In the wake of racial unrest and recent police violence in America, the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas wrote her latest book with “the crying heart of a mother and the restless soul of a theologian.” Douglas serves as an associate priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., and she is professor of religion at Goucher College, near Baltimore, Md. Essence Magazine has named Brown Douglas among America’s “most distinguished religious thinkers.”
Your most recent book, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God is deeply personal. You write in the book that you asked yourself how you were going to raise your son to cherish his black self in a society that told him he had no value. What would you tell minority mothers today? In Canada, there is a high incidence of suicide among youth of the Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario.
When I was writing this book, I was truly wrestling with my faith. What is the message of God in times like these? How can we protect our children? The statistics project a life of death for our children. These are the images we need to fight so they don’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I told my son Desmond [now age 23] from the day he was born, “There’s nothing greater than you [except] God. You are a sacred child of God.” While the world may call him many things, God will always call him God’s child. Nothing can change this. My son’s task is to live into that, and to always know and believe that. We need to anchor our children in God and in their own rich histories.
You talk about a black faith. Can you explain?
In America, slavery didn’t introduce blacks to God. Oral traditions kept alive knowledge about the nature of God. Storytelling helped black slaves recognize the God of the Exodus story as the God they already knew. Black faith isn’t about “I’m going to wait for God to rescue me.” The Christian faith has always been a narrative of resistance that empowers black people. Blacks have always known that God is on the side of the oppressed.
You state that faith communities must lead the way in confronting the “myth of Anglo-Saxon/white superiority” in order to bring about racial healing. What can institutions such as the Anglican church do today?
Have your race conversations between yourselves. You should have that conversation among yourselves, but it should flow out of your struggle for justice. First, let me [as a black woman] meet you where I am already fighting in some way for justice. Just do the work of being church. Then, don’t worry about minorities feeling welcome in your church. White people say it isn’t easy to become a welcoming church. Right-it’s not easy. But first, do the work that isn’t easy. Jesus went to the cross. Now that wasn’t easy. Jesus didn’t go to the cross because he prayed. He went to the cross because he fought injustices. Faith is not what you believe, but what you do.
You are a priest in a denomination widely recognized for its deep Anglo-Saxon roots. What can your personal experience teach us?
The Episcopal Church has to continue its struggle “to live into” what it means to be church. If the institution were to give up on living beyond itself, on doing better in its struggle for greater racial equality, I would need to leave. It may be a contradiction to be a black priest in this denomination, but just living in America is living with contradiction!
You talk extensively about “moral memory,” which you say demands that we recognize the past we carry within us, the past we want to carry within us and the past we need to make right. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada recently released its final report. Do you think this type of exercise can develop moral memory?
Reconciliation is about going into the pit, telling the truth and finding each other on the other side so we can meet again. Reconciliation also means repentance. This means we need to turn around and change systems that promote white supremacy. The commission’s work can only develop moral memory if it leads to just actions that change structures and violent systems.
You say your latest book is your “refusal to be consoled until the justice that is God’s is made real in the world.” What keeps you hopeful?
I believe in God. That’s what keeps me hopeful. I truly believe racial inequality isn’t what God wants to be God’s justice.