none of us by surprise.”

Since the last presidential election, in historically white congregations and denominations, “we’ve sat kind of vexed” – watching as the news fills with stories of immigrant children held in cages, black athletes kneeling as the national anthem is played, parents separated from their children and deported.

“We’ve been trying to handle these as partisan issues,” she said. “Oh – partisan issues are dicey in church. We find ourselves tiptoeing” around “realities that are in fact human rights catastrophes.”

As many whites fret about what to do, people of color are not equivocating – they have moral and political clarity about what’s going on, Harvey said.

The violence against people of color has led to the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call to Moral Revival, led by William J.Barber II and Liz Theoharis (a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister and speaker at the 2018 General Assembly), and to people marching in the streets calling for change, some of whom have never done that before, Harvey said.

“Friends, we have powerful resistance happening in this country,” often with the involvement of people of faith, she said. The question is whether that will turn into a “critical anti-white supremacist, pro-brown/black/Native lives matter movements. Can we do it? I think our very lives depend on how we answer that question, and I am clear that the future of the church depends on how we answer that question. I want us to get it right.”

What Harvey sees instead is that too often churches evidence a “lament-filled obsession” over Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation that 11 o’clock on Sunday mornings is the most racially segregated hour of the week. The idea of reconciliation gets all the attention – becomes the frame through which issues of race are viewed – leaving out more complex historical realities.

Among them: the critique that emerged from the Black Power movement of some of the goals of the 1960s civil rights movement. “The problem wasn’t simply segregation” and “the fix wasn’t legal integration,” Harvey said. “The problem was power and systemic white exploitation.”

She traced the involvement of white churches in perpetuating systems of injustice – saying that when repair and reparation became the focus of many black leaders, white Christians withdrew their support.

“Race sits at this question of peoplehood” – at the bedrock question of “Who are my people?” she said.

To illustrate the power of that question, she told of reconnecting with a high school friend and finding that they both had children the same age. But her friend’s son became ill with leukemia and died at age three. Harvey said she tried to figure out how to be present with her friend in grief, even though it was difficult.

Because their children were the same age, “it felt too close to home, but I knew I wanted to be present and could not look away,” Harvey said. Like Ruth following Naomi in the Old Testament, “I tried to say ‘Where you go, I will go, even if it hurts and scares me.’ ”

That sense of connection leads to tenacity, bravery, courage. “The more I identify with someone, the less willing I am to accept anything less than wholeness for them,” Harvey said. “So many of us white Americans just don’t see people of color as our people.”

As an example, she cited a recent call for reparations from black seminary students at Princeton Theological Seminary. Those students contend that a recent audit of the seminary’s historical involvement with enslavement, which involved statements of repentance, also include “restorative justice” with financial implications, involving at least 15 percent of Princeton seminary’s current endowment.

The students propose that endowment funds be used to provide tuition for African-American students and students from Africa; to create an endowed Black Studies program; to increase African-American faculty and administration; and more.

What would happen, Harvey asked, “if a whole bunch of Presbyterians publicly backed the justice claims that black theological students at Princeton seminary are making right now?”

Or what if white Christians dug into concerns about land use, about power imbalances, about police shootings and mass incarceration, about how environmental degradation affects the dispossessed?

Whites often say they don’t know what to do to make things better. “Just pick up the newspaper,” Harvey said. “Black people are telling us all the time.”

Harvey was asked: How can white people increase their exposure to multiethnic spaces?

Decide “to simply show up,” she responded. “People of color are organizing, have communities, have church, you name it. … Show up in those spaces,” get involved and don’t be obnoxious. “Take the two hours you might be volunteering at your grandkids’ school, and go there instead.”

As a Lenten practice, think about how you use your time and energy, Harvey suggested. Where do you volunteer? Where do you give your energy? Think about your choices –who cuts your kids’ hair? Who is your dentist? .… Who are you reading online?” (She suggested to start by following the work of black female journalists.)

Many young people who have learned the nation’s history of racism are angry at not being told the truth by their parents and by church – and are challenging older people to join them in working against injustice, she said. “Our youth are ready,” Harvey said. “They know we have a national crisis. … They know we have not gotten it right.”

Editor’s note: A video of the keynote is available here