By: Ty Cowan
With most of the college students and alumni watching the away football game at various bars or campers, South College Street in Auburn, Alabama, was quiet. Lisa Pierce was running an errand as twilight settled across the Plains.
She parked her car in a relatively empty parking lot next to Urgent Care and Jim ‘N Nicks BBQ to look over an email that was sent to her moments before. She’d turned on the overhead light in her car to read when she noticed a silver SUV that she’d spotted when pulling into the lot. Feeling like someone was watching her, she looked over to see a woman in the SUV staring at her.
She rolled down her window and asked, “Can I help you?”
The woman’s voice was a mixture of fear and anger as she began yelling, “I cannot understand what is wrong with you people and why you are acting senseless and racist.”
The woman in the SUV continued to shout, calling Pierce a member of the Ku Klux Klan and asking why she was following her. Stunned, Pierce apologized and tried to explain that she hadn’t been following her at all. The last thing the woman said before shaking her head in disgust and driving off was that Pierce needed Jesus to save her.
“Ma’am, I am a minister,” said Pierce, apologizing again as the woman left the parking lot.
After this incident in November of 2016, Pierce wrote on her blog that she did not blame or fault the woman for her actions.
“It saddened me this is where we are. Her actions confirmed the fear and anxiety that so many, especially our minorities, feel right now,” said Pierce.
In her post, Pierce went on to give advice to other white people of faith on how to work through situations like this.
“Take the blinders off. We don't have slavery and Jim Crow, but the effects of systems of racism and discrimination very much exist,” said Pierce. “They are so subtle, we may not see them but they are there. And events such as Ferguson and all the way through this election cycle have busted it wide open.”
As the executive director and founder of Alabama Rural Ministry,
Pierce said she believes ministers and faith leaders are called to the movement of
non-violence and peaceful means of civil disobedience.
“We need to maintain the model of non-violence and the promotion of peace.
We need to listen to when people get upset and understand why,” said Pierce.
“At a systemic level, we must hold leaders of those in power and authority
positions accountable. And, we must speak out when we see injustice—remaining
silent is not helping.”
Faith has always played a major role in the U.S. political spectrum.
“In God We Trust” can be found transcribed on an array of things from
license plates and coffee cups to storefront window signs and even the U.S. currency.
In America’s infancy, faith, more specifically the Christian faith, was not only encouraged but also undoubtedly mixed with political power.
When the fight for civil rights began in the 1960s, the community supporting it was scarce. Black men and women mostly were at the forefront. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an activist and American Baptist minister. In his “Letters from Birmingham Jail,” King expressed his disappointment in the churches that he thought “would be among our strongest allies.” As the movement gained speed, those from different ethnicities, backgrounds and faith groups jumped on the revolution bus.
King used his message of love to take on the exploration of civil rights for everyone and build what he called the Beloved Community.
In the 21st century, protests, legislation and communities are still on the front lines of change, but what about the churches and faith-based organizations around the country? Pierce said there is certainly a ministry and presence of “I am with you” to communicate solidarity. She said that many faith organizations could learn from King in their efforts in promoting justice and equality.
“I am not sure we are united as clergy as much as I would like us to be. There are even black and white lines among clergy,” said Pierce.
“White clergy who stand up against racial injustice tend to have a more liberal perspective politically whereas our more conservative white clergy view dealing with racism on a more individual basis.”
Pierce said although faith and religious leaders are on the front lines, they aren’t necessarily united the way King would have wanted.
Pamela Gehrke is on a mission to see that unification come to life. Like Pierce and King, Gehrke has taken her passion for social justice on the road to spread a message of love and peace.
Originally from California, Gehrke traveled to Auburn, Alabama, as a minister with the UnitarianUniversalist Fellowship. She said people in her community were shocked when she decided to come to Alabama.
“The history of this part of the country is the history of the entire country,” said Gehrke. “We’re not exempt from the responsibility of it.”
Growing up, Gehrke had a heart for service. She taught for 29 years as an adjunct professor
at San Francisco State and UC Berkley where she received her doctorate before going to
Seminary school in 2005.
For Gehrke, the beloved community that King spoke is a vision of unity, not leaving anyone
behind and not letting marginalized people suffer more than is normal for a human being.
“People in our organization do different things to help the community,” said Gehrke.
“Most UU organizations still have what we call the Welcoming Congregation.
It works specifically to educate people about the LGBT community so we don’t
unintentionally offend people who come to our doors. We take pride in our social justice.”
With all the work Unitarian Universalist do like wearing yellow shirts in solidarity at different events, running a food bank and leading social justice educational meetings, Gehrke said that they still don’t have everything nailed down in becoming more authentically inclusive.
In her congregation, Gehrke realized she had a platform for educating predominately white communities. She started a book club. There first book was “The Bluest Eye,” which is a story written by Toni Morrison about a young African American girl’s experience with racism following the Great Depression.
“I’m happy to see liberal Christians showing up in positive ways. The civil rights movement wouldn’t have happened without faith leaders,” said Gehrke.
Gehrke said, however, that she is not certain if this country will reach the point of love and social justice in her life time that King spoke of, but something needs to be done.
She’s not the only faith leader who believes this country will take a while to get rid of systemic racism and social injustice.
Dr. Wayne Flynt, minister and professor emeritus of the Auburn University department of history, said he’s not sure if social reform will happen any time soon either.
“I don’t think Martin Luther King ever thought his dream could be fulfilled in one life-time,” said Flynt.
Flynt said that King did exactly what every Christian should do and judged himself but not other people. He doesn’t believe that we are able to create the kingdom of God in our life time, but that we are much closer than this country was in the 1950s.
Flynt and Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III participated in a panel as part of a two-day event to commemorate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s dream, legacy and the 50th anniversary of his assassination.
Moss of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago agreed with Flynt that it might not happen in his lifetime, but said one thing that has to be attacked in America is the social construction of race.
“America loves to ‘other’ people. To create a hierarchy where one group has privilege and the other does not,” said Moss. “We have some commonality in terms of how we build and structure a nation where everyone has not only opportunity but where we can see the imprint of the divine on every area.”
Gehrke said that it is nearly impossible to do the work of social justice alone.
“We can’t move forward in transforming the culture without faith leaders and the community working together,” said Gehrke.
Pierce said she believes that to become the beloved community King spoke about, everyone must put love at the top of their individual lists. She thinks about the fact that King was a pastor who sacrificed for love and community togetherness.
“We can do nothing without love. We must always take the high road even when others do not. It means seeking to understand before demanding to be understood. Talking less and listening more. Celebrating versus fearing that which is different,” said Pierce.
“There should not be an ‘other.’ Community means fellowship, conversation, and looking out for the good of all people and holding people accountable when they mess up.”