Post Author: Sara Shisler Goff
The Slate Project is a new kind of Christian community rooted in the ancient and the arts, both online and face-to-face in Baltimore, Maryland.
I didn’t give it a second thought. Of course I would join my co-pastors and other folks from the Slate Project* in marching for justice for Freddie Gray. It was Saturday April 25th. People had been peacefully marching in protest throughout Baltimore all week. I was glad to have this opportunity to join them, to finally show up and move my feet and stand in solidarity with a movement that I believe in.
Social justice activism has been an important part of my faith since I was first introduced to liberation theology in college. In seminary, when I studied the social gospel and the civil rights movement, my theology became even more firmly rooted in the notion that Jesus came to set all people free from all forms of oppression. This is what I preach from the pulpit. This is what I teach in my parishes. But the experience of picking up a sign and marching with hundreds of other people to embody this gospel message would be a way to show what I believe with my life.
I considered my role in this movement to be an “ally.” I have been involved in the movement for equal civil rights for the LGBTQ community, but I am a part of that community. I am not a member of the black community. The experience of marching in Baltimore felt different and posed different challenges. Marching together with many different groups – each with its own agenda, ideology, and purpose in being there – was complicated. Sure, everyone would say, “At the end of the day we are all here for the same reason,” and then something about justice for Freddie Gray and an end to the systematic oppression of black people (if not in so many words). It felt good to be united together under those goals. But as we moved together down the streets of Baltimore, there were times I could not bring myself to join the voice of the crowd. “All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray!” I thought to myself, “Will I? Will I fight for Freddie Gray?” “All night, all day, we will nonviolently resist for Freddie Gray!” just does not have the same ring to it. I began to wonder about how it would actually play out, to have all these different groups coming together. Could we unite around a common mission? Could we put aside our differences and stand together as one, while still authentically being who we were and not giving up our identities?
I wondered about my role in this struggle. On Monday night, as reports came in that police were facing off with protesters at Penn & North, I had several thoughts. “I should go,” I thought. “I should see if any of my pastor friends want to go and try to diffuse the escalation.” But I wondered if my presence—a young, white woman in a collar—would actually have that effect. The clergy who showed up and stood between the police and protesters were African American men. They were able to walk into that space and immediately receive the needed respect, authority, and assumption of shared experience to be accepted by the protestors, most of whom were also African American men, and by the predominantly male police force.
It became painfully obvious that I did not have already established relationships with the people or the clergy in the African American communities that were on the ground in this movement. I went to meetings. In some, I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere of sexism, particularly in the attitudes of the male clergy. I showed up to partner in the fight against oppression based on race. I did not expect those leading the fight to turn around and then discriminate against another group of people based on gender.
Later in the week, I went to meetings held by the newly formed Baltimore United and led by folks from Fellowship of Reconciliation. These meetings were smaller and much more diverse. The folks running these meetings did not hold up one or two particular leaders. They did not name men as the only “warriors” fit to be on the “front lines.” These meetings were run by men, women, queer, cis, young and old. At these meetings, it was clear we were all in this together. These were my people.
At one of these meetings, the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, a fellow with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, said that they don’t need white folks to show up and be allies. Allies can duck in and out of the movement, because this is not their struggle. He said, “We don’t need allies. We need freedom fighters.” That is when I decided to stop considering myself an ally. This fight must be my fight. These children must be our children. This struggle must be our struggle. We must be one people, fighting for all our freedom.
We do not have the luxury to focus on one kind of oppression at a time. Sexism; heterosexism; racism; ageism; discrimination based on socioeconomic status, education, background, or criminal history – they are all interrelated. God calls us all to work for the liberation of all God’s people. Each of us has a role to play. I know that because of who I am, there are roles I can play in this movement and roles I cannot play. This is true for all of us. And this is the beauty of the diversity that God has created. We are not meant to play all the same roles; we are not meant to do all the same things. We are meant to discover our callings in relationship with one another and then help each other become the people God has created us to be.
We also must celebrate and lift up each role and not overly exalt any one person or group, nor denigrate any one person or group. This movement in Baltimore is made up of networks of hundreds of leaders and many, many people, who all are doing important and necessary work. We must discern together what our roles are and then play them boldly and with courage. For as we already know, God can and will use us all to transform the world.
Sara Shisler Goff is an Episcopal priest. She is the co-founder/co-pastor of the Slate Project. She is also the Assisting Priest at Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson, Maryland. Sara is working on her Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School and is writing her thesis on re-imagining the church for the twenty-first century. She lives in Baltimore with her wife, Heather.
Image by: Stephen Melkisethian
Used with permission