Tragedy brought Douglas Birdsall, a white Presbyterian minister, and Barbara Williams-Skinner, a black civic leader, together two years ago. Since then, a larger purpose has kept them together.
The pair will discuss this tragedy, the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and their resulting friendship, at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy. Both will present briefly, followed by a conversation moderated by the Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr., director of religion, and a Q-and-A session.
The presentation is titled “Racial Equality in America: Fiction or Fact?” and will address race relations in the context of the week’s interfaith theme, “Celebrating the Genius and Soul of a Nation.”
“It’s really a matter of how we unite our hearts, our passion, our vision,” Birdsall said. “How do we share our wealth, and share our poverty?”
The Charleston shooting hit right at the heart of the religious community. On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, shot and killed nine people at a prayer service at Emanuel AME Church — one of the United States’ oldest black churches.
A few days after the tragedy, 60 religious leaders of various races came together on a conference call to discuss the aftermath. Birdsall, Williams-Skinner and Franklin were on that call, which resulted in a letter signed by religious leaders expressing a commitment to change.
Before the letter could be published, though, Franklin called Birdsall and said that while the letter was good, he had realized most of the African American leaders didn’t know the white signatories. Birdsall said both he and Franklin decided that was a major issue, and agreed to put the letter aside until they could arrange meetings between the two groups.
“This cannot be just another feel-good experience,” Birdsall said. “There has to be a deep conviction that we’re going work together over the long haul.”
Soon after, the leaders came together in Washington, D.C., and while it was a success, Birdsall said, it also showed that there was a clear divide along racial lines. This led to Birdsall’s creation of Civilitas, a group that runs the initiative After Charleston: Overcoming Evil with Good. The program brings religious leaders of various races together in major U.S. cities to build relationships between churches and communities.
Williams-Skinner, who was the first female executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, is also part of this initiative. Birdsall said they each bring different perspectives to the process of racial reconciliation, not only as people with different skin tones, but also different backgrounds.
He said Williams-Skinner, who co-founded the Skinner Leadership Institute along with her husband, the late Rev. Tom Skinner, contributes public policy and leadership expertise. As a veteran evangelical and organizer of the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, which brought together leaders from 198 nations, Birdsall said he understands cultural exchange.
Together, Birdsall and Williams-Skinner make a formidable team. Birdsall said that while he connects people, Williams-Skinner challenges them. Early in the initiative, she said at a meeting that black people are forced to get a Ph.D. in “whiteology,” meaning they have to learn about white culture and history but receive no recognition in return.
Birdsall said one of the goals of the initiative is to change that. It allows black religious leaders to sit down with their white counterparts and tell their story, without interruption, Birdsall said, which happens after relationships — the core of reconciliation — are formed.
“It’s a long-term proposition,” Birdsall said. “But there has to be a commitment to respectful listening, to developing friendships of integrity, and then being willing to acknowledge the reality of white privilege and the reality of black disadvantage.”