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Topeka JUMP supporters gathered for a "Nehemiah Action Assembly" to press for racial justice.

Rev. Pat Jackson, Interwoven Congregations Quarterly (ICQ): Anton Ahrens and Jason Maymon, thank you for joining us for this interview about how congregations are DOING racial justice in Topeka, Kansas. How and why did Topeka Jump get started?

Anton Ahrens (Topeka JUMP and Trinity Presbyterian Church): I was here 10 years ago when the first organizer from DART (Direct Action and Resource Training Center), Shanae’ Calhoun, came to Topeka. She had meetings with clergy and lay people in faith communities around Shawnee county and found that there was interest in doing justice through the DART process. Then we had a planning meeting where we looked at the call to do biblical justice with people from 10 or 11 faith communities. Now we've grown to about 28 churches.

ICQ: What’s DART’s approach?

Jason Maymon (Topeka JUMP): DART’s approach is to bring congregations of various faiths in a community together to identify what community problems need to be addressed. Those problems are identified through stories we collect from members of the community. After problems are identified, the community votes on what issue they want to focus on. Then they'll conduct research with policymakers and community partners to identify the best viable solution. They then present that solution to the appropriate decision maker in what we call Nehemiah Action Assemblies, which are big assemblies with a large chunk of the population of the community. So listen for problems, research the problem, organize to prompt action, and then follow-up.

ICQ: What were the problems lifted up in Topeka?

Anton: Most every year for the past ten years we've lifted up a new campaign from that listening process. Our first campaign was to ask the public schools to make sure kids had access to services like food after school and on weekends and materials for schools. There were about 750 people in attendance at our Nehemiah meeting to watch that exchange with the superintendent of schools here in Topeka. We've also had campaigns to increase the stock of affordable housing, support mental health, anti-violence, and a transportation campaign to help people get to living wage jobs by providing door-to-door service from home to work and back for a minimal charge.

ICQ: How did that campaign work out?

Anton: The Joint Economic Development Organization of Shawnee County and Topeka receives $5 million annually to give incentives to big employers. And we said: “Can we have a little slice of that pie? We could finance this transportation program with $100,000 a year.” That was approved and over the course of three years people took 45,000 rides to work or back home, door to door, for $5 one way. But then the county said “We don't have money in our budget next year for this pilot” and it was cancelled. These are the ups and downs in this work. But since then, the city has stood up a new program that's very much like our ride-to-work program where in a segment of southeast Topeka you can ride anywhere, door-to-door, for two bucks. I think Topeka JUMP’s action moved this community to reimagine what transportation can be. I doubt otherwise whether that would have happened.

ICQ: That's impressive. I'm struck that every year there's an opportunity to identify a new issue. Do you set aside the project from the previous year or is there follow-up?

Topeka JUMP members advocating for affordable housing.

Jason: Once we pick up a campaign, even if we vote on a new one the next year, we don't drop one until we get what we're looking for. For example, we've been working on that affordable housing campaign for eight years.

ICQ: How can congregations engage with DART to become an affiliate like Topeka JUMP?

Jason: A group of clergy can invite DART’s national staff to come and assist them in building an organization, and that assistance usually comes with grants. People can go on the DART website and email our executive director, John Aeschbury. The only restriction is that DART tries to not plant an affiliate where there's already another interfaith organization doing this kind of work.

ICQ: What’s the structure of Topeka JUMP? And Jason, are you a Topeka JUMP or a DART employee?

Jason: I'm an organizer with Topeka JUMP and DART is the national affiliate that we rely on for training. There are three organizers working for Topeka JUMP today.

Anton: I’m one of the two co-chairs of Topeka JUMP. Then every participating faith community has a number of leaders whose job is to recruit what we call “network members” who agree to bring at least three other people to the Nehemia meeting. That’s key because that's what builds our people power, having a lot of people listening when we ask the public official to take an action on one of our campaigns.

Topeka JUMP supporters rallying for affordable housing.

ICQ: What’s the budget for Topeka Jump this year and what are your fund sources?

Anton: It's about $250,000. About 35% comes from congregations, 25% from companies, and the remainder comes from grants. We didn’t have nearly the budget when we started up with one organizer.

ICQ: How many congregational members take part in the DART training?

Anton: I think we've gotten about 100 congregational leaders over the years to go to at least one training. I've been to seven myself. The trainings cover how to do investment meetings with companies when we ask for support, and research meetings with public officials where we’re seeking their agreement to come to the Nehemiah Assembly. Then we’re trained on how you negotiate with the public officials during the Nehemiah Assembly. One Topeka JUMP leader is on the stage with the public official, asking the question: “Will you provide a program to get people more housing in Topeka by putting money into the affordable housing trust fund?” You just stop and let them answer and then you negotiate. Dart provides training to do that in front of thousands of people which, as you can imagine, is kind of stressful.

ICQ: That sounds intimidating.

Anton: I’ve done it twice. It is intimidating, but it's also freeing because even though you're just an individual on the stage asking the question, you've got these masses of people in front of you who the public official also feels, which makes a difference in how they respond.

ICQ: Have you ever had a Nehemiah Assembly where the public official says, “I'll get back to you on that.”

Anton: Of course! We call them “the Ds” -- Divert, Delay. So during the Nehemiah Assembly, we acknowledge the official’s response and then bridge back to our ask, while trying to engage that public official’s self-interest. “Don't you think that housing in Topeka is in a critical state and we need more?” Let them decide if they're going to answer that, yes or no. It's not rocket science, but it's very effective.

ICQ: So some years the official on stage says “Yes, I'll do it” and other years they don’t make a commitment. Is that a failure, or a time for follow up?

Anton: It’s all in the follow-up. Even if they say yes, that yes might not be yes! So we have to be clear about what they've said yes for. Our housing campaign is the best example. In 2015, we asked the official on stage, “Will you start an affordable housing trust fund for Topeka?” And they said “Yes.” But then it took two years just to get an ordinance written so the city could create an account. That was 2018. And here we are in 2023, and they have only put $500,000 in that fund when their own housing study concluded that they need $50 million to make a dent in our housing shortage. We continue to have conversations back and forth. For me it’s a good illustration of the peaks and valleys because you get that “yes” and you think “Oh great,” but then you do the work — and that takes a while.

ICQ: What have been the biggest accomplishments and challenges for Topeka JUMP?

Anton: We've provided justice for Topeka / Shawnee County. We haven’t had victories where we got everything we wanted, but we've moved the dial. People know about these issues and that there are people ready to act on them. That’s huge. And then we have developed community across racial and other barriers which is fantastic.

Jason: I'm amazed by the relationships that have been built. Having such a diverse group of people with different beliefs and backgrounds coming together because they're united around making their community better is amazing. Then I think the biggest challenge, particularly for our longer campaigns, is to make sure that people don't lose hope. But we just have to remember that justice takes a lot longer than most of us would like. But I think it's important to keep going because I think God calls us to do this work and God’s going to continue it after we're gone.

Anton: I've talked with many people who were in tears when we've not been successful. But I also remember Micah 6:8, which is, to paraphrase, “do justice now.” That's the point. It's not your responsibility to complete the task, but it is your responsibility to make sure it continues. Topeka JUMP has given me the opportunity to live out my faith in doing justice in a way that I never would have been able to through any single faith community; and that's been a really great gift to me.

[This interview was part of the October 2023 Interwoven Congregations Quarterly on "Congregations Doing Racial Justice." Catch the full issue here.]

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The following are two interviews from the October Interwoven Congregations Quarterly highlighting the work of criminal justice reform in Arlington, VA by the Commonwealth Attorney and two local congregations.

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Commonwealth Attorney for Arlington County

Rev. Pat Jackson, Interwoven Congregations Quarterly (ICQ): Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Commonwealth Attorney for Arlington County, thank you for joining us for this interview about the partnership between Calloway United Methodist Church and Rock Spring United Church of Christ and their efforts to do racial justice. What potential do you see for congregations like Calloway and Rock Spring to specifically help make the criminal justice system more just?

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (Commonwealth Attorney for Arlington County): I applaud Rock Spring and Calloway for having their Courageous Conversations. To go in depth with stakeholders in the system is a huge step in the right direction. I was so grateful that when they asked me to be a presenter I asked if I could also be a participant, because I thought it would give me an opportunity not just to contribute but to learn.

ICQ: What did you cover during your presentation in the Courageous Conversations series?

Parisa: I talked about the disparities we have in our criminal justice system; restorative justice; how we are approaching reform; and why it's better to not ask for cash bail and create a safer community.

ICQ: What would you identify today as the chief challenges around racial equity in the criminal justice system for Arlington County?

Parisa: When I ran for office, a simple marijuana possession was the most frequently occurring charge in the county and it had extraordinary racial disparities attached to it. 57% of the defendants were people of color even though they're only 9% of county residents. In 2020, when I came into office, I had a study done by independent researchers of the charging decisions in 2017— 2018. They learned that if you were black, you were charged at a 50% higher rate of seriousness when you controlled for all other factors than if you were white. If you are black or Hispanic, you are more likely to get convicted, get a carceral sentence and more likely to have a longer period of probation than if you were white or Asian. So, we've adopted policies that address that, such as not asking for cash bail so poverty is not criminalized. People are less likely to get convicted or incarcerated and have lower recidivism rates if they're released quickly, as opposed to languishing in jail for months before resolution of the case.

ICQ: Where can congregations help?

Parisa: I really want to change the pretrial system to what probation was supposed to be when it was first envisioned. I've seen cases where somebody has done something seriously wrong but they get out on pre-trial and they have the support systems that they need to stop using drugs, to finish a GED, to start taking community college courses or getting into apprenticeships -- and they end up being rehabilitated so that we don't have to continue prosecuting them. But the vast majority of the people in our criminal legal system are indigent and don't have any capital or social capital. I would love to see faith communities give attention to pretrial ministries. If somebody has a business, take the risk to hire somebody, take them out to dinner, build a relationship with them, help them get a mentor so they can get the support systems that they need to pull themselves out of their situation. Then I also think faith communities are an incredibly natural place for restorative justice to flourish, like the Metropolitan Christian Council of Philadelphia's Restorative City's initiative for restorative justice.

ICQ: Can you describe a restorative justice program?

Parisa: The retributive system asks what law was broken, who broke it and how do we punish them? The restorative system asks who is harmed, what do they need to heal and who is responsible for that healing? In the restorative process there is a facilitator who communicates with both parties, an acceptance of responsibility, and an acknowledgment of harm. There’s a focus on what is needed for the healing of the victim, but also holding the individual who did the harm accountable. At the end of the restorative processes you see victims reporting upwards of 90% satisfaction rates with the process, and a reduction in recidivism. We have a system right now where if you're in prison for a number of years for stealing a car and you come out, you have an 80% nationwide recidivism rate. This system is a failure, so let's try something else.

ICQ: Are there any faith communities involved in restorative justice in Arlington?

Parisa: I know that Restorative Arlington’s executive director has been involved in Courageous Conversations with Rock Spring and Calloway and other communities like Arlington Presbyterian Church.

ICQ: What opportunities do you see for the criminal justice Racial Equity Action Group from Calloway and Rock Spring to help in addressing systemic racism?

Parisa: There will be more opportunities the more we talk. Can people help those who are out on pre-trial build social capital? Can people volunteer with Restorative Arlington and learn how to facilitate cases?

ICQ: I understand some folks with the criminal justice REAG participate in a “court watch” program.

Parisa: Yes! That's very important. The idea is to have people in court observing what's going on -- like one circuit court judge who actually put somebody in jail because they couldn't afford to pay $600 of restitution -- and then act to get the word out. People can also engage those who hold the purse strings and stand behind the people who are trying to reform the criminal justice system.

ICQ: What does that look like?

Parisa: That means putting pressure on the county board members by writing to them, calling them, and saying this is a priority for our community. There are criminal justice reformers who have had recall campaigns against them and a lot of us have felt like the communities that were excited about the work kind of went home. They still care about it, but the pressure wasn't kept up on the people who hold the purse strings to get the resources we need.

ICQ: What other advice might you offer our readers who want to try to impact systemic racism in the criminal justice arena but aren’t sure how?

Parisa: My office, in partnership with many stakeholders, had the first pre-expungement clinic in the history of Arlington. We had it because the clerk of court agreed to be there to do the paperwork filing. We had it because defense attorneys agreed to be there on a pro-bono basis. We had it because Arlington Presbyterian Church gave us their space for an entire Saturday. We had it because the Coalition of Black Clergy got the word out. We had it because Arlington for Justice agreed to pay for people's filing fees. That’s what partnerships can create.


"So start. Just start ... It doesn't always have to be big to be effective"

-- Saundra Green

The Zoom interview between Rev. Pat Jackson and Saundra Green and Gerri Ratliff.

ICQ: You are both leaders of the Criminal Justice "Racial Equity Action Group" from Calloway UMC and Rock Spring UCC. How long have you been a part of your congregations?

Saundra Green: My family has been a part of Calloway for over a 100 years and my great-great grandmother was one of the earliest persons buried in the cemetery. I was born in Washington, D.C. because in 1946 the Arlington hospitals were segregated. I was among the first students to integrate the Arlington schools, so I've seen Arlington transition over the years.


Gerri Ratliff: I moved to Arlington after college and I've been here for 40 years, and a member of Rock Spring UCC for six years.

ICQ: What does this partnership between the churches mean to you?

Saundra: For me, it's a re-igniting of a relationship because I remember when Rock Springs and Calloway had a relationship before and my mother being very involved. I hope that this reignited relationship will help us garner a greater understanding and respect for each other's perspective on racism -- because I've learned from our partnership more clearly why people may think the way they think. It's led for me to be less opinionated until I really get to know you.

Gerri: Although I’m a white person in a county that thinks of itself as progressive, I still live in a mostly white neighborhood and attend a mostly white church. And so I value the opportunity to develop relationships with folks from Calloway and learn through their life experiences and perspectives, including how systemic racism and our white-centric society affects them. For me, a way to tackle white supremacy is by following the lead of people of color and groups led by people of color.

ICQ: Can you describe the work you’re doing through the criminal justice REAG?

Saundra: We have at least 12 people registered in our group and we generally meet monthly. Individually, we've done research on what is of interest to us to introduce to the group. I've done a lot of work over the years with an individual on the board of the Northern Virginia Juvenile Center. So I invited him to the group to talk about the Juvenile Center, what they did there, who was housed there and why. I've heard that a lot of black students are the students that go through the court system and are referred to the detention center. Is that true or not? He came and gave us a wonderful presentation and then their executive director invited our group to come tour the facility and have a direct dialogue with her. We’ll go through with that and then talk about how we might have more involvement.

Gerri: We don’t require consensus from everyone in our group to take action. If one or two people want to support a particular project, great! For example, we learned about a new court watch program from our local Public Defender when he met with our group. Volunteers sit in court proceedings and take notes on the judges’ demeanor and decisions. Are some judges seemingly meting out harsher sentences against certain kinds of defendants? I’ve volunteered with the organization several times. Another group member, who's very interested in the school-to-prison pipeline, knew the Arlington Public School DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) director and invited him to speak to us. The Education REAG also joined that meeting. When we asked the DEI Director what we could do to support his work, he invited us to serve on an informal community council. So we've now had three or four meetings with that office and hope it will lead to concrete action to increase equity in the Arlington schools.

ICQ: How do you feel about your progress and impact so far?

Saundra: I was hoping that we could get a lot of action going to address some criminal justice issues in the county, but it's been slower than I thought. We have to be more patient because criminal justice has a lot of pieces to it, but I think we are moving in a good direction.

Gerri: I was hoping we would come up with specific actions that would move the needle for racial equity in the criminal justice system. It’s easy to support one-time actions like backpack drives for returning offenders. But if you are looking for actions that will effectively tackle systemic issues, those are harder to identify and work on as a small group of volunteers. So we look at existing groups, especially groups led by people of color, to see what they are doing that we can support. I also wanted to develop relationships with people who also are committed to racial justice so that when there's a need for community action, you know who to call and you already trust each other. So we keep educating ourselves and meeting relevant local officials so when an opportunity for systemic reform comes up, we’ll be ready!

ICQ: What advice would you have for other congregations that want to work to address systemic change in the criminal justice system?

Gerri: I would add that local leaders are usually very generous with their time. Congregations that are starting out might think, “Oh I hate to bother them, they're so busy.” But we've had success in getting these local leaders to come talk to us. I would also advise congregations to be patient. It’s hard for volunteer groups to work for systemic change on their own. Find an organization that's already working on an issue you’d like to be involved in and support it. Even providing financial support to those organizations makes a real difference. I guess I have a very simple theology about this work. Like Jesus said: love your neighbor. That's it, do it. And finding ways to apply that on the systemic level is just as important to me as on the individual level.

Saundra: Every day, when I look at the news, I am reminded of the importance of us having this group. Even though it may not happen in Arlington, it could happen in Arlington. It reminds me of the importance of doing something. So start. Just start. While it may seem overwhelming in the beginning, you need to go ahead and start. And realize that it doesn't always have to be big to be effective. So be okay now with small steps and small successes. But do something.

Gerri: I would add, for your readers who are white, a diverse group like this is an opportunity to learn more about just how deeply embedded white supremacy is in everything, including setting agendas and running meetings. Our tendency is to take over and think we know the right way to do things. I think we need to be open to learn, to be sensitive to those dynamics, and follow the lead of the folks who've been impacted by these issues. I don't think you can emphasize that enough.

[These interviews were part of the October 2023 Interwoven Congregations Quarterly on "Congregations Doing Racial Justice." Catch the full issue here.]

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Rev. Pat Jackson, Interwoven Congregations Quarterly (ICQ): Thank you Bernard Carpenter and Marty Swaim for joining us for this conversation about "Congregations Doing Racial Justice" and the partnership between Calloway UMC and Rock Spring UCC in Arlington, Virginia. As part of that partnership, you co-lead the "Racial Equity Action Group" focusing on education. How did you get connected to these congregations and this special initiative?

Bernard Carpenter: I was raised in Halls Hill, a segregated community in Arlington County. In 1965 my mom had to go into Washington D.C. to have me even though we lived a block away from Arlington Hospital. Calloway UMC was the church my family went to up at the top of the hill.

Marty Swaim: I moved here in 1978 and taught in Arlington public schools for 20 years. After I retired, I got involved in conversations on race at Rock Spring where I found a welcoming community and people who didn't think I was crazy.

ICQ: Bernard, how did you get involved in the antiracism efforts at Calloway and the education Racial Equity Action Group?

Bernard: When I heard about the Courageous Conversation with Rock Spring and Calloway, I thought that was amazing because we have to have a conversation. You can't walk around thinking everything is fine and it's not. I joined the education group because I just retired and I'm getting ready to be a math teacher in the public-school system.

Marty: This idea about public schools that it's really difficult to overcome achievement or opportunity gaps between African American kids and other kids of color and white kids drives me crazy. From my perspective as a teacher, that's nonsense.

ICQ: Why do you say that?

Marty: Because it's not rocket science to teach kids to read. It's a skill and I respect the teachers who do a good job of it. But we have a school system in which maybe 45% of the kids of color on sixth and seventh grade tests are way below grade level and it's just irresponsible. The reason is because they're not reading on grade level at grade three and then by the seventh and eighth grade kids start talking about dropping out. I feel that if you could pick one leverage point in systemic racism that would make a huge difference, it would be education. If you can persuade members of the school board to invest in the areas of pre-K and three-year old education, you have a possibility of really changing the community. Of course you're talking money, but this is a rich community.

ICQ: What does the education Racial Equity Action Group do? What are its goals?

Bernard: We started meeting right after the 6 month Courageous Conversation series to decide what our goals and mission were going to be. Goal #1 is to ensure that students are at reading level by grade three. Goal #2 is ensuring that children hear or experience all of history. Children deserve to understand what this country actually was developed on.

Marty: We wrote a letter to the school board with our mission statement and arguments for what they should pay attention to in their budget. We started talking to people in the school system and the lady who runs the early childhood department said, “Don't focus on four-year olds. We have resources for four year olds, but we have almost nothing for three-year olds. So focus on that.” So we put together an analysis and testimony about things in the budget that would improve early childhood services through grade three. We met with two schoolboard members this past year and other school system people.

ICQ: Do you think you’ve been able to impact things, or are you still finding your legs?

Marty: We work with 5 or 6 people on our REAG and we're finding our legs. I do feel that cultivating relationships with school board members has the potential to be very productive, even though we lost the chairman of the school board with whom we talked last year when he didn't run again. I feel like one of the biggest productive investments of time is talking to people in the school system at the middle management level, like the early childhood person.

Bernard: We're still learning where to prioritize our time and effort. I agree with Marty, we can go to the school board and advocate for what is needed in the middle management areas. We met with the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Arlington Schools, Dr. Ottley, but he has left. There's going to be transition in people, but the office staff knows us and what we're doing and how to reach out and advocate for us and ask us to advocate for them.

Marty: That's true. When Dr. Ottley set up a new diversity, equity and inclusion advisory group group, we were the beginning people in the group. Some of the members of the criminal justice Racial Equity Action Group have gotten involved too.

ICQ: Was that DEI advisory group something that Dr. Ottley had in the works, or did your outreach play a role in its creation?

Bernard: I think it was a brainchild of a meeting we had at Calloway with Dr. Ottley where we discussed the possibility of a community advisory group. Based on that conversation, Dr. Ottley birthed the group.

ICQ: So you engage the school district at multiple levels. Do you use other strategies to advance your goals?

Marty: We’ll talk to the NAACP about their goals and see if we can support them. They have a tutoring program that some of us have supported financially.

Bernard: We are still young as a group, we’re passionate, and we're still learning to prioritize and to find opportunities to advocate.

ICQ: So this takes time. I think it’s helpful for other congregations to hear that.

Bernard: Don’t give up!

Marty: Yes!

ICQ: What are your challenges and encouraging signs in your work to impact systemic racism in education?

Marty: I think our practice of sharing our goals with school board members laid a good foundation so that those in the system understand that we represent people very committed to educating everybody by third grade. You just have to take the long view. You have to get your oar in the budget cycle one year and keep going back and back and back. And if you're lucky, you get two or three people on the school board who can really push it along. I think our biggest challenge is our lack of time.

Bernard: I see the challenge as keeping the ball rolling. The good things that I've seen are the relationships that we've built with the people in early childhood education and the DEI office -- relationships not just with one person but with a staff. Those relationships are just going to grow.

ICQ: Can you speak about the significance of your own relationship between the two of you?

Bernard: I think that's huge. Marty and I just clicked.

Marty: And vice versa! I mean from the first time we met over lunch, we've had a good time.

Bernard: (laughter)

Marty: I think that's a really important part of organizing. If you're going to be in this for 5-10 years, you've got to have a good time along the way.

ICQ: How do you keep the whole Racial Equity Action Group together for the long haul?

Bernard: Respect and let everybody's voice be heard. Understand that Rome wasn't built in a day; systemic racism wasn't created in a day. So it’s not going to take just a day to break it apart.

Marty: You don't need a lot of people. We would be glad to have another six people, but dance with the people who come. I do think the experience of doing the testimony and writing letters was very affirming and empowering. “Yeah, we can do this.”

ICQ: What advice would you have for congregations who want to take a swing at systemic racism but just aren’t sure how to go about it?

Bernard: First thing, if you see an opportunity to participate -- participate. Don't be afraid, jump into it. You're not going to find out if you don't try.

Marty: I feel like one of the most important things if you're interested in education is to not be intimidated. The skills involved in running a really good school system exist and there are people doing a really good job of this. So if your school district isn’t, hold them accountable. Just show up and talk about it -- because the kids who aren't succeeding in third grade in reading are not different from the other kids who are succeeding. I'm sorry, they aren’t. So don't be intimidated by the bureaucracy or by people who say how complex education is. I would recommend that anybody who is thinking about working on education in public schools reads “Whatever it Takes.” It’s about the Harlem children's zone and the young man who takes the children from birth when their parents are raising them through third grade and gets them all passing the New York state regents tests. The book demonstrates what's possible.

ICQ: Final question. To what degree does your own faith and participation in your congregation sustain your personal commitment to anti-racism?

Bernard: As a black man growing up in a segregated Arlington County, I had nothing but faith to hold onto. This is not a society that was going to help me. My faith is what brought me through all of what I've gone through in my life, and so I stand here today, giving honor to God and my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. If it wasn't for them, I'd be dead and gone somewhere.

Marty: I don't talk about faith in the same way that Bernard does, but I do feel very strongly that the underlying assumption of the Christian faith is that all things work together for good. That gives me support.

[This interview was a part of the October 2023 Interwoven Congregations Quarterly on "Congregations Doing Racial Justice." Catch the full issue here.]

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