Rev. Jacqui Lewis explains ‘morally courageous’ leadership in still-segregated America

The Rev. Jacqui Lewis presents on "Speaking Truth to Power When the World's on Fire" during the Interfaith Lecture Series on Thursday, July 27, 2017. ERIN CLARK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

According to a 1955 pamphlet, “A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence,” power comes in three forms: America’s designated authority figures, its citizens and the idea of power itself.

The Rev. Jacqui Lewis, senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church, used this pamphlet as a basis for her lecture “Speaking Truth to Power When the World’s on Fire!” as part of Week Five’s Interfaith Lecture Series “The Supreme Court and Religious Communities: Holding America Accountable?” Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy.

Lewis said Tavis Smiley, host and managing editor of his eponymous PBS show, said it best when he commented, “Speaking truth to power means comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable.”

Lewis first addressed Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that the church is the “conscience of the state.”

“We must be conscious that we are the conscience,” she said. “We who are leaders are called by God to do a bold new thing on the Earth, which is, for me, no less than creating — not the American dream, but God’s dream for America and God’s dream for the world.”

This dream, Lewis said, includes characteristics like freedom from captivity, sight to the blind, the pursuit of happiness, meaningful work and safety — seen in Zechariah 8, when young and old alike could play in the street together, and Revelation 22, when an angel shows John a city with a river running through it, a tree of life on both sides.

Lewis said these visions sadden Jesus today because “God’s economy” was meant to create “a house for all nations, and it was not” — and his people are the ones to blame.

“I believe the highest court and the church (are) made up of individuals like us,” Lewis said. “Remember ‘this is the church and this is the steeple. Open the door, and there’s all the people.’ We are the church. We are the morally courageous leaders of this land who are called by God to demand that God’s dream be reality for God’s people in all the ways, in every way, that we can.”

As a psychologist of religion, Lewis has heard several explanations of human development: Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, the object-relations theory and idea of influence by environmental or relational influencers. But she prefers to think of human development as a narrative process.

“We are the project of the stories told to us, about us, for us — stories like ethnicity, or national origin, or gender, or sexual orientation or religion,” Lewis said.

And statistics, she said, are the shortest stories she knows. For example, according to a BBC News article, there were two black billionaires in America in 2015 compared with 500 white billionaires. Additionally, a Pew Research Center study showed that the median net worth of a white household “headed by someone with a college degree” was around $300,000 in 2013, whereas the median net worth of a black household headed by a “college degree holder” was approximately $26,000.

Furthermore, if people see the nation as post-racial, Lewis said “all you have to do is say some names that would roll off of all our tongues”: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, et cetera.

When the income, wealth, incarceration and infant mortality gaps narrow between races, Lewis said, America can genuinely declare “black lives matter.”

“This hashtag turned movement is, for me, a question,” she said. “Why? Because racism in America is a virus that infects most of us and impacts of all us. It’s tenacious, this virus. It’s resistant to treatment. We’ll often deny we have it because it makes us feel — here’s a good intellectual word for you — icky and ashamed and embarrassed and guilty. We’re scarred so deep inside our souls, to bring it up again causes us to feel a little sick to our stomachs. It doesn’t go with our image of progressive people ready to heal the world.”

Even with the election and re-election of President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, respectively, Lewis said there has been a recent “equal and opposite reaction,” seen today in the highest numbers of hate crimes ever reported.

We are the project of the stories told to us, about us, for us — stories like ethnicity, or national origin, or gender, or sexual orientation or religion,” Lewis said.

“It seems for some folks, just having that black family in the White House is reason enough to say ‘no’ to anything that happened in those eight years,” she said. “Let’s block the confirmation of the Supreme Court justice, let’s just say no for the sake of no because we have to say no to what feels to some people like a zero-sum game.”

This high volume of issues — economic injustice, housing inequality, voting rights — are still issues because they are, Lewis said, “stuck in the race place.”

“I think that if leaders across faiths and disciplines will make it a spiritual practice to disrupt racism and dismantle the legacy of white supremacy in our nation — oh my gosh, we will overcome so much,” she said.

Lewis said this change isn’t exclusive to the teachings from a pulpit or at a podium.

“I think in every place where you have a sphere of influence: your Twitter handle, your newsletter that you write, those of you who do (de)nominational work, those of you who are in classrooms, those of you who are pulling together small groups,” Lewis said, “you have the ability and the call to hold this nation accountable for what it’s done and invite it into a new place.”

Take the story of Simone Campbell, a lawyer and American Roman Catholic sister. Campbell established the “Nuns on the Bus” project, of sisters who advocate for a variety of economic and social justice issues. In one initiative, the sisters boarded public transportation with the purpose of collecting stories of broken women. For example, some women interviewed became pregnant because of an attack and, as a result, needed an abortion but couldn’t have the procedure in their state. These accounts troubled thousands of nuns, and this week, they signed a letter opposing the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which would “take health care away from the most vulnerable by cutting and capping Medicaid.”

This inspired 58-year-old Lewis, a former teenage activist, to go to Washington, D.C. After hearing Campbell’s urgent call to Auburn Senior Fellows, Lewis felt she had to do something.

“It was my turn to put on my stole,” Lewis said. “It was my turn to stand outside with the cameras on us and speak a little bit about how health care is a human right, not an entitlement. My turn to keep talking past the policeman’s first warning — ‘This is your first warning,’ they say —  my turn to stand there kind of nervous.”

As someone who once marched with Cesar Chavez, Lewis was determined to stand her ground.

“My turn to stand with two rabbis, one who had flown from L.A. to stand in the number, to stand there with an atheist who believed in justice, to stand there with some (Unitarian Universalist) clergy, an African-American clergy, and finally to have this policeman say ‘come here’ and pull me out of crowd and put those plastic handcuffs on you, that look a little bit like garbage bag ties, but believe, me, they hurt,” Lewis said. “OK, my turn to go to jail for a few hours but to be sprung with a $50 payment.”

This experience encouraged her to give a sermon on leadership last week, which consequently inspired 12 members of her congregation to sign up for a trip to Washington, D.C. One friend, arts advocate Ishmael Houston-Jones, told her he was “always on the sidelines” of these matters and that it was “time for him to jump in the middle.”

“What story will you tell, my friends?” Lewis asked. “Write in your own context, write where you are: at home, at work, at the dinner table, at the Presbyterian meeting or the Methodist council. What stories will you tell that change the story?”

Lewis wants to recruit everyone, she said, into an “army of revolutionary love.” To be a part of this, all that’s required is an eagerness to build relationships with the “other.”

“Invite them into a relationship so that their story is a story you know,” she said. “… It’s specific and particular. … ‘I know a woman whose parents came from China in 1959.’ You have that story in your heart when you’re thinking about writing, preaching, practicing your craft. … Build a relationship with someone (who) opens your heart and grows your empathy, that puts their story inside your story.”

Even though our nation is in “hot mess times,” to close the lecture, Lewis played a portion of “We Shall Overcome” featuring her friend, actor Tituss Burgess.

“We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for,” she said, “and though we haven’t quite overcome, deep, deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome someday.”

Tags : Middle Collegiate ChurchRev. Jacqui LewisThe Supreme Court and Religious Communities: Holding America Accountable?Week Five

The author Kelly Powell

Kelly Powell covers the Interfaith Lecture Series, Mystic Heart Meditation Program and Abrahamic Program for Young Adults. She is studying magazine journalism and minoring in photojouranlism at Kent State University, where she will be a senior next semester. Powell loves libraries, antiques stores and national parks. Follow her on Instagram at @kellannpow.