On the Journey of Justice with Courage

November 3, 2021 | | GNJ News

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”—Margaret Mead

In Ibram X. Kendi‘s How to Be an Antiracist, he writes, “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.”

The son of two Methodist ministers goes on to say, “Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism and regular self-examination.”

Fighting racism and promoting justice can be messy, dirty, an arduous journey. It can take you on paths that you weren’t expecting, take you down dark roads that may be scary or uncomfortable. It’s work. It’s deliberate. It’s intentional. It also takes teamwork, recognition of privilege and a faith that together you can make a difference.

GNJ’s A Journey of Hope team is committed to confronting racial inequities and journeying together toward ending the sin of racism. But they also recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work for all churches, nor can the team do it on its own. Different voices need to be heard; different thoughts need to be shared; and different cultures need to be embraced.

As mentioned in the October Relay, Fearless Dialogues is the consulting firm who is shepherding GNJ’s journey. On Nov. 13, the group will host its first training session for GNJ. Three of those people who take part in this training share their motivations and thoughts for joining in this article.

For nearly all of her 72 years, one person who has had the passion and the grit to pursue this journey is Ingres Simpson.

“We’re on the right track. We need to get the training and get the message out to our churches,” said Simpson, who is lay leader at First UMC in Glassboro and part of the original Journey of Hope team. “Fighting racism is something we need to do as a church. We should be at the forefront. How can we call ourselves Christians if we’re not willing to help?”

Simpson knows all too well what the face of racism looks like having grown up in the South in the 1960s. She recalled going to a segregated school in Columbia, North Carolina where she graduated in 1967. Raised by her grandparents along with her two brothers, Simpson embraced every opportunity, shrugged off fear and moved forward with conviction and love.

She attained a B.A. in Music from Virginia State University, and then went on to the University of Cincinnati on a full scholarship. Simpson married and raised two children, moving to New Jersey in the late-1970s. She dedicated her career as a music teacher in an elementary school and then as an instructional supervisor before retiring. In 1999, she was elected as the first female in her town council. She later served on her church’s finance committee and was named Annual Conference delegate from 2018-2020.

Through it all, Simpson said, “I learned to feel comfortable in different groups, to work with leadership.” Today, she is still following the guidance of God, helping people grow and thrive along the way. She is president of the Samaritan Center food bank in Glassboro, and for the past eight years has supervised student teachers at Rowan University. Last fall she was invited to be on the Board of Ordained Ministry, and when she’s not singing in her own church choir, on the first Sunday of the month she is a fill-in for the choir at Mt. Zion-Wesley UMC in Wenonah.

Her church’s pastor, Rev. John Inverso recently started a book club to discuss Kendi’s masterpiece and delve into what could be uncomfortable conversations.

“I’m not going because I want people to be able to express themselves freely,” said Simpson, who is one of only two black people in her congregation.

“Why am I still here, I always wonder. God didn’t bless me to do nothing,” said Simpson. “If I’m going to be here, God has a plan for me.”

God clearly also has a plan for Rev. Yeika Huertas-Roman. Having been appointed as a cross-racial cross-cultural pastor at First UMC Vineland two years ago shortly before the onset of the pandemic, Huertas-Roman is also planning to join the Fearless Dialogues training on Nov. 13.

“It was through the invitation of Megan McKay in our district when I heard about the Fearless Dialogues training. I would like to know and learn more about our Journey of Hope (JOH) and be part of this journey of justice with my voice and actions,” she said.

“As a brown woman, I truly believe that JOH and the Fearless Dialogues training are opportunities for me to know others and be known. I want to be part of  the journey that is announcing and making real that ‘God’s kingdom has come.’”

Huertas, who is in her second year of a cross-racial cross-cultural appointment, said, “Why am I willing to, you ask? Matthew 4:17 says, ‘From that time Jesus began to tell people his message: ‘Change your hearts and lives, because God’s kingdom is now very near.’ The expression used in Greek is ‘God’s kingdom has come.’ Jesus didn’t proclaim a future state of utopia. Jesus announced the reality of God’s kingdom. And after announcing it, Jesus made it happen. Then, the realm of God is  possible. It’s real. It’s now.”

She went on to say, “But how could the kingdom of God be a reality in a world corrupted by sin, both personal and collective? By the action of ordinary people that joined Jesus to make it happen. People who are convinced that “the Spirit of the Lord is on US.”

Huertas-Roman embraces discipleship.

“I’m called not as a pastor, not as clergy, not as any title or leadership, but as a Disciple, to empower the prophetic role of denouncing the sin, and announcing the possibility of transformation. I’m answering the calling to act, to pull down, to deconstruct  the structures of oppression and the mindset that justifies those structures.

From my perspective, the reality of God’s kingdom is through knowledge. I’ve heard that knowledge is power, and I agree. But I’m not talking about the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. I’m talking about the awareness or understanding of others. Then, we need to learn and teach to know each other as a sacred creation of God. We need to create spaces to “know” the other. Spaces to learn to be aware of that person that looks different, speaks different, lives different. Powerful opportunities to know the other and be known by the other. The chance to confront the fears of the unknown and stereotypes, and open the windows of empathy, justice and equality.”

For Frank Davis of Leonia UMC, he is always learning and offering a helping hand. Living his life committed to social justice in every step he takes, Davis said he also intends to take the Fearless Dialogue training.

“Any insight I might offer is only from a personal desire for social justice,” said Davis. “Having been raised a Quaker and later on deciding to become Methodist, one of my driving forces is justice for the least and the lost. I believe that we cannot honestly make true disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world if we are not authentically taking care of  each of God’s creations.”

Effective Christians make vital churches, and vital  churches make relational communities, and relational communities care about ALL of its members. But this takes work and time. Honestly, we have failed to be an obedient church, and we have to do better.”

But Davis echoed what others have said, seeing the JOH plan as a great way to facilitate social justice.

“The Journey of Hope is another chance for us to get it right. Another chance to Do Justice, Love Mercy, and walk Humbly with God. JOH gives us the opportunity to see GOD in everyone…and so we have work to do.”

The November 13 training provided by Fearless Dialogues will engage our Journey of Hope work. It will develop those gathered as GNJ Journey of Hope ambassadors who have a foundational understanding of the skills needed to engage anti-racism work in the diverse ministry landscape of our conference.

Another training will be hosted on January 6 for those gathered to build a working knowledge of bias, privilege and systemic and structural racism. Like the first, this workshop training will also be virtual.

It will be necessary, for those serving as Journey of Hope facilitators, i.e. current circuit leaders, supporting and guiding local congregations in engaging anti-racism work in their ministry contexts to attend one of these sessions. The first cohort of in-depth facilitator training will begin March 18 and conclude April 14, 2022.

Proverbs 31:8 says, “Speak up for the people who have no voice.” The Journey of Hope team is committed to give voice to those who have been silenced. For team member Ingres Simpson, whose favorite hymn is “Blessed Assurance,” she like many others will be sharing her story and voice to help others. “This is my story, this is my song, Praising my Savior all the day long. This is my story, this is my song, Praising my Savior all the day long.”