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Drew Intensive Course Combines Faith with Activism

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II T’03 leads revival of MLK’s Poor People’s Campaign.

March 2018 – More than 200 gathered at Drew University for an intensive course on public theology and activism that embodies the revival of the Poor People’s Campaign of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Leading the revival is the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a 2003 graduate of Drew Theological School, president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival. Barber is working with others to renew King’s call for social justice, including Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who, with Barber, co-wrote The Third Reconstruction: The Story of Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of New Justice Movement and the Rev. Shyrl Uzzell, the seminary tour coordinator at Repairers and assistant pastor at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C.

All three participated in the Drew event—which was presented by Drew Theological School—with Barber connected remotely via video. The four-hour course trains religious leaders at theological schools and seminaries to become activists and advocates for the campaign and moral revolution movements. At the conclusion of the Drew session, participants signed a pledge to become advocates for the campaign.

Barber said those who want to be a part of the moral revolution need to cultivate biblical literacy and study American history.

Three-quarters of the Bible tells speaks of and for people fighting against oppression, Barber said. And all of the New Testament is about living under colonialism and an empire ruled by the one percent. As a key example, Barber drew the group’s attention to Isaiah 10: 1-2: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”

In surveying the pattern of injustice in the U.S., Barber pointed to major civil rights accomplishments achieved by activists working collaboratively in “black/white fusion coalitions.” Public education and health care for all Americans, women’s suffrage and the New Deal, the Social Gospel movement and the Civil Rights movement were all possible because of this collaborative cooperation, Barber noted, and this is what will be required to move America forward now.

After speaking, Barber took questions. One attendee, Avianca Bouchedid, asked, “We know facts. But the other side doesn’t want to hear facts. How do we present facts and own the narrative?” Barber pointed out something the Poor People’s Campaign is doing: putting faces on the issues to go with the facts. A video was shown of people of all ages and races giving testimony about their struggles, their losses, their needs for social justice.

This movement, Wilson-Hartgrove said, is not just about justice for human beings but also for the environment. “The earth is dying,” he said. “We are so addicted to carbon we’re poisoning our water and at the same time, carbon emissions are making waters rise.”

Ultimately, Wilson-Hartgrove said, “The language of salvation is about saving us from ourselves.”

Many who attended were inspired by what Barber, Wilson-Hartgrove and Uzzell—who’s also a theo-musicologist—shared. Ryan Pitt, a first-year Master of Divinity student, hopes to apply what he learned to his youth ministry. “We need to take all this and translate it for a high school sophomore,” Pitt said. “That’s where our future leaders are coming from. We have to know how to share this with them so they want to be a part of it.”

Wilson-Hartgrove was heartened by the crowd that had gathered, which was deeply diverse in ages, race and background. “It was a good mix of students and community leaders,” he said. “Schools like Drew have a convening power, bringing people together to work together.”

Indeed, the event furthered the Theological School’s mission of being “rooted in the Methodist tradition of innovative and bold interpretations of Christian theology and spiritual practices to empower creative thought and courageous action to advance justice, peace and love of God, neighbor and the earth.”