The Reverend Dr. Gregory M. Howard, president of the Baptist General Convention of Virginia and senior pastor of First Baptist Church East End in Newport News, Virginia, presents the keynote address “Race, Religion and What’s Right” during the religious leaders summit at Eastern Mennonite University in April. (Courtesy photo)

EMU, NAACP and Faith in Action co-host religious leaders summit, racial equity training

Eastern Mennonite University’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion (CODI) was one of three community organizations that hosted a religious leaders summit and a racial equity training on campus this spring.

Though the two events were separate gatherings, they “tied together in many ways with regard to social justice and issues of equity,” said professor and CODI chair Melody Pannell. Pannell also chairs the Religious Affairs Committee of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham branch of the NAACP, which along with Faith in Action joined CODI in planning the events.

Professor Melody Pannell chairs Eastern Mennonite University’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion as well as the Religious Affairs Committee of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham branch of the NAACP. (Courtesy photo)

The religious leaders summit took place on April 26, 2018, with representatives of EMU and Baptist, Episcopal, Mennonite and other churches. The April 27-28 racial equity training was attended by select EMU students, faculty and staff as well as representatives of various churches and community agencies.

CODI is comprised of faculty, staff and students and works to develop and sustain a diverse and welcoming community of learning. It provides education and training on diversity and inclusion – and much more – to the EMU community.

The NAACP Religious Affairs Committee includes chapter members who are ministerial and lay leaders who, among other responsibilities, “provide resource assistance for religious education and social actions activities associated with the improvement of race relations,” according to Pannell.

Faith in Action is a coalition of 25 congregations including Christians, Jews, Muslims and Unitarians working together to effect systemic change in the Harrisonburg-Rockingham community.

Religious Leaders Summit

The goal of the April 26 summit was titled “Social Justice as a Movement of Faith” was to bring together religious leaders in the community “to ask how we can respond to or engage in this particular climate on issues of social justice, and be challenged in looking at the Gospel as a social justice gospel,” Pannell said.

It featured as keynote speaker The Reverend Dr. Gregory M. Howard, president of the Baptist General Convention of Virginia and senior pastor of First Baptist Church East End in Newport News, Virginia.

In his speech “Race, Religion and What’s Right,” Howard highlighted oppression in the American Dream, the ongoing ramifications of privilege, and the schools-to-prison pipeline, and said that “different” does not mean “deficient.” Rather, he said, diversity is divine. Howard quoted the Rev. Dr. Frank Thomas, author of American Dream 2.0: A Christian Way Out of the Great Recession, released by Abingdon Press in August 2012, saying that, “our greatest enemy is privilege because no one wants to give it up.”

Watch WHSV coverage of the religious leaders summit.

Howard is the author of Black Sacred Rhetoric: The Gospel According to Religious Folk Talk and Voices Crying Out in the Wilderness: Theological Reflection Where Context Matters (Borderstone 2010, 2014). He earned a Master of Divinity degree from the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University, where he also teaches, and a Doctor of Ministry in homiletics from the Aquinas Institute of Theology at St. Louis University. He was a 2009 Joe R. Engle Fellow at Princeton Theological Seminary and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy.

Racial Equity Training

Facilitated by the North Carolina-based Racial Equity Institute, the workshop was titled “Phase 1: Foundations in Historical and Institutional Racism.” It emphasizes a shift in focus “from individual bigotry and bias” to “historical, cultural, structural and institutional analysis.”

The training allowed participants “to develop a clearer understanding of how and why a system of racial stratification was created in the U.S. and how it has persisted through time, even as overtly racist laws have been overturned,” said Dayna Olson-Getty, associate pastor of Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg.

The data showing inequity, said Pannell, is “mind blowing.” For example, workshop materials note research from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2012) that found that “although whites are more likely to violate drug laws than people of color, in some states black men have been sent to prison on drug charges at rates 20-50 times greater than white men.”

And once they are released, it states, “a web of laws and regulations that make it difficult or impossible to secure jobs, education, housing and public assistance and often to vote or serve on juries” effectively creates a “permanent second-class citizenship” akin to living under Jim Crow law.

That – along with other historical practices and policies – has contributed to wealth disparity that workshop materials call “a warning sign of a much greater social problem.”

“It is not just about if we see ourselves as good people,” Pannell said, “or whether or not we are personally trying to oppress somebody, but we have to look at privilege – which some people have and some people don’t. Why is that, and what do we do about that?”

“This training is invaluable for anyone who wants to contribute to the pursuit of a more racially just world,” said Olson-Getty, “and lays the groundwork for community leaders who want to work together in their own community to pursue racial equity.”

Professor Melody Pannell teaches an online Race and Gender course that begins Monday, June 4. For more information, click here.