The Communities Foundation of Texas is aiming to expand the depth and breadth of its community outreach. So on Tuesday, December 4, it hosted a Cause-Minded Conversation titled “The Role of Faith Communities in Addressing Equity/Inclusion.” The purpose: exploring ways that churches can move beyond addressing issues like poverty and homelessness to tackle “fairness, equity and inclusion.”
With a crowd of about 300 people looking on, the program opened with a welcome by Pastor Richie Butler of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, and then a talk by the Rev. Starsky Wilson, a pastor, philanthropist and activist from St. Louis. Starsky, who led the Ferguson Commission that studied the 2014 death there of Michael Brown Jr., said that Brown had attended an unaccredited school in the greater St. Louis area, where 200 blacks were killed during a 1917 race riot.
“What in the hell are we supposed to do” as a faith community “to overcome hundreds of years of racism?” Starsky asked. “By doing what you do: curate culture that will help us all heal. Go outside the sanctuary and do it! Engage the faith community in all aspects of public policy-making.”
He recommended that churches commit at least half their assets to under-served communities, including at least 25 percent to community organizing and working for public-policy change.
Following Starsky’s presentation, a panel of local religious leaders took the stage for a discussion titled “What About Here? Opportunities for North Texas.” The panel members were Pastor George Mason of Wilshire Baptist Church, who served as moderator; Rabbi Nancy Kasten of Faith Forward Dallas at Thanks Giving Square; Rev. Dr. Neil Cazares-Thomas of Cathedral of Hope; Rev. Dr. Michael Waters of Joy Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal; and Iman Azhar Subedar of the Collin County Islamic Center.
Neil kicked things off by saying that, in Dallas, a number of resources including food, transportation and education have been funneled over time into the northern part of the city at the expense of the southern sector, reinforcing racial segregation.
Waters added that there is a legacy of white supremacy in Dallas, as illustrated by the downtown Confederate War Memorial. (Last April, the city council asked the city manager to review all possible options for the monument, including its removal. In 2017, the council had voted 13-1 to remove such monuments.)
“That is why Dallas is stuck,” Waters said, referring to what he called the city’s history of white supremacy. Later in the program he would go even farther with this theme, proclaiming that “the city of Dallas is the capital of white supremacy in America, and we have the statistics to prove it.”
“Dallas is 274 out of 274 U.S. cities in terms of racial equity,” Waters said. He cited Dallas’ persistent homelessness, history of anti-Semitism, violence against gays and record on childhood poverty. “That’s the history of this city,” he said. “I’m tired of talking, though. Are we going to go to City Hall together and demand that city leaders do what they said they would do [about the Confederate War Memorial] a year ago?”
Nancy questioned whether Dallas’ pastors aren’t really accountable mainly to “their wealthy privileged parishioners. We’ll build food banks until the cows come home. But, what will compel us to change the system?” George agreed with this sentiment, adding, “There’s a difference between charity and justice. Charity isn’t insignificant, but if you work on justice, charity becomes irrelevant.”
Azhar pointed out that he only recently moved to Dallas from Florida. “I want to go to the pastors, the rabbis, and the imams here and ask, ‘What are you preaching?’ ” he said. “We need to embrace, not shun, ‘the other.’ We need to start thinking big, and [local religious leaders] can be a catalyst for this change. We pray that God’s kingdom will be on earth as it is in heaven. Too often we reverse that, and think our work is to get to heaven. We really need to be focused on how to bring heaven to earth.”
George then asked the panelists what they “want to see” in Dallas. A strengthened Citizens Police Review Board, Waters replied. Nancy answered, “We have a real issue with public education,” and Azhar agreed. Neil, referring to the 2017 state Legislature’s “stupid” bathroom bill, which was aimed at regulating public-restroom use by transgender people, said, “I would love for the white church to repent” and stop demonizing the LGBTQ community. Chimed in George: “That means action that shows we’re changing.”
Wrapping up the event with a few questions from the audience, Starsky said of Christian churches in general: “We preach white supremacy. We just put Jesus on it.” Waters said the battlefield against white supremacy is not the white church sanctuary, but the white living room. “I’m more concerned about what you do in your homes,” he said. “I see a lot of white people here. This is not our problem. This is your issue. What are you going to do about it?”
Are there any signs of hope? George asked, concluding the discussion. “The fact that we can acknowledge something is wrong—that’s hope,” said Azhar. Nancy said, “the number of people who voted in the mid-term election is a point of light.” Said Neil: “I hope that people of faith will reclaim their power.”
Briefly summarizing the discussion, Sarah Cotton Nelson, CFT’s chief philanthropy officer, said, “Use your power to sanctify rage. I love that!” She ended with this advice: “Go in peace, but pursue justice. Show love.”
* Photo credit: Kim Leeson