Editor’s note: This article as originally posted Nov. 7, 2015. It is re-posted today as J. Herbert Nelson was announced as the selection committee’s candidate for Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Community organizer, social justice advocate, African American preacher and head of the Office of Public Witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Washington, DC, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson challenged the overwhelming white audience at the Covenant Network of Presbyterians conference to use their positions of privilege to lead the struggle of emancipation for others “even if it does not benefit you.”
He stated plainly that “racism is the dividing issue of our time” but we know that “race is a false construction. We must get over the divide because God has made us one.”
Nelson then noted that “cowards can’t do this work.”
“Persons unwilling to cross boundaries and persons struggling with their own istness and others otherness, cannot do this work. We are going to have to learn that the world is so divided and struggling on so many fronts that it is the apparatus able to bring some communal sense to broken people in a broken world that will empower.”
Celebrating the work and the victories of the Covenant Network in achieving changed definitions for both ordination and marriage in the PCUSA, Nelson said, “Yes, it is important for us to be concerned about ourselves, but we must be concerned about the freedom of others.” He then talked about the radical changes needed in national and global systems that keep some people in positions of privilege and keep other people down.
He said, “Our emancipation has to be for the purpose of providing emancipation for others.”
“So,” he asked, “What are you envisioning beyond what you can now see?”
As a former board member of the Covenant Network, Nelson speaks with an authoritative voice when he says, “If you think the work of this organization is over then you lack vision.” His call to continued organizing and advocacy focused not on sexual liberation issues that have characterized CovNet’s work for 19 years. Nelson called his colleagues to recognize the civil rights advocates upon whose shoulders they have stood and to now allow others to stand upon their shoulders in the next movement of civil rights advocacy in the United States.
He said, “There are yet those who want to know, ‘how did you get free?’” Then he reminded the audience that “Every movement in the United States has had to ride on the shoulders of others. Every movement in the United States has had to rely on subversive espionage of someone in another group who would give help in secrecy or sometimes stand up in the public sphere exerting great courage to help the ones who would follow. It’s time for you to be those subversive agents to help others who have not yet been emancipated. Decide that this is a struggle worth having even if it does not benefit me.”
He preached, “Human rights does not end with civil rights….(and) until all people are totally free we cannot stand idly by and declare that our work is now done. As long as anyone is left behind in the pursuit of justice … our calling will be the calling of our risen Lord — for the emancipation of all people.”
Nelson spoke with clarity and insight about the challenge that African American Christians initially experienced when Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered individuals and groups wanted their help in the church and in the political world working for liberty. Nelson admitted that there was angst and struggle between the National Black Caucus of Presbyterians and the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.
Nelson revealed that “I believe the Bible is right and the Lord will sort it out at the harvest. It is not my responsibility to judge how God is going to judge but to make sure I’m getting in and bring others with me.” So, he said, “This became a very difficult discussion for me as a member of the Board because I had to stop and think through what does this mean to be in relationship to a group people who, once brokered into the denomination, will immediately have a space of privilege based on race and yet those of us who have been struggling for years will never have that privilege – certainly not by any overture to a General Assembly.”
Saying it plainly and naming the continuing reality of racism in the PCUSA, Nelson continued, “it is persons of European descent being brokered into a denomination of persons of European descent – while others struggle to get a foot in the door no matter how many laws are passed, there’s already another hoop to get through or a hurdle to jump. We are structurally brokered out.”
But then Nelson acknowledged, “We never know who or what people God will use to usher in a new reality.”
Nelson pointed to the appointment of Tony De La Rosa to the highest position in the Presbyterian Mission Agency as an example. “Just 15 months after passage of marriage equality, who would have thought the denomination would courageously appoint a married gay Hispanic man to such a role?”
But token appointments are not sufficient, Nelson contends. “We cannot continue into the 21st century without diversifying our leadership and our membership. We can no longer be a 93 or 94% white denomination and hope to succeed.”
When asked to describe the first tangible step, Nelson replied:
“We have to cross the boundaries. How does CovNet engage in something not directly related to its own self interest? Gun violence; justice work; push the lid off of poverty … the issue is not Planned Parenthood but how can the burden of raising a child fall totally upon a female who is living a life as a second class citizen, not making the same wage as a man doing the same job.
“This is a condition of poverty that we are re-creating through the immigration issues today but removing the immigrant man from a home — to keep our commitment to fill beds in privatized prison — then deport him outside the country and then we wonder why that home no longer has a man and why the woman needs welfare help to raise her kids. We must find something to get serious about in terms of justice in this country.”
Turning his attention to voter ID laws, Nelson told a personal story about his 103-year-old grandmother who could not vote after she responsibly relinquished her driver’s license.
Then he said, “When we talk about first steps, just pick one. There are so many injustices that we face and the disenfranchised face those issues at a much greater level. Pick an issue and start working.”
To which a person responded by admitting that, “We have been so charity-oriented and the prospect of dealing with structural issues seems so daunting – that we simply revert back to the charity mode.”
Nelson replied, “yes, because when you’re privileged you can do that. Most of what people are trapped in is structural: structural racism, structural sexism, structural manipulation of immigration law. Will those who benefit from those designs ever have the courage to challenge it? Many of us in this room benefit from these policies, these structures. Our connections, our money, our living, are bound up in these structures. Will we have the courage to admit it, repent of it and challenge it?
After punctuating his point with a story about First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Ala. and the civil rights movement, Nelson said, “The promise is not that we will live to see the redemption but we don’t work for what we can see, we work for the unseen.”