by Jen Loser
“What meets the demands of justice and the demands of the human heart?”
As Jonathan Leidl introduced the three distinguished speakers of the Sunday New York Encounter presentation "A Desperate Cry for Justice"--each one of them a bearer of vast experiences--he acknowledged their bold calls for justice and deep commitment to our shared humanity. Each panelist was witnessing to and lighting a path for a different way forward.
The panel consisted of Dr. Anika Prather, founder of the Living Water School--a Christian school offering a Christian education to a predominately African American population--and Reverend Eugine Rivers and Dr. Jacqueline Rivers, a husband and wife powerhouse who live and work among the poor in inner-city Boston.
The conversation opened by acknowledging the brutal police killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans in recent years. Each panelist was invited to share the origins of their commitment to the cause of racial justice beyond these recent events.
Dr. Rivers began. She had moved from Jamaica to Boston for college with trepidation and the understanding that the United States was a racist country: a sense that was confirmed by a tragic shooting of a young Black football player in Boston. She shared the impetus for her life’s work--concern for the black poor. “I really felt strongly as an undergraduate that God was calling us to work on justice and social justice and that as a Black person I couldn’t just enjoy my Harvard degree and go on to business school and be wealthy and forget the poor. . . . I was intimately linked. My identity was connected with theirs.”
Dr. Prather explained: “My first awareness that there was a problem went beyond just hearing about it, reading about it, knowing the history about it, but being a Black child going to a predominately white Christian School. I endured quite a bit of racism in those experiences.”
Reverend Eugine Rivers, too, was exposed to the harm of racism through multiple violent events, one where he was arrested standing in the doorway of his home at age eleven and another where he was chased and stomped by white kids. He reported this to be an “introduction to reality,” emphasizing that the experience of racial profiling and violence was a fact, not a feeling.
Each panelist went on to speak about their response to the events of 2020. Dr. Rivers wrote prolifically and worked actively for police reform. Dr. Prather founded an event in D.C .called the Black Lives Funeral to honor and grieve Black lives lost through police brutality. After having witnessed so many events like these, Rev. Rivers saw the death of George Floyd as “business as usual”--a normal event in the US--and used the stage to invite the white church to consider its role in bringing about justice and the evil of white supremacy.
The lively conversation continued with anecdotes and deep convictions. Rev. Rivers shared his concern that Americans don't listen to the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. Prather reported being told in Christian elementary school that Black people are inferior and saying, “I fear for the Church, meeting Jesus in this state.” Each story and personal conviction the speakers shared about their experiences of racism in this country and the call for all people to participate in its eradication built on the others.
Having been introduced to the three panelists, I left the talk wondering, how can these people who have entered such a harsh experience of the US and of fellow Christians, maintain their faith in Christ? Their invitation to consider my role in reconciliation and justice stuck with me as I went about my day.
Each of the speakers brought their personality, their gifts, and their experiences, and each was responding to a deep love they had experienced in Christ as well as a profound injustice they have witnessed and experienced. Their children, siblings, parents were (and are) in danger even now because of the color of their skin. Yet they love, they engage, they make room for reconciliation and through the witness of their lives and faith they are inviting me to do the same.