Notes on the National Gathering of Black Scholars in Ferguson


The gathering began with a word: hush. It was the first word of a song, “Hush, hush, somebody’s calling my name.” Dr. Joanne Marie Terrell, associate professor of ethics, theology and the arts at Chicago Theological Seminary, lifted her powerful voice to sing: “sounds like Sandra, somebody’s calling my name.”
I know this song because I have heard it all my life in church. I thought: “Is here a Sandra in the Bible?” My mind started its own survey of the text. The song usually calls the roll of biblical characters. When enslaved Africans lost the names of African ancestors, they substituted the names of biblical characters to remember their stories of faith that could give enslaved people the spiritual strength to keep on keeping on in the face of structural violence. However, as Dr. Terrell continued to sing, she added the names Michael, Rekia, Eric, Oscar, John Crawford, and finally: “Sounds like Jesus. Somebody’s calling my name. Oh my Lord, oh my Lord what shall I do? What shall I do? ”
All of these people were killed by police who, when we give them a gun and a badge, become representatives of the state. The people police officers kill are victims of state authority. This song reminds us that they are calling our names, and the question we ask in response to their call is: what shall I do?
This gathering of black scholars was convened by womanist scholars, many of whom are also ordained clergy, to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teen shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death and subsequent police involved shootings spawned what has been called the new civil rights movement. It is known by many names including Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Say Her Name.
Last year when protestors in Ferguson faced police equipped with military hardware who used tear gas on the crowd, womanist scholar/ preacher/teachers came by various routes to Ferguson. Reverend Dr. Valerie Bridgeman came at the invitation of Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri. Reverend Dr. Leslie Callahan, pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philadelphia came when PICO National Network, a faith-based community organizing group, put out a call. These women and others came to offer the ministry of presence. They came to put their body, souls, and minds on the line for social justice.
About two months before this gathering, through conversations on Facebook and on the telephone, Bridgeman, along with Reverend Dr. Pamela R. Lightsey, associate dean of community life and lifelong learning at Boston university School of Theology, and others decided to gather black scholars and students from across the country along with local activists in Ferguson to think about what comes next for both scholars and activists in this challenging moment. With sponsorships from several theological schools, Chalice Press, and WomanPreach! Inc., the gathering convened at the Center for Social Empowerment and Justice August 7-8, 2015.
We came to answer the question: what shall I do?
In her plenary talk, Dr. Brittany Cooper, assistant professor of women’s and gender studies and Africana studies at Rutgers University, reminded us that scholars ought to commit to activism because: “our degrees don’t protect us.” We are not scholars outside of the context of struggle because it was the struggle of those who came before us that made our positions inside the academy possible. White supremacy is structural and the crucial question we ought to consider is: how does anything we do, especially our research, writing, and teaching free us?
In a panel discussion, a group of scholars talked about the marginalization of black lives and black scholarship within society and within the academy to the point of disappearance. Reverend Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, assistant research professor of theology and ethics and Black church studies; director of the Office of Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School, reminded some and informed others that #blacklivesmatter was the invention of blackwomen activists. When we elide “black lives matter” to quickly turn to “all lives matter”, we are in essence marginalizing black lives and the blackwomen who coined the term.
Lightsey expressed the necessity for African-American faculty to help black students find their voices, and Boston University PhD. Candidate Montegue Williams spoke of the necessity to help give black students experiences that will affirm the beauty of their blackness. I thought about the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I thought of the 1968 album “Black and Beautiful and Soul and Madness.” In my college days, we danced to the rhythms of “free your mind and the rest will follow.” We wore our hair natural and embraced a black is beautiful ethos. I thought the question of the beauty of blackness was settled, but now I suppose each generation must affirm their beauty for themselves. Williams suggested a reversal of the logic of a free mind frees everything else. He says: “Free the body and the mind will follow.” He was speaking of a moment when everyone feels comfortable in their own bodies no matter one’s race, sexual orientation, or gender.
Scholars do the work of writing the vision. Reverend Dr. Stephen Ray, Neal F. and Ila A. Fisher professor of systematic theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and executive director of the Society for the Study of Black Religion, encouraged us to think decades into the future. What will the world look like? What will the church look like? What will freedom look like? The work of the scholar is the work of imagination.
However, on the way to the future, preacher/teacher/scholars have an obligation to tell the truth of the present moment. Rev. Dr. Bridgeman who is associate professor of homiletics and Hebrew Bible at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, spoke of the epistemological give and take when scholars become activists. Activists help the scholar to know what she knows, and the scholar brings vision and information to the activist. Bridgeman says: “Freedom means we quit lying from the pulpit.”
I thought about the various ways we allow our religious and spiritual discourse to reflect the deceptions of white supremacy both in overt and covert ways. Too many pulpits are silent about the deaths of people killed by state sanctioned violence. They are not calling us to action. Too many priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, shamans, and philosophers are more motivational life coach and cheerleader than they are prophets calling us to do the hard work of justice. We ought to think and think again about the kind of spirituality this contemporary time requires.
I say: Action without thought is brutal, and thought without action is a bloodless dream. In order to make this world a better place, we need both action and thought working in concert.
Dr. J Kameron Carter, associate professor of systematic theology and Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School, offered us his concept of churchicality in his plenary talk. It is the example of church that we saw at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina when the people there opened its doors in radical welcome to Dylann Roof, the young white man who killed nine of the members of prayer meeting/bible study. Churchicality is church as a worship space and a locus for planning rebellion against oppression. It is church and its community. It is the church and the church in motion. Churchicality is Mike Brown walking down the middle of the street with his friend, Dorian Johnson. It is the church and its excess.
Carter’s churchicality made me think of the risk of hospitality. The radical welcome, the openness of hospitality requires the virtues of courage and radical love because the person who comes to our door uninvited and unexpected may do us harm. But, hospitality insists that we allow them entrance. Carter’s concept lives and finds expression in community, in open space, and in the supplement of absence and presence. I imagine that the supplement reaches back through history and forward to a future that is only a guess. It is this excess, this courage, this love, this invisible spiritual communion that is to my thinking holistic in that it finds transcendence both in a horizontal relationships within society and in a vertical relationship with the Divine. It is this spiritual communion that cannot be shot to death. The voices that call our name cannot be silenced by state sanctioned violence.
On Saturday, we heard from activists working day in and day out in Ferguson. Rev. Traci Blackmon, told us that she did not bring God with her to the streets of Ferguson, rather she found another incarnation of God there. She found church and family and a different concept of communion on the streets. She called on scholars to interpret what is happening beyond our books. She said: “Black scholars help exegete not only scripture but the streets.”
She told the story of a homeless young man who found a family among the demonstrators. A young woman and a young man who were not a couple came together to see that the homeless child had food, clothing, and shelter. Now they are working together to make sure he gets an education. She told us about Mama Kat and her husband, two retired persons who brought tables and food so people who had been in the streets for days could eat. Everyone was welcome to the table. The meal they served was communion in its most life-giving, most spiritually and physically nourishing sense.
I thought of my own work where I say that the elements of communion -bread and wine – represent sustenance and joy, that sustenance and joy finds its completeness, its perfection, in sharing. It is commensal in that nothing is lost in the giving. Blackmon reminded us that church is where people gather. She said: “The church is Ferguson.”
Later we heard from black elected officials who are working to change local laws and to challenge both unions and the Democratic Party to be more responsive to black lives. Rev. Starsky Wilson, pastor of Saint John’s United Church of Christ and co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, spoke of the necessity to establish an organization that will hold elected official accountable for the ways they support or not support a legislative agenda that allows and aids the flourishing of black people.
At lunch, talking with Dr. Linda E. Thomas, professor of theology and anthropology at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, the conversation turned to agency. On August 9, 2014 at 11:55 a.m., Michael Brown died. His body stayed in the street for four hours. Once upon a time in human history dead bodies killed by state sanctioned violence were left out in the open as a warning to all that this could and would happen to anyone who transgresses the norms of law and custom, even if, especially if, those norms are oppressive and dehumanizing.
Thomas pointed out the reality that Michael Brown no longer has agency. We, however, still have agency. We can decide. We can even decide how we will define God. For example: her theology tells her that we can say that God is transgender. If we say this, how will this change our customs and laws? I say: As long as we each breathe and occupy the land of the living, we are responsible. We are response able. We are all responsible for the least among us. We are all responsible for black lives, and back lives matter both in the United States and across the globe.
We have an obligation to those who are calling our names from eternity. We have an obligation to those walking the earth in the eternal now to think and to act and to create a world where everyone is free to be, to live and love and laugh, to flourish, to be respected and protected, to live in an excess of hospitality, of radical love and peace.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”

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