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Keynote Address

Bernice Powell Jackson
Bernice Powell Jackson

Bernice Powell Jackson
October 20, 2002

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from a member of Pilgrim UCC in Cleveland to let me know that there was a letter on e-bay which he thought we'd be interested in...it was a letter written right here in New Haven on September 1, 1840 by Roger Baldwin, the original attorney for the Mende people on the Amidstad, to Theodore Sedgwick, Esq. and it concerned the legal case he was trying to build on behalf of his clients, who had never been slaves and therefore not subject to our laws.

Well, indeed, we were interested and we have purchased this letter (here is a copy) which I expect that sometime next year we will send back here to CT, somewhere near the ship and near its home.

The story of the Amistad is a proud one and an important one for us in the United Church of Christ, most especially for you in CT. It's the story of what happens when black folks and white folks work together for justice and freedom. In this new millennium, it can be the story of how we work, black and white, Latino and Asian, Pacific Islander and native American, for justice and freedom in our own time. That is one of the models from our common past which we must carry into our common future.

Perhaps you know a little of my own journey, a journey for justice. I tell you a bit only so that you understand how I have come to hear God still speaking in my own ears. I was born in Washington, DC, the nation's capitol and when I was 5 my parents joined Peoples Congregational Church. I was a Brown vs Board of Education baby, scheduled to go the black elementary school but, in the summer of the Brown decision, I attended the first year of integrated schools in Washington. Yes, even in the nation's capital the schools were segregated, the street cars were segregated, the lunch rooms were segregated, even the cemeteries were segregated. My first day of kindergarten, learning how to stand in line, the child in front of me asked me Are you Negro or are you white. Well, I had to go home and ask my parents because all I knew was that I was the daughter of Otis and Bernice ...and a child of God. Thus began my introduction to race relations in America. Age 5. And God began speaking to me...

Now, my college years were spent at a small women's college in Chambersburg, PA and I could tell you some stories about culture shock and racism on college campuses, but....I just want to say that during my time there I wrote to my cousin Charles who was in the US Army infantry and assigned to Viet Nam in 1968. And God was speaking to me...

A couple of years after I graduated from college I found myself in New York City, where I found myself right in the heart of middle of the women's movement and I worked for the Governor in the women's division and I became the President of the NY Coalition of 100 Black Women and we designed role modeling programs for young black women...and God was speaking to me...

And about the same time I met young black South Africans, brothers and sisters to whom I could relate to their story because it was so like my own and I met Fr. Desmond Tutu and Rev. Alan Boesak and many others and God was speaking to me...

I tell you those parts of my story because I didn't know it then, but during all that time God was speaking to me in my ear and God was preparing me.....to do what I am doing right now. Each of those experiences, and many others too numerous to tell...trips to Israel and Palestine, to Vieques, to many countries on the continent of Africa...visiting men and women in prison and on death row...marching on picket lines, so many picket lines and marches...each one preparing me to do what I am doing right now. And just as God was preparing me, God is preparing you.

Each one of my experiences helped me to understand that you can't talk about peace unless you talk about justice. You can't talk about racial justice without talking about economic justice. You can't talk about economic justice without talking about justice for people with disabilities. You can't talk about racism without talking about sexism. You can't talk about sexism without talking about homophobia. What I am trying to share is my own journey of understanding that all of these are pieces of thread are inextricably woven together. The justice threads and the threads of peace woven together into a fabric of harmony and love. Can't you just see it, can't you just feel it?

The end of that Martin Luther King, Jr. quote that I used yesterday said, Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Henri Nouwen, the Dutch theologian whom I mentioned yesterday, in his book The Road to Peace, outlined three elements which must be present as we who are people trying to be faithful journey down our own paths towards God.

First, he said, there must be prayer. I said it yesterday and I say it today. First there must be prayer. My own experience of working with Archbishop Desmond Tutu taught me that it is only through prayer -- sustained, intentional, regular prayer ? that we understand what God is calling us each to do not only about ourselves but about our world. Many people only know Bishop Tutu as a fighter for justice, they do not realize that what enabled him, what inspired him to challenge people on all sides of the battle, was prayer. We must be a people of prayer if we are serious about doing justice.

Secondly, Nouwen says we must build community. A community across ages. A community across races. A community across geographies. A community across economic lines.

A community across ages. That is one of the other learnings from the Amistad story. Sengbe Piah was the leader of the Amistad mutiny. A born leader, Sengbe Piah was only in his early 20's during the time of the Amistad.

Those of us who remember the civil rights movement in this nation will not be surprised by that. For it was teenagers and college students who were at the forefront of that movement. It was young people who sat at lunch counters, who became the Freedom Riders, who went to Mississippi and Alabama during the Freedom summers for voter registration. Indeed, Dr. King was only 26 when, as pastor of Dexter Ave. church in Montgomery, he was chosen to head the boycott committee and even when he died he was only 39. Mind you, I am not saying there were not adults involved, because thousands of clergypersons, of lawyers, of just people of good will were also a part of the civil rights movement, but it was fueled by young people impatient with the status quo, unwilling to be coopted by the system and adamant that they must see change immediately who ensured that the civil rights movement did not falter in those days of the 60's.

The same thing is true for the Viet Nam war protests. The same thing is true for the movement for freedom in South Africa in the 1970's, especially during the Soweto uprising. It was young people who said they refused to learn Africaans, the language of their oppressor. More recently, here in the U.S., that's what has happened with the youth movement against sweatshop labor, where college students across the nation have forced their schools to stop buying sweat shirts and caps and shoes and other school paraphernalia from companies using sweatshop labor.

That's why we have a full-time staff person in JWM whose portfolio is youth and young adult empowerment, to help young people to understand that they have the power ? the power to change what is wrong in the world. They have the power to make us old folks do what is right and what is just when we make our decisions about our lives. And to help them understand that justice work is part of their faith and at the heart of the very being of the United Church of Christ.

A commitment to youth and a commitment to matching the energy of youth with the maturity and experience of age is part of our Amistad legacy, and it is part of our Congregational legacy as well. Our ancestors understood that unless we educate our youth, unless we help them to claim their own relationship with God, unless we commit ourselves to a youth agenda, then all is for nought. Not because our youth are our world and our church of the future, but because they are our world and our church of right now.

Building community. Across ages. Across race. Across economic lines and geographies. Jesus often talked about the kingdom of God, the realm of God being with us.

Howard Thurman, in that book I mentioned yesterday, said that Jesus was preaching about the need for a radical change of our inner attitude. A radical change in our understanding of God's kingdom.

Indeed, our mujerista sisters, those Latina women theologians have said that perhaps the term Kingdom is the wrong one, that instead it should be kindom. Our Latina sisters tell us that Jesus was talking about the kindom of God ? the fact that we are all related, children of God.

If we understand that kindom, if we re-discover our relationship to each other, then we know that we can no longer be people of the suburbs separated from people from the cities. We can no longer be people of the cities separated from people from rural areas.

Nouwen's third essential on the road to peace is active resistance against injustice. You, I, we must actively resist injustice. It doesn't matter which one, pick one.

Pick one like public education. In an information age, where what will determine who earns and eats and who does not is information ? not only reading and math but computer knowledge ? education must be a priority for us. Once upon a time, for our parents and grandparents, a living could be made from hard work on farms, on factory lines, and such. But for our children the only way to survive and thrive will be using computers. Today those factory lines use them, farmers use them in deciding what crops to plant when and where. Even maids cleaning hotel rooms use PDA's to report what rooms are finished.

Yet in many cities across the nation, half of the young people are dropping out of high school and a shocking number of those who remain can't read the diploma they receive.

If you go in one direction, only a few miles from here some of the most elite students in the nation enjoy the finest education, which we helped to found. If you go in the other direction, students here in New Haven and students in Hartford still struggle. Now, mind you, CT is better than most states and it's better because of Elizabeth Sheff and her son, who have been a plaintiff in a court case for these many years to force CT to even out its support for the schools so that poor students in inner cities have more equal funds available as the wealthiest students. As a result of their work and their insistence for justice for poor students, you have regional magnet schools which are working relatively well and which are helping to integrate schools across racial and economic lines. But there is still work to do and poor children and children of color in CT as well as the rest of the nation still struggle with many unmet needs and issues. Too often these children do not see themselves in the curricula they are taught and too often arts, access to technology and extra-curricular activities are only available in a limited way. Too many of their parents don't know how to be parents, don't know how to teach their children that they are children of God, made in the image of God and loved by God.

My friends, isn't this not just the problem and concern of those in our poorer communities, isn't it all of our concern? We often mouth the words it takes a village to raise a child without knowing the real meaning of that African proverb. The Yoruba meaning of that proverb it takes a village to raise a child has a sub-text which says how dare you think you can raise a child alone. No one person has that much wisdom or patience or love. It is only in community that a healthy child can be raised.

Or take active resistance to the injustices experienced in our cities. How can we work together to reclaim our cities? How can we reclaim the vibrant urban centers of business and culture and yes, of religion in the 21st century? How can we do something about the 1 million children who every night have no place of their own to sleep? There was an article in the Hartford Courant just on Friday about homeless children here in CT, which mentioned the several hundred homeless children in Hartford who live in homeless shelters. Right down the street on the green homeless people are protesting the closing of the emergency shelter here. We as a nation are choosing to spend money on bombs instead of on low-cost affordable housing for our children and we are called to actively resist.

Prayer. Community. Active Resistance. A map for the journey to justice, for the journey to peace. A way for each one of us to hear God speaking to us...

Maya Angelou is one of my favorite poets. After 9/11 she wrote a poem entitled A Brave and Startling Truth. I'd like to close with some of it, with her testimony that God is still speaking through us....

(Webmaster's Note: the poem was not a part of the keynote text)

[First Keynote] [Annual Meeting 2002]