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Birmingham’s Perspective on Religious Divides

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(Left to right): Zeenat Rahman, Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, and Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner during the "Religious Perspectives on Bridging Racial & Faith Divides" event Monday night at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (Ameera Steward, The Birmingham Times)
By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times

Blacks and whites from around the metro area gathered for a conversation on race and religion at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on Monday during the “Bridging Religious Divides: A Local Perspective from Birmingham” event held by the Aspen Institute Inclusive America Project and the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham (CFGB).

The program director for the Aspen Institute, Zeenat Rahman, moderated a conversation with Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, of Union Theological Seminary and Washington National Cathedral and Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in a panel-like format. Rahman asked why each was in Birmingham.

Pesner said he was there for all of the Jews who marched 50-plus years ago with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“We, Jews, did not start marching 50 years ago in Selma [during the Civil Rights Movement], we started marching 5,000 years ago when we came out of Egypt and we will march for 5,000 more years if that’s what it takes to bring on justice,” he said.

Douglas told a story about how she and her 26-year-old watched Netflix’s “When They See Us” together from different states engaging in conversation through text. Each of his texts was distressing as he expressed his own stress about what’s going on, she said.

“When They See Us” is a series based on events of the 1989 Central Park jogger case in New York City that explores the lives of the five male suspects who were wrongly accused and prosecuted on charges related to the rape and assault of a white woman. The males were known as the Central Park 5.

“I’m here because I want to make sure that…the world is better for my son, his children, that he doesn’t become a Central Park 5, that we don’t have more four little girls who were bombed. I do this work for our children and so that they inherit it from us.”

Rahman then asked Douglas and Pesner how they worked to create what Dr. King called the beloved community of justice, healing and reconciliation.

Douglas said she is from the Christian-faith tradition “in which we believe in a Savior that was crucified and I always say to those in my faith community and my tribe, that ought to matter and that ought to make a difference.”

She added that Jesus wasn’t crucified because He prayed too much, He was crucified because He witnessed for something and witnessed against something in His life, in His ministry and all that He stood for. “He witnessed a place where He describes the first will be last and the last will be first. You won’t be able to see the difference,” she said, “all will be treated as the scared children of God that they are regardless, everyone will be treated equally. That’s the just future.”

Pesner said the Jewish community tells itself every year “’we were slaves in Egypt, we were freed and therefore we are to love the stranger,’ it’s…the most often repeated commandment in The Torah . . . God says you should love the stranger, identify with the most oppressed…because you, yourselves were the most oppressed . . . we’ve come obviously a long way since the civil rights era, 1.3 black men in America go to jail while one in 17 white men go to jail – that’s mass incarceration… and I ask my Jewish family, where are we? Are we actually showing up in the way that we [are] commanded 36 different times in the Torah?”

Those in attendance included Mayor Randall Woodfin, Rev. Arthur Price Jr. pastor of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and Rev. Dr. Christopher M. Hamlin pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church.

Woodfin said it should not be a surprise that “this very important conversation about bridging racial and faith divides is occurring right here, a spot, a church revered as ground zero for social change in this country.”

“Without question our city, Birmingham, we’re miles and miles ahead from where we were thanks to the previous generation of fearless activists, but there are still more roads to travel, more barriers to break down and that’s the spirit of this evening’s event,” said Woodfin. “And I know we’ll get there because of the people in this room, because of the people in this community, because of the people in this city.”

He added that we have a lot of work ahead of us “but I believe we are in the right place to make it happen.”

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues.

The Community Foundation leverages gifts and bequests from many people to drive positive change, bring people together to address community issues, build on opportunities and achieve measurable results, and work in partnership with others to improve the life of the local region.