Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas of ‘Union Theological Seminary’: “If we want enough food to eat, then we should not withhold that from another”

I do think that the fundamental and defining step begins with making a commitment to not withhold from another that which we would not want withheld from ourselves. So, for instance — if we want decent housing, then we should not withhold that from another. If we want enough food to eat, then we should not withhold […]

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I do think that the fundamental and defining step begins with making a commitment to not withhold from another that which we would not want withheld from ourselves. So, for instance — if we want decent housing, then we should not withhold that from another. If we want enough food to eat, then we should not withhold that from another. If we want adequate healthcare, educational opportunities, employment opportunities, then we should not withhold that from another. And so, we should then commit ourselves to building a society that does not withhold from another that which we would not want withheld from ourselves. This is the first step toward healing our country — for again that which really divides our country is the reality of inequity of opportunity and life-enhancing options.

As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas.

Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas is the Dean of Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) at Union Theological Seminary, as well as the Canon Theologian at the Washington National Cathedral and Theologian in Residence at Trinity Church Wall Street. Douglas is widely published in national and international journals and other publications. Douglas’ ground-breaking books include Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (2015), Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective (1999), The Black Christ (1994, 25th Anniversary edition 2019), and What’s Faith Got to Do with It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls (2005).

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in Dayton Ohio, one of four children — 2 sisters and 1 brother — in an Episcopalian family.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

When I was about seven-years-old, I remember riding with my parents through the inner city of my hometown of Dayton. It was a rainy evening. I looked out the window of the car and noticed a little girl and boy crossing the street. They were about my age. I presumed them to be sister and brother. They were a bit disheveled and not properly dressed for the cold rainy weather. From my seven-year-old perspective they looked poor and hungry. Tears literally filled my eyes as I imagined for them a life of struggle. In the midst of my tears, I made a silent vow to one day come back and rescue those two children from the blight of Dayton’s inner city.

Initially, I fantasized that I would grow up, while they remained young, and I would become a teacher and somehow change their life options. As I got older the thought of those children never left me. They created within me a deep sense of accountability to the poor and marginalized people of our society, especially to those who looked like me. I was determined to find a vocation that would make a just difference in Black lives, especially those trapped in life-negating conditions. It is this commitment and sense of accountability that informs my work and scholarship.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I am currently engaged in a book project titled Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter. This project reflects conversations with my 27-year-old son as he has questioned whether or not there will ever be a time when Black lives will really matter in this country. I try to address his questions, which also reflect my own doubts in the justice of God. The book reflects my journey to understand my faith in the midst of pleas for Black Lives to Matter, through the questions my son asked. Through this book I attempt to answer these questions by first discerning why this nation is one that “let’s Black people die,” and then what God has to say about it. This is a journey through the crucifying realities of Black death to the resurrecting hope of Black life. I think that this book will help address the doubt and perhaps hopelessness that many Black people, especially young Black people, are feeling and facing as we indeed live through these times when Black life is once again under siege.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My maternal grandmother has been a profound inspiration for all that I attempt to do. Her name was Helen Vivian Dorsey. My sisters, brother and I called her Mama. Mama was a poor Black woman who by the age of eighteen was already a widow with a young child, my mother, to rear.

Mama made her way from Atlanta, Georgia to Columbus, Ohio during the time when Black people were migrating out of the South in search of a better life. For all the years that I knew Mama, she ran the elevator at the main post office in Columbus. Those were the days in which you literally had to ring a bell for it to come. When it arrived, there was an elevator operator, in a starched uniform, sitting on a little stool who would crank open two gates, ask you which floor you needed to get to, close the gates, push the proper button to get you to your floor. My grandmother was that operator.

As a child, I thought her job was so “neat,” as we use to say. I did not realize how hard it was to be stuck in an elevator eight hours a day, without windows or fresh air, enduring your shareof insults, and for a salary that barely kept food on your table. My grandmother hid these hardships from her four grandchildren. No matter how difficult her day might have been, she always made our visits with her fun, even counting out pennies so that we could get treats at the corner store.

I was very close to Mama Dorsey. When she would come to visit, or even when we would visit her, I always found an excuse to sleep with her at night. It was in those nights lying in bed next to her that I got to know about her dream for my siblings and me. My grandmother’s dream was that her four grandchildren would complete high school. This was an audacious dream for a woman who barely had a sixth-grade education and had lived through the time when “white officials believed that only white students needed a high school education and so refused to operate high schools for Black children.” Yet, she held fast to her dream, even to the point of setting money aside out of every paycheck for each of her grandchildren to receive after completing high school.

It was in those quiet times before falling off to sleep, as I lay in bed with Mama, that I discovered what fueled her dream, and in fact, kept her going long day after long day. Each night, without fail, I would hear her prayerful whispers thanking God for getting her through another day, and for keeping her grandchildren safe. But most importantly, I heard her pray that the future would be better for her four grandchildren.

My grandmother did not live long enough to see her dream for her grandchildren come true. She died from a brain aneurysm at the age of 58, before any of us finished high school. After her death, however, I was more determined than ever to do my part in making her dream come true — as were my siblings. We each completed high school and much more. It is her dream that continues to inspire me.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

That book is James Cone’s book, A Black Theology of Liberation.

By my junior year of college, my childhood love for Jesus was slowly being replaced with a deep skepticism. I wanted to know if the Jesus I loved unconditionally as a child unconditionally loved me back. I wondered if my Blackness made a difference. After all, the Jesus of my Sunday school lessons was always pictured as white. This fact alone made me skeptical of His love for me, even as it led me to question the propriety of my love for Him.

How could a white Jesus ever care about me, not to speak of caring for poor Black children? And how could I, a Black person, ever have faith in a white Jesus? I didn’t want to abandon the church, or Jesus, but I needed answers to these questions. I was experiencing an agonizing crisis of faith. It was then that I was introduced by my college chaplain, David Woodyard, to James Cone’s book, A Black Theology of Liberation.

When I opened the book, I could not believe what I was reading. Cone pronounced, “Jesus is the Black Christ!” He further explained that “The definition of Christ as Black means that he represents the complete opposite of the values of white culture . . . (and) leads the warfare against the white assault on Blackness . . .” After reading these words my questions were answered. I could be Black with a love for Jesus without contradiction, because in fact Jesus was Black like me. And most significantly, as Cone made clear, because Jesus “was born in a stable and cradled in a manger (the equivalent of a beer case in a ghetto alley),” He was one with Black children trapped behind the life-draining color-line of inner-city realities. Essentially, Cone’s declaration of Jesus’ Blackness opened me to a whole new appreciation of my faith, the faith of my grandmother. My love for Jesus was renewed. My angst turned to an excitement. This discovery marked the beginning of my purposeful theological journey. It is because of that book that I am a professor of theology today.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

The quote that resonates with me is from a speech that I once heard Marian Wright Edelman, former President and CEO of The Children’s Defense Fund give. In that speech she said that “we must pay our rent for living on this earth.” I have carried that with me. And for me, we pay our rent in service, to fostering a more just future where all people can live and flourish into the people they were created to be. My vocational journey is all about my effort to pay my rent.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership begins with creating an atmosphere and space where persons can bring their best selves and their gifts toward a shared vision. This is a space that should be defined by a commitment to respect the sacred dignity and worth of every individual and one that recognizes that no one person’s voice is more significant to the other.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences. This is likely a huge topic, but briefly, can you share your view on how this evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

The polarization reflects a nation with an unsettled identity. Will this be a nation that continues the legacy of being a slaveholding nation? Or, will this be a nation that lives into a vision where the inalienable rights of all people are protected? When all is said and done, ours is a nation that has consistently struggled to decide if its democratic vision is more rhetoric than reality. If the story a nation writes is the story it becomes, then the civil war insurrection at the capitol on January 6, was telling of who this nation has become. It is indeed a nation at war with itself. Until this nation decides what it wants to be, then the polarization will be deep and insurrections like that at the Capitol will continue to erupt.

I have no pretensions about bridging the divide between politicians, or between partisan media outlets. But I’d love to discuss the divide that is occurring between families, co-workers, and friends. Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your experience about how family or friends have become a bit alienated because of the partisan atmosphere? In your opinion, what can be done to bridge the divide that has occurred in families? Can you please share a story or example?

One of my siblings voted in 2016 for the presidential vison “To Make America Great Again.” This of course created great consternation within my family. However, because we did not want to be alienated from one another, we expressed our dismay to my sibling and asked the reasoning behind such support. We kept lines of communication open, remembered that we were family — and engaged in discussions about this decision. In the end, they were able to come to a different point of view and we were able to preserve our relationship.

How about the workplace, what can be done to bridge the partisan divide that has fractured relationships there? Can you please share a story or example?

I have not been a part of a work environment where partisan divides have fractured relationships. However, there has been tensions and divides regarding matters of racial justice, this has always been confronted head-on. For instance, during my time as a professor at Goucher College Freddy Gray was murdered and the Baltimore Uprising occurred. Tensions were very high on campus and unresolved issues of racial injustice and racism on the campus erupted. In response I, along with a small group of other faculty, orchestrated a teach-in and developed a series of classes talking about matters of race. This provided a space for people to talk about this issue honestly and openly, without fear of being attacked. As a result, the faculty formed an anti-racism committee that initiated ongoing conversations and programming to continue to confront the complex realities of racism on the campus socially as well as pedagogically, systemically and structurally.

I think one of the causes of our divide comes from the fact that many of us see a political affiliation as the primary way to self identify. But of course there are many other ways to self identify. What do you think can be done to address this?

Simply put, we must be reminded of our common humanity. This begins by reminding people we all have hearts that can be hurt, bodies that can be injured and spirts that can be broken. This can typically happen when we come together in times of shared grief as a nation — indeed this is why those moments are important. During this COVID-19 pandemic our common human vulnerability has been made clear. The pandemic is no respecter of political or partisan divides. Unfortunately, it was used as a tool to divide. However, as the nation shares the loss of 500,000 of its citizens the divides can be overcome by coming together to grieve. It is in that moment of grieving together that we recognize our human connection. We have seen this for instance in relation to 9/11. This is why it was important for President Biden and Vice President Harris to have a memorial for the victims of COVID-19 the evening before the inauguration. These kinds of shared moments serve as more than ritual. They serve to cross those things that divide us and to bring us together as human beings-equally vulnerable to the realities of being human.

Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us?

This is the role of moral leaders lifting their voices and being an example on the public square. The only way to overcome that which is negative is by providing “counter-programming” that is positive. We are responsible for the culture that we create, it is a reflection of who we are. If it is not who we claim to be, then we must take every opportunity to put forth another message and example. This is what moral leadership is all about — and it is this leadership that must come to the forefront.

Sadly we have reached a fevered pitch where it seems that the greatest existential catastrophe that can happen to our country is that “the other side” seizes power. We tend to lose sight of the fact that as a society and as a planet we face more immediate dangers. What can we do to lower the ante a bit and not make every small election cycle a battle for the “very existence of our country”?

We do this by making sure that it is not. This means that in between “election cycles” we must build a nation where people’s voices are heard and where people are not left behind. Essentially, we must do the work of fostering a just society where indeed people have the opportunities and resources needed to not simply thrive but to flourish and feel like their lives matter. The kind of divides that we find ourselves facing are born from a nation which is defined by profound inequality. If we address the inequality, and close that gap between the privileged and the marginalized, then people will not feel as if their very lives and well-being are on the line during each election cycle.

Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

I don’t have a 5-step program for how we can help our country to heal. However, I do think that the fundamental and defining step begins with making a commitment to not withhold from another that which we would not want withheld from ourselves. So, for instance — if we want decent housing, then we should not withhold that from another. If we want enough food to eat, then we should not withhold that from another. If we want adequate healthcare, educational opportunities, employment opportunities, then we should not withhold that from another. And so, we should then commit ourselves to building a society that does not withhold from another that which we would not want withheld from ourselves. This is the first step toward healing our country — for again that which really divides our country is the reality of inequity of opportunity and life-enhancing options.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

This is not the worse period that our nation has faced, and so I am optimistic. My optimism is captured in a story I often tell because it is that which gives me hope even in times like these. It is the story of my great grandmother. We called her Mama Mary. Mama Mary was born into slavery. She died when I was around six years old. Every time I think about Mama Mary, I think of those Black people who were born into slavery, died in slavery and never drew a free breath. In fact, they never dreamt that they would ever breathe a free breath. Yet, they fought for freedom anyhow. They fought for a freedom that they knew they would never see, but believed would in fact one day be. They fought for a freedom that was nothing less than the freedom that was the justice of God. This was their hope — a hope that was found and lived out in their struggle for freedom — for it was in that struggle that they met God — even in the midst of slavery. And it is because of their hope that I am here doing the work that I do. My life is a testament to their hope, and for me to not hope and to work toward a better future is for me to betray their legacy of hope.

If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would tell them the story of my great-grandmother and all of those who went before them to pave the way for them to have the life they enjoy. And so, I emphasize the importance of being accountable to those who went before them and in doing so, they will be creating a better future for those who will come after them.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

It is not a particular person, but it is a Black LGBTQ child or teen who finds themself homeless and on the street because their families have rejected them. 29% of LGBTQ youth have experienced homelessness, been kicked out, or run away and 40% have considered suicide or engaged in self-harm. For Black LGBTQ youth the despair can be even more devastating given the realities of racism. And, so, I want to share time with them to let them know they are not alone and that they are loved by God.

How can our readers follow you online?

On Twitter — @DeanKBD

This was very meaningful, and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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