The Role of Faith-Based Activism

What should churches and faith leaders be doing right now in the fight for racial justice? I interviewed two activists: Darren Calhoun and Robyn Henderson-Espinoza on the topic.

Darren Calhoun is a Chicago-based worship leader and activist. He sits on the board of many Christian progressive organizations, such as Q Christian Fellowship and Evangelicals for Social Action. He also leads trainings on racial reconciliation and racial justice. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza is an activist theologian, an academic, founder of the Activist Theology Project and author of the book Activist Theology. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

We spoke about the hope of people becoming activated and acknowledging the pain of Black folks, but how it remains to be seen whether people are ready to do the work when it gets hard and keeps going month after month. (Min 4:30)

How faith leaders can create and encourage morally-led, activist communities. (Min 8:55)

How discomfort gets in the way of doing the real work and how we can change that by treating discomfort like a muscle that needs practice and it’s important to learn the difference between discomfort and harm. (Min 15:40)

We end with a conversation about how white communities, especially calling out predominantly white churches, are still at the relationship-building phase when we should be passed it already. We should be working together to tear down systems oppression. I posed to Darren and Robyn this question: How do faith-based communities step up and be the leaders of these movements towards dismantling systems of oppression while still figuring their shit out? (Min 29:30) 


JB: Let’s see. Alright. So, we’re here. Thank you both again. I know you’re both busy, but that’s also why I wanted to talk to you both. Because you’re very important. To start with would you mind introducing yourselves because you both do so much. So, Darren can we start with you?

DC: Sure. Hey everybody, my name is Darren Calhoun pronouns he/him. I am joining the call today from Chicago, where I serve as a worship leader at Urban Village Church. And then, I am also a photographer. And when I’m not doing those things, I sing in a band called The Many that is a progressive, inclusive, justice-centered kind of Christian band. That’s doing original music that makes space for [??] and so forth. Beyond that, I have been working with various LGBTQ Christian organizations like The Reformation Project and Q-Christian Fellowship to help the church do better with its engagement of LGBTQ people across whatever the theology is. And then lastly my background is that I have been part of various organizing efforts on the ground in Chicago around anti-violence and around racism and so that’s the short version. Hey everybody.

RE: Hey y’all my name is Robyn Henderson-Espinoza (Dr. Robyn) and my pronouns are they/them. I am a non-binary transgender mixed race Latinx. I always come out as being a white passing Latinx. I am born of a Mexican immigrant and Anglo father. I have skin privilege. I am joining the call from Nashville, TN, where I am based. And, I do a number of things. I am on faculty at Duke Divinity School. I am trained as a theologian and ethicist. And, I am involved in movement work here on the ground in Nashville. And, I am also the founder of the Activist Theology Project which works to incubate sustainable change by responding to the needs of the world. We focus on social healing. And we focus on working with the dominant culture (i.e., white folks and white passing folks) to help dismantle supremacy culture because we know that it is the water we swim in and we are all complicit in supremacy culture. We have internalized it. We have been socialized in it. And I really believe that the vision of an equitable and just world is one that eradicates supremacy culture. So we work, we do a lot of anti-racism stuff. We do a lot of helping white folks understand their whiteness, connecting the dots between the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality. And we are just trying to be good ancestors.

JB: I will post links in the comments to where you can find that. You didn’t introduce your book, right?

RE: I did not say that I had written a book. I did write a book called Activist Theology and there is a great review by Jera in Sojourners Magazine. And it is a deep translation of theory to practices and a call to restore ourselves and a call to unhinge from the bullshit that keeps a boot on all of our necks, including White people. And I just started working on my next book which is on bodies and democracy.

JB: (4:07) So if you are watching this; I don’t think anybody is watching it yet, but you will be able to find it on Facebook and my blog. And I will post resources around what we talked about. Robyn when you shared the promo for this, you talked about hope in your comments. What are you finding hope in right now.

RE: I am finding a lot of hope in the dominant culture finding… I think White folks and White-passing folks are finally waking up to Black pain and the genocide of Black America. I find hope in that but I also am suspect because what we are seeing right now is the normalization of marches and protests, and White people showing up, which on the one hand is great, right, like get out there, make you voice heard. But there needs to be measured hope for systemic change. So I have hope that people are activated. I have hope that people are in the streets. And it can’t stop there. So the hope question is a complicated one for me because I don’t have any hope in our system but I have deep hope that people can awaken to the pain of my Black siblings.

JB: Darren, what about you?

DC: For me, similar to what Robyn was sharing, there’s the both and there’s the part where every iteration of this becomes an opportunity for people to be awakened, to become activated and for them to start asking, “What do I do next?” And as somebody who does organizing, it’s like that is the question you want. That’s the million dollar moment where people are beyond their internal defenses, where they’ve kinda had their awakening. They’re ready to to move forward. But the other part of this that’s so challenging is that, you know, two weeks, two months from now, when the work is hard, when they’ve had the fifth conversation where someone has said something to them in a way that’s unpleasant, there’s the tendency to wanna recoil and to kinda go back and to long for the way things were, which means before you were aware of what’s happening. You kinda wanna go back to just not being aware because it didn’t seem real then. It didn’t seem like something that really had to affect your life. And, so the thing that I’ve been kind of just aiming for myself because exhaustion in this can be real. I’ve been doing this work for twenty years. But also I’m not a limitless resource. And so for me the personal hope is that I engage this work in a way that’s sustainable through the rest of my life, knowing that I won’t see the end of it. Like to frame it in this way of what can I do that I that I am committed to doing that I can always do, as opposed to well, you know, I can’t necessarily I can’t necessarily maintain every method or every lane of activism but there’s things that I can do well. And even this current pandemic, on the medical side of Covid19 has been one of those reminders that’s just like I I’m not in position where I can be in the streets like I normally would during this time; But that doesn’t mean that I’m useless. And as an Enneagram 2, that’s an important reminder to myself that I make sense of the world and I find safety in the world by helping. And so for me finding ways to help that aren’t necessarily my normal means are the ways that I continue on in this time.

JB: When I was thinking about the role of faith-based activism, two of the things that I was thinking about that I think connects to that is like, as a faith leader, maybe you can motivate people for so long. But that’s not the goal, right? The goal is to build informed, morally-led communities that that can ultimately keep themselves inspired. So I’m wondering if you both have advice on how to do that and then also for faith-based leaders that are that are helping with this education of their congregation that maybe are waking up for the first time. how do you help them find how do you help people find their places too?

DC: I feel like I have some quick ideas and then Robyn has probably an a whole workshop series ready to go. For me, my advice in general to church leaders and anyone who has a sphere of influence, which is everyone, is that we that we figure out what this looks like long-term. And that can be as simple as making sure that you have something in your budget that’s committed to anti-racism. One of the things that my church has been doing that has made it such a profound place for me to be a part of is that we do have a committed investment in anti-racism within our institution that has led to us having an anti-racism audit. We work with an outside organization that helps us build the resources within our church to hold ourselves accountable. And then making sure that every year, every budget, every hiring process that the team that is holding us accountable can say, “Hey, this is still not working” or “Hey, here here’s something that we said we’re gonna do. What’s still holding us back from doing it?” and that kind of thing is a lot more sustainable than necessarily a book reading, which is important, or than a sermon series, which is also important. it’s how do we change the life of our church to make sure that this continues to happen as opposed to how do we respond just in the moment.

JB: And a quick shout-out to Urban Village in Chicago. If Chicagoans want to be involved in a church that has been doing the right things for a while. We’ll link to Urban Village.

DC: Awesome. Thank you.

RE: You know think that everything like I cosign what Darren offered and I also know it takes a diversity of tactics. This is a marathon not a sprint and so this is lifelong work: creating equity, access and justice. This is not gonna happen in at one general assembly or at one general meeting. And it’s about relationships. If we want our Christian witness to be justice-oriented, that means it’s gonna be political. And we need to figure out: do we want to be palatable or do we want to be life-changing and world-changing. And that’s where the question of politics comes in to play. And when I say “politics” I’m talking about our social practices – what behaviors, what habits, what social practices inform our communities? And it’s based in relationships. So are the relationships that we are having, do they generate equity and access or are White communities or White-passing communities do they become the gatekeepers to those who are most impacted by multi-system oppressions? So we need to think about our relationality in how we hold relationships in the church. What is the process for creating a more revolutionary space in our faith communities? Who gets to decide those rules? Is it the senior pastor who might be informed by a certain generational politic, by a certain theological orientation? certainly by race, class and gender. Or is this a communal effort to build a more communal orientation to the language, the rules, the habits of our communities? And you know the Activist Theology Project works with people around organizational change and organizational leadership because we know that if we are not learning to mirror our communities as faith leaders then we might be perpetuating the same bullshit that we want to dismantle. And what I mean by mirroring is having empathy with our community. So being the kind of leader that comes alongside people, not separate from people. And it all goes back to relationship. I mean you know dismantling supremacy culture, anti-racism work, climate change, disability justice. LGBTQ+ work. It is all about relationship. The thing I love about Darren—Darren and I have led facilitated several conversations around race and at festivals. And the thing love about that work with Darren is it’s rooted in relationship. And that neither one of us lead in a way that we have the final voice. And there is something to that. What do we want our witness to be in the world? Do we want it to be hierarchical or do want it to be equitable, accessible and collaborative?

JB: (15:40) It seems like there are a lot of communities that start to do this work. Robyn, one of the things that you had said was that you can do it you can start to do now when like everything’s on fire but then three months from now when things the work gets hard… I think the churches and other faith-based communities that have started to do this work… One of the things that it seems like a not a lot of folks realize is that things can be joyous but it’s just uncomfortable forming relationships with folks that don’t think like you. and that discomfort can seem to get in the way of things like worship and the other functions of the church. Like when really it’s you have to sit and live within that discomfort in order to continue those relationships and build. But um. What’s so folks that or communities that are wanting to start walk alongside these let’s say these other activist groups that that are that are doing the work right now and have been doing the work and building these relationships how should communities that are that are pretty new to this like prepare to like start relationships in a positive, healthy way?

RE: Is that for both of us or is that …

JB: Whoever has thoughts.

RE: Darren, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

DC: Sure. I think I think you do name a really important dynamic. And what where we have tension, where we have discomfort and what we do with that is really, really important. for people who grew up within some marginalized identity, whether that’s being a gender where that’s being marginalized for your gender, especially if you are a fem or female if that’s being marginalized for your sexual orientation if that’s being marginalized because of your because of your racial categorization there’s all kinds of ways that depending on what your marginalization is, gives you this early introduction to how do I live in a world that this is always going to be the case? And so what I find is that for many Black and Brown people of color, we got this starting somewhere between three and eight years old. For many people who are White, White-passing, cis-heteronormative kind of situations, for them it started in college or it started somewhere maybe even this this very phone videocall where you think about oh wait I as a White person have a race because most of the time when I talk to people they knew that other people had a race. They didn’t realize that they were raced, too. And so what happens is you get this sudden realization, you get this challenge to the way you’ve seen the world and it’s uncomfortable. And I feel like discomfort is kind of like a muscle, like the longer we’re in it, the more we use it, the more we’re able to do with it. But when it’s the first time, it’s exhausting and it’s just like, oh this is too much, I can’t do this. You know just like just like most people when they go to the gym for the first time. but I think that’s the part I want us to kind of like know and realize that there’s different ways to experience the world and we may not realize it. I remember the first time that I realized that there was a different way I get treated as a tall man versus being a shorter woman. it was I was talking to two friends and they’re both African-American women, they both are in corporate jobs, they both are degreed down. And one in particular is an engineer so it’s a it’s a field that’s often male-dominated and she’s talking about all times she’s had to cite her credentials. That she’s had to cite where she’s gone to school, what she knows and had to prove her work, and get questioned by her by the people that she supervises. And, I thought about it. It was just like I don’t have that. I don’t experience people questioning what I say to the point that I’ve spoken all kinds of places and people don’t even ask if I have a college degree. And I don’t. And it was just a reminder of like the privilege I have of my maleness, of my tallness, of the things we normally ascribe to people who are in charge, people who know. and it was through the relationship I had with these with these women that I was like, Oh, I’m seeing the dynamic, I’m seeing the difference. and so when it comes to what we do in our world and in our life when it comes to taking action on injustice issues, this is the opportunity for us to, one, know, name and completely affirm that this is going to be uncomfortable. but, two, to know that that’s ok. It’s kind of a Western thing that we like avoid discomfort, that we wanna have a quick fix, we wanna have a fast fix. Three bullet points and we’re done. And that’s not how it’s going to be. It has we have to be close enough, long enough to have some uncomfortable conversations, to hurt each other, to build trust in each other. and to get to the point where we know that we’re more committed to the relationship we have than we are to being right. and that can happen online, that can happen in a church community. but somewhere there has to be a very tangible commitment to that we want to be in a relationship not that we want to prove who’s right or have an intellectual debate. So those are just kind of first thoughts. But I’d love to hear from others as well.

RE: You know I think that this this sense of how do we create relationships with people who are radically different from us is something that people of color have been living their entire life. And early on you know my mother, who is very brown, asked me does anyone make fun of me for my skin color? And it was the first time that I realized I was different. And I was about four or five years old. And, now, people don’t make fun of me for my skin color. and people don’t question me when I speak, for a couple reasons. I’m masculine-of-center. I’m masculine presenting. And I have a Ph.D. and so I’ve held both of these in great tension of having this experience of recognizing at an early age that I was different from my caregiver. And then watching the ways in which people treated my caregiver to assimilating into Whiteness in such a way that I earned the highest degree possible. And so how do i bridge those experiences in a way that will create conditions for teachable moments that will lead to liberation? I started working with a concept that I call Bridging With Radical Difference. And I write about it in the book as an ethical orientation, that we have to be oriented in a way that we are ready to receive the difference of someone else. And White folks, White-passing folks, and I just had this experience last night with a guy who, in this group chat, had come out as mixed race. But until I started critiquing the performativity of White folks and protesting, only then did he play his Black card. But he’s White-passing and you know. Fragility is a real thing in White communities and White-passing communities. And when we are trying to build relationships, that will create equity and access for Black people in particular, because we know that Black folks have been systematically disenfranchised from systems in this country. I can talk about the Latino community and the ways in which they are disenfranchised and and targeted. but this country is built on on the labor of Black people in particular so anti-Blackness is a real thing. And I mention it in conversation with fragility and guilt and shame because we actually don’t know how to be in relationship with Black people or people of color, in general. And so this ethical orientation of bridging with radical difference is something that faith communities and churches can begin to grapple with if they are willing to sit in the discomfort of the ways in which their Whiteness has perpetuated Black pain. And White folks don’t want to hear that. White-passing people, I am finding, they find it convenient to come out as a person of color right now. And I want to caution White-passing people doing that and playing that color that I’m colored card because if you move in the world with power access and privilege, as I do, then you are read in a certain way. Yes, I have rituals here that are rooted in my Mexican ancestry. Yes, I celebrate the food of my people. But when I am in the world, unless I’m speaking Spanish, I am read in a certain way. And many of us don’t want to sit in that discomfort of being of being part of a culture that has systematically disenfranchised my sibling parent and his family and friends. And so…

DC: You know…

RE: I think that…I — I’m sorry Darren just let me say one more thing.

DC: Yeah, go for it.

RE: I think this idea of discomfort as a muscle should be primary for White communities and White-passing people to develop so that they can engage in this bridging work.

DC: And I love what you took us through there because it also brings up the for me it brings up the difference between discomfort versus harm. And fragility and not being very aware of what discomfort is like. Discomfort can feel like being harmed. It can feel like, ‘Oh you said something against me and now I’m oppressed. Or the way this is going on it just it’s just too much, it’s not safe. and that’s one of these nuances that also has to develop. There are some things that are harmful. There are some ways that people are their lives are being threatened, their mental health is being threatened. they may be in a situation where they’re being gaslit because they’re being told that, Oh no this isn’t an issue. And it really is. but that’s different that just, I don’t like the way this makes me feel. But there’s nothing that it can do to me in an ongoing way. and I think we have to develop that nuance because, yes, there’s some people who’ll say some things and do some things that are not ok. And, there’s no need to stay in that. But there’s a deep and important need to stay in places that are discomfort, that are just things that we just don’t like, that are things that nothing negative will happen to our lives if we stay here. We just don’t want to be here. so I really want to make sure that people think about those as two separate things so that when we do face that discomfort it doesn’t trigger the fight or flight response, where we just shut everything down, rage quit, write the angry letter or something like that and miss the opportunity to really learn what it means to be in relationship across deep difference.

JB: We just have a few minutes left and I’m gonna open up a can of worms and hope I don’t regret it. but I wanna call out White churches and I am complicit in this as well. I spent many, many years in Indiana not even realizing that I was not around people of color. and so when I say “we” I’m gonna I’m talking predominantly about White churches here and White church communities that we should have been building these relationships years ago so that when we’re here we could have been working towards revolution as opposed to the relationships. and now I’m just I keep thinking about like we’re still at the relationship phase and that’s important but also these institution of prejudice and oppression need we need to be working towards dismantling them. How do we do both? And my question specifically is, How do faith-based communities step up and be the leaders of these movements towards dismantling systems of oppression while figuring their shit out? Is that possible, you know?

RE: I think about Jesus and his misfit crew that he called the disciples. I think if we look at the example of Jesus and I talk a lot about Jesus. He’s the guy that I go to when I think about social practices in our current moment. You know, Jesus was a Brown Palestinian Jew collected everyone from tax collectors to fishermen. And so these are like opposing sides. And they found a way to be community with one another. And in the in the becoming community with one another they also followed this teacher and learned how to get angry at the system so turning over tables in the temple. And they also learned how to call out the Pharisees. So we already have these examples of calling out systems. It’s whether or not we want to do the hard work of acknowledging that we have assimilated into empire Christianity. And whether we want to get back to a way of being community together before the Christian faith became imperial. And some people might say it’s impossible but living in a time of Covid19 and quarantine life we’re having house church. And we have to remember that the first churches were in homes, non-institutional. And if you think your institution or your denomination is free from racism and White supremacy, you’re wrong. Institutions are built on the premise of White supremacy, even things like the NAACP. Institutional politics, institutional communities are built on the logic of White supremacy. So how to actually do we use this time to not just be palatable, to actually do revolutionary work through relationship. Are you are you calling your Black siblings and checking in on them? Or is it just too uncomfortable and you’re just frozen in shame. It’s important to recognize and regulate your body in all this, which is a lifelong journey. And to make a decision of do I want to follow an imperial faith that is rooted in a sort of institutional, denominational framework? Or do I want to follow the ways of Jesus which is about relationship which will get you killed in the end? Or at least that’s the example that we have.

JB: Darren, anything to add?

DC: Hopefully you can hear me ok. My neighbors decided to have a little music concert in the background. give me give me one second and I’m gonna see if I can make it quieter in here.  

JB: One of the things that I’ve heard people saying lately is like that church is not a building right now. Church is a group of people you know. And I think a lot of us that have been feeling disenfranchised from the church theology that we grew up with, like we’re we’re finding church in community in different ways, which is part of this movement.

RE: Yeah.

DC: Sorry for the distraction for a minute there. yeah I would love that… I would love if if the next that people took on to do is to find the places that are already kind of doing this work. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We don’t have to be the first ones. Or you don’t have to you don’t have to start with a podcast because I promise you there’s one. You don’t have to write the book. I promise you there’s one. model the model being the kind of leader who is is learning from and amongst a collection of other leaders. You don’t have to be the answer within yourself. And yeah I want us to uh… Oh, gosh it’s so loud here. But yeah, I want us to do that. I don’t feel like I answered the question exactly. What was the question before I stepped away?

JB: What was the question… Oh how do you form relationships and also work towards dismantling systems of oppression at the same time?

DC: Yeah, it’s a dance. You in any dance you don’t do all of the dance at the same time. You do parts. You go back and forth. You move forward. You fall back. and so in the same way one of the things that I love is at Evangelicals for Social Action is we have a program called Oriented to Love. It’s a it’s a very structured program that brings 12 people together around the differences in faith, gender and sexuality. So people who are conservative versus people who are very progressive in their views. People who are side A versus side B. People who are straight. People who are not. ah all kinds of gender representations in in this very intentional group so that people can experience what it could look like in a healthy way to connect across differences. again it doesn’t ask anyone to come away the right answer or the winner or anything but models of opportunities to listen and to relate deeply. And so from that kind of place it’s one of those things where you go, Oh I never thought of doing it that way. Oh I never realized that I could be in a good relationship but and this is from my own personal life. The kinds of people who are open to that kind of relationship learning to see those people is the key. a lot times we look for really confident people. And we think, Oh if they’re confident then that’s who I need to connect with. But the reality is that we need we need people who are open to questions. We need to connect with people who are do well with emotional intelligence and reading the room and being able to engage hold attention without necessarily needing to quickly eliminate it. those kinds of people can be found if we know to look for them. And if and when you do find them hold onto them because those are the ones who help you engage across those differences where somebody may not be as patient. Or somebody may not have the same kind of emotional intelligence. in doing that I feel like we can take steps that don’t make us the hero or the savior. We can take steps that don’t send us on an endless guilt spiral or shame trip. but instead we learn and build those muscles of discomfort. We learn and build those relationships that ‘cause you know just like Robyn was saying at the beginning it’s through the relationships that we really do learn and that we really do grow. it’s not just having the right book to read, not having the perfect presentation. but it’s how we interact with each other and how we get to care about each other I think. that gives us the internal fortitude to go and do the justice work. To go and put faces to the bills and laws and things that need to be reformed. It’s easy not to care about it when it’s just some numbers on paper. But when the way that money bail affects someone that you know personally. And you find out that they’re spending months in jail not because they’re a threat to public safety or not because they have done anything different than anyone else. They just didn’t have several thousand dollars to put into a system to get proven innocent. When you see that kind of connection in your own personal world that’s when you have the opportunity to go, Oh this is not just a policy issue this is this is about real lives.

JB: This has been great. Thank you so much. I wanna let you both go. talking about not reinventing the wheel along with this video I’ll try to post links to groups that are doing good work. If both of you have examples let me know and I’ll link them in the blog post and I’ll link them on Facebook. You’re plugged in and you do know of some and you’re running some so I appreciate it. And I will say goodbye.

RE: Thanks so much, Jera. It’s really great to be here.

DC: Super. Have a good one.

JB: Alright. Bye.

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