About four years ago, a new and strong coalition of African-American leaders arose in New Orleans: Justice and Beyond. The group meets every Monday in the late afternoon at Christian Unity Baptist Church, 1700 Conti St., in the shadow of the elevated interstate. A buffet of chicken, red beans and rice gives way to a lively, sometimes passionate two hours of discussion and planning. The central focus is on issues of great importance to the black community in New Orleans and adjoining parishes.
I continue to be amazed at how masterfully the group is led, more so than any other group I know. The Rev. Dr. Dwight Webster, the pastor of Christian Unity, and Mr. Pat Bryant, a longtime civil rights leader, know just how to help very angry men and women move towards workable solutions to the great problems many face.
Recently, during one of the Monday forums, a woman was so angry that her teenage grandson was being held in jail without bond that she started yelling, using four-letter words to condemn the New Orleans police and the district attorney. “I appreciate your anger, and we will work to find ways to change the system,” Webster said in his pastoral voice, “but remember we are meeting in a church. This is a sacred place and we do not allow curse words in here. We want to move steadily but calmly towards workable solutions.”
As he talked, I was reminded of a term used by the New Orleans Jeremiah Group, part of the national Industrial Areas Foundation: “cold anger.” The idea is not to suppress your anger but to turn it into passion. Passion directed at unjust causes is a powerful thing, provided it is channeled into strategies for change that can actually be carried out. (It is no surprise to learn that Webster helped bring IAF to New Orleans.)
Participants at the forums include faith and neighborhood leaders, union members, social activists, political leaders, and others who feel left out of the top-down leadership of the city, state, and nation. Typically, more than 75 participants attend, and, when a hot-button issue is up for discussion, as many as 200 will fill the large, upstairs meeting rooms at Christian Unity.
The coalition is built on justice, both social and economic, and righteousness, defined as “right-relatedness.”
Among key topics on recent agendas have been the failure of certain public schools to meet the needs of the children, the privatization of public services, health issues, how City Hall is spending our tax money, law enforcement, sentencing and incarceration, and the failure of elected officials to properly represent the black community.
Justice and Beyond insists that public officials be held accountable for all the wrong they do and offers support when they act in the best interests of the people they represent. The coalition does not endorse any particular candidate seeking office, but is willing to provide every candidate an opportunity to speak briefly on their own behalf.
Back in September, Justice and Beyond supported the effort by “Take ’Em Down NOLA” to remove Confederate monuments in the city. At 3 p.m. on Jan. 20, as Donald Trump is inaugurated as president, Justice and Beyond members will take part in what organizers hope will be a massive demonstration and march. Beginning at City Hall, demonstrators will carry signs that say “No to Fascism! No to White Supremacy! No to the Rule of Billionaires!”
Webster helps lead Justice and Beyond in much the same way he leads Christian Unity. When I see him in action at 10 a.m. Sunday services and at the 4:45 p.m. Justice and Beyond forums the next day, I think of the famous words of the great 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich: “Justice without love leads eventually to cynicism and tyranny; love without justice leads to sentimentality.”
Both Webster and Bryant stress that the leadership of Justice and Beyond must be “unabashedly black,” although members of all races and ethnicities are invited to participate in the program planning and discussion and to take part in the actions that flow from them.
Bryant likes to quote the late civil rights leader, Anne Braden, who was white and whom he calls his mentor. “Now we’re not going to lead black struggles,” she would say. “The best we can do is help move the system in whatever way we can.” Most of his life, Bryant says, he has “held on to that jewel.” In his view: “White support must be strategic and not dominate.”
White idealists like me are encouraged to express our views, work on planning the forums, and join in the resulting actions, but we are not to interfere with the black leadership. (On occasion I have suggested forums on issues that I am familiar with, like prison reform, and am pleased that they went well.)
Having accepted the core principle that Justice and Beyond be unabashedly black, I reach out to all whites who will listen. My message is that if you want to work against racism and support racial reconciliation efforts, you too should be part of Justice and Beyond, listen to what the black leaders are saying and support them when you agree. So far, few have listened to my pronouncements, and only a handful of whites regularly attend the Monday forums.
The seed that became Justice and Beyond was sown in 2012 during the fight to prevent Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson, who is African-American, from being denied the position of chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court. The state Constitution provides that the longest serving justice become the chief justice when the position opens up, and Johnson was that member.
Calling themselves “Justice for Johnson,” black and white leaders across the state came to Johnson’s defense and prevailed in securing the seat for her. Soon, the leaders realized that they could advocate for other all-important policy decisions that affect the black community. Justice for Johnson quickly became the coalition it is today: Justice and Beyond.
Bryant speaks of the necessity of the coalition developing a long-term vision, what Braden called “a cathedral.” Too often, he says, reform groups work on various issues that do not connect and the cathedral never gets built. “But the cathedral, built a stone at a time, will help everyone know where we are going and what the final building will look like,” he says.
I especially like the cathedral analogy since I served for three years as the canon missioner at the Washington National Cathedral. When I mentioned that interlude in a lighthearted conversation with Bryant, he wryly agreed with the idea that maybe I should be put in charge of the gargoyles.
Webster speaks of Justice and Beyond this way: “Pat Bryant came to me and said that a coalition like the one we now have would be able to accomplish things heretofore lacking. We could provide a platform in the context of the church that would address critical issues in the city. He had to convince me; I had something else planned for Monday evenings. But I was convinced.
“Pat brought to the table his 50-year experience in civil rights work, particularly in tenant organizing across the South. He has a very wide experience. He is the son of a minister and very knowledgeable about the law and what can be done with it.”
Since working with Justice and Beyond, Bryant has become a faithful member of Christian Unity. He tells me he feels at home at Christian Unity, more so than at any other church he knows.
Until recently, Justice and Beyond has been one of our city’s best-kept secrets, at least among whites. Now is the time, especially with the Trump administration taking over, for blacks and whites who seek both justice and righteousness to attend the forums.
I urge you to consider becoming regular participants, and join in the actions when you agree. No one can speak for the black community like the black community. That seems so obvious I hesitate to say it, but it still must be said.
The Rev. William Barnwell, an Episcopal priest, is the author of four books tracing his evolution as a Christian, from boyhood in segregated Charleston, South Carolina, to the continuing struggle against racism in New Orleans today. His latest book, expanding on these and other stories from his work with the Kairos prison ministry, is “Called to Heal the Brokenhearted,” published by the University Press of Mississippi.
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