Rev. Pat Jackson, Interwoven Congregations Quarterly (ICQ): Thank you Michael for joining us for this conversation about "Congregations Doing Racial Justice" and the partnership between Calloway UMC and Rock Spring UCC in Arlington, Virginia. To get us started, can you share how you got involved with racial justice?
Michael Hemminger (President, Arlington County NAACP): I got connected to this work of racial justice from my own life experience. I grew up in California and was in and out of 12 different foster homes. I lived under bridges, in homeless shelters and in the back of a U-Haul truck at one point. So I grew up in circumstances that some people would say might predict a different life outcome for me. But throughout my life, strong mentors and people of faith have surrounded me and told me “You’re going to make a difference in this world, you’re going to be someone someday.” So I grew up believing that. My personal experiences led me to want to do my part and give back to people who look like me and might be in similar living conditions. I've been in Arlington since 2017 and signed up to do things that help me fulfill my purpose; and the NAACP is one of those avenues. I am six months into the role as branch president.
ICQ: What are you most passionate about in your role with the NAACP?
Michael: Criminal justice is my top passion and mass incarceration is the greatest civil rights injustice of our time. When you look at root causes, you learn that there are things at the systemic level causing these outcomes -- housing insecurity, food insecurity and inequity in education, employment and health care. These other systems are working together to produce a predicted outcome. So I feel compelled to do my part.
ICQ: How did you first connect with this project between Calloway and Rock Spring?
Michael: Pastor DeLishia Davis of Calloway UMC leads the Arlington NAACP’s Religious Affairs committee and is also president of the Arlington Black Clergy Association. She called me and said “You really need to check this out.” So I joined the Courageous Conversations and was really inspired by the work that was happening. I could see in real-time the lights turning on and I could see people connecting things and feeling empowered to make a difference.
ICQ: I understand you were a panelist for the session on affordable housing.
Michael: Yes, I helped unpack some of the racial history here in Arlington. I think a lot of people are surprised to learn that there are deed restrictions that exist even today that say things like “black people shall never be allowed to own here.” They didn't understand that in 1938, when black people were only permitted to live in rowhouses, Arlington County took explicit action to ban rowhouses and made those types of housing nonconforming so that the people that lived in them couldn't update them. People were also surprised to learn that the American Nazi Party was also founded right here in Arlington, or that Arlington used to be 40% black and now it's only 9% black.
ICQ: The Calloway and Rock Spring partnership is about helping people move from education to action to impact systemic racism. What would you say to congregations that are trying to do that?
Michael: It's the million dollar question. But we have to do something because these systems were designed that when we do nothing at all, they're going to continue to produce disparate impacts on historically under-represented or disadvantaged communities. The topics are very heavy, but we have to have enough courage to say, “Hey, I'm going to do even one small thing to make a difference.” What ends up happening, unfortunately, is two things. One, as I said, these systems end up running on autopilot because we don’t have personal awareness. But then when we do the book clubs and conversations, and we're trained to be more aware of what racism looks like, when we see it, the fight or flight kicks in. A lot of times we might say, “Oh, I know this is wrong, but I don't have the courage to speak up.” Dr. King spoke about this in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail when he talked about how the white moderate actually causes more harm than the racist people who are out there on the front lines. At the NAACP, we could say the same thing a 1,000 times as loud as we can, and then one person that has that relationship with the person who has the key to that door can have a very casual conversation, and that door is immediately unlocked. So it's up to all of us to use that privilege for the advancement of other people. So to answer your question: find one thing that you're going to commit to do to make a difference. It could be big or small, and if we all did that, I really think we would see progress.
ICQ: How does this partnership between Calloway UMC and Rock Spring United Church of Christ look to you from your seat in the community?
Michael: I love it. It reminds me of the history of the NAACP which was actually founded by both black and white people who were willing to be on the front lines for change. To have people of faith who are white say I'm willing to use my position and privilege in order to help our common cause and then black folks bring the real lived experience of what it's like to deal with racism and the toll that it takes on your entire wellbeing on a daily basis -- I think there's nothing that can stop that type of partnership, and I'm inspired by the change that can happen.
[This interview was a part of the October 2023 Interwoven Congregations Quarterly on "Congregations Doing Racial Justice." Catch the full issue here.]