In the quiet morning the day after all hell broke loose in Dallas, Texas, as a lone gunman opened fire on police officers who were on duty at a march organized to protest the killing of two African American men at the hands of white police officers, I chatted with Sr. Simone Campbell.
Campbell, a Roman Catholic nun, attorney and poet, is a well-known social justice advocate and is a part of the team conducting the "Moral Revival" across this nation, a project organized by the Rev. Dr. William Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the Moral Monday movement in that state, along with the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, pastor-emeritus of Riverside United Church of Christ in New York.
Campbell, along with Rev. Dr. Traci Blackmon, an activist and currently the acting executive minister of the UCC Justice and Witness Ministries, complete the team which is taking the message of revival to congregations across the nation. Campbell chuckled as she admitted she has only made it to a couple of the locations where the revival has traveled; "they use a videotape I've done," she said, and added that they say the response from the audiences to her words are encouraging every single time.
But on this morning, I pressed Campbell to talk about God in a time of great pain and societal upheaval. The prophet Jeremiah chastised those who said there was peace when there was none; surely, the prophet would say the same today. But Campbell said softly, "We share a hunger to have a nation where we live...in peace."
What would that peace look like, I wondered, and what would make it a reality? And is it morally right to call for peace when there is no justice for so many people? The injustice is not just around racial issues, though race seems to permeate everything in this culture. People are fighting for justice in the area of employment, reproductive rights, mass incarceration, LGBTQ rights ...In spite of God, there is injustice, I said to Sr. Campbell, and people wonder where God is and why God isn't making things better.
Campbell was thoughtful. She wondered aloud how we in America get rid of fear of each other. It is damaging, she said, and always has been. "How can we change this dynamic?" she wondered aloud. "What I see if ... most of this violent gets generated out of fear and individualism. Police officers feel threatened and alone. Black men feel threatened and alone." And these two groups, we have seen, clash. Campbell didn't expand her statement to include the wider African American community; women and children are afraid of police and feel alone as well, not just on the streets, but in their daily efforts to thrive in a society which seemingly throws up barriers to their growth rather than pathways to success. The isolation, said Campbell, is damaging.
"Who are we as a nation that we are so afraid of each other?" she said. "This revival says that we are community; we're in this thing together."
Campbell has enjoyed seeing people gather for the revivals. The audiences have been multi-racial and multi-ethnic. In the revival, she sees people coming together to share their pain and their fears. "They feel comforted by being together," she said.
Campbell sees part of her work as a member of the revival team to be a "grocery store missionary." "Most of the folks who come to the revivals share our worry," she said. "When I am out and about, I do grocery story missionary work. We've got to engage each other in this but we are so siloed that we don't have these necessary conversations. (In the revivals) we are speaking to people, unfortunately, who already think like we do. I "mission" people to go out and have conversations" that will help change the atmosphere of hostility and fear that comes from being too individualistic and not engaged enough in building community.
After the unrest in Ferguson following the shooting of Michael Brown, Simone got involved with a group called "Mothers to Mothers," organized by Blackmon. The project involved (and involves) African American mothers going to talk to white mothers about the fears they have for their sons. Campbell said that work has been eye-opening for her.
"These women were vulnerable and shared their fears about their sons in ways that white moms don't have to," Campbell said. "That revealed for me a level of privilege that I didn't know ...just because I'm wrapped in thing white skin. My thing is to lift it up and talk about what we have learned from "Mothers to Mothers." I sure know that we in the Euro-American community need to own it and we need to take it. She feels that burden of responsibility as the only white-American in the Moral Revival group. "The Euro-American people in this country need to be messengers to each other," she said.
Campbell said that the Revival group is going to the Republican National Convention to deliver a letter to the powers that be to ask them to engage in the kinds of conversations the revival is advocating. It's not at all clear that they will consent, but the "ask" needs to happen, she said. "These conversations make a difference."
She referred to theologian Walter Brueggemann, who says that community that nurtures prophetic imagination has the capacity to sustain long-term tension with the dominant culture."
That needs to happen, she said. "The hunger for unity and the sacred is all a part of trying to make this life a part of the "Beloved Community." We'll never arrive, but we keep working at it."
What Campbell thinks now is that we need to continue to move toward love "at every moment." "Has God been helpful?" she mused when asked the question. "My experience is that God creates us and urges us to move toward love and every moment. We are built to connect."
"I believe the Holy Spirit is alive and making mischief. All we're given is that we do the best we can. We all have our part. I just try to do mine."
The Moral Revival will be in Cleveland at the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice on Monday, July 11 at 6:30 p.m. For information go to https://kairoscenter.org/moral-revival-coming-cleveland/.