International Ecumenical Hearing on
RACISM, DISCRIMINATION, AFROPHOBIA AND XENOPHOBIA:
THE EXPERIENCE OF PEOPLE OF AFRICAN DESCENT IN THE USA
Ecumenical Centre, Geneva, Switzerland
25-26 September 2017
BACKGROUND – The World Council of Churches (WCC) hosted a hearing on Racism, Discrimination, Afrophobia and Xenophobia at its Ecumenical Center in Geneva. The hearing served as a follow-up to the 2016 Racial Justice Solidarity Visit to the United States in April 2015. The WCC delegation visited Washington, DC; Charleston, SC; Ferguson, MO and Chicago, IL, respectively. The visit was co-sponsored by the National Council of Churches (NCC) in Washington, DC (USA) in an effort to raise awareness and bring attention to the injustices experienced by African descendant people in the US, and to the increasing incidents of racialized killings involving law enforcement. The collaborative work of the visit was engaged with the WCC pilgrimage on justice and peace launched in 2013, where member churches were invited to join in celebrating life while transforming injustices and prophetically denouncing marginalization and rampart racism in the world as systemic racism is a worldwide reality and issue. This engagement of the WCC and NCC is a part of the on-going commitment to build a stronger ecumenical voice and solidarity for human dignity and human rights in the world.
The Hearing in Geneva focused specifically on the realities of racism in the US highlighting incidences of racial profiling by police forces as well as confrontations and was framed around the annual report of the Chair of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent to the UN Human Rights Council. The 2017 annual report presented by Dr. Sabelo Gumedze focused on the mission visit to Canada. The 2016 report was on the mission visit to the United States. Dr. Gumedze was the keynote speaker for the hearing.
A delegation of faith leaders, scholars, activists and organizers from the United States and Canada convened to share their testimonies and witnesses on issues ranging from mass criminalization and white supremacy to the disproportionate murders of Black bodies at the hands of the state and the narratives of mothers lamenting the loss of their stolen children. The hearing, building on the testimonies received during the solidarity visit, points to the need for concrete WCC interventions to address the twenty first century manifestations of racism globally, and in particular the increasing anti-Black racism and its systemic causes.
WORSHIP – In the spirit of truth and hope, inspired by the charge to celebrate life, the hearing was preceded by an opening worship service and Morning Prayer lead by The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations with the United Church of Christ. Rev. Thompson’s reflections entitled “Jumping into Rushing Waters” was inspired by and preached from the Book of Amos 5:18-24. The sermon challenged the church to be present in the midst of the rushing waters of justice as an active participant giving voice to the need for change, rather than being quiet on the sidelines watching as the waters of justice trickled to a stop for the many who are marginalized and oppressed.
The Reverends Garland F. Pierce and Waltrina N. Middleton, members of the US delegation, presided as worship leaders with worship music directed by Rev Dr Andrew Williams. In a charge to the congregation, the worship leaders asked of the congregation: “Will you make time in your lives to hear the many voices of God reflected in the cries of people near and far…? Will you commit yourself to responding in prayer and action…? Will you pray and act to ensure that all people live in justice and peace, respecting and affirming one another as God’s people regardless of culture, caste or creed?” The congregation’s faithful reply provided an appropriate benediction and sending forth to the hearing and beyond with these words:
“By God’s grace we will. In the strength of the Spirit and inspired by Christ’s compassion, I make this promise to work for change and wait confidently for the day when God makes all things new… We go now into the world to love and serve the Lord. Amen.”
THE HEARING – The hearing was called to order by the Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri, Deputy General Secretary (WCC). Dr. Phiri provided historical context and background for the hearing and its importance before introducing The Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary (WCC), and the keynote, Dr. Sabelo Gumedze.
In his remarks, Rev. Tveit affirmed that the delegation members are on the front line of battle against an ever growing momentum of polarization, division, nationalism, racism and the like. He posed a series of question for the church, naming the relevance of the presence of the church in addressing racism, and emphasizing that addressing these concerns of injustice “require our constant attention and concern for humanity”. He asked: “How can the church speak up for human rights and human dignity in all forms? How do we address our prophetic call for justice and for peace? How can we help our own churches, filled by fear and anxiety and all kinds of challenges, to overcome this?”
“We see that there is a connection between what happened in your county and other nations and countries. As a fellowship of churches worldwide, we find ourselves in the middle,” Tveit said, pointing to the response of clergy in Charlottesville, VA. “We have seen a strong momentum of churches as well where churches come together for justice and rights as demonstrated in Charlottesville where churches are in the forefront to say no to these ill acts and yes to inclusion and a reality of living in peace together.” Urging those gathered, the General Secretary said, “We must do the advocacy work and work from within the churches. We have this task and calling. I am happy we can do this work together.”
The General Secretary concluded his remarks by submitting that the issues of racism, discrimination, afrophobia and xenophobia are not solely matters of politics, the legal system or international issues. The issues are also matters of faith, believing in God and the duty of human being to address sin. The General Secretary asked his audience to believe that with faith, change is possible and that God can change all of us.
Dr. Sabelo Gumedze focused particularly on the realities faced by people of African Descent in the USA while offering diasporic perspectives, intersections and strategies for addressing perpetual racism in the world. Dr. Gumedze began his address with a reading of I John 2:11 (NIV), a biblical scripture he stated relates to the theme of discussion:
“But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”
“Racial discrimination and the likes are signs of hatred. The involvement of the church in these issues goes a long way in addressing these social ills,” he stated and noted that in many countries, it is possible to identify group practices that replicate the systemic issues of the hearing. Noting the January 2016 working group visit to the US where cities inclusive of Washington, DC; Baltimore, MD; Jackson, MS; Chicago, IL and New York City were visited at the invitation of the US government, the delegation received the narratives of citizens lamenting poverty, limited health care access, racial profiling and police brutality. Following the visits, recommendations were submitted addressing health care, human rights, social change, police violence, policy reform, and community control over policing.
Dr. Gumedze shared that the working group condemned killings and violence against African Americans and other African descendant people living in the US by police and recognized patterns where police officers were not held accountable for their breach of vow to serve and protect. He recommended law reforms and proactive efforts to prevent such injustices should be national priority and that excessive use of force should be thoroughly investigated while providing remedies and resources of support to families impacted by the abuse. “The government should decrease its use of force,” he said. “This must be addressed as a matter of urgency. The criminalization of poverty also disproportionately impacts people of color.” He pointed to the examples of food security, employment health care, education, criminalization and health risks, i.e. lead contaminated water in Flint, MI.
“The world without racism, discrimination, afrophobia and xenophobia is what we all long for,” Dr. Gumedze voiced with hope and assurance, his remarks setting the stage for a vigorous panel discussion with: Dr. Iva E. Carruthers (General Secretary, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference); Rev. Mike Kinman (Rector, All Saints Church); Rev. Traci Blackmon (Executive Minister, United Church of Christ); and Dr. Leah Gunning Francis (Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty, Christian Theological Seminary). Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson provided a response to the panel discussion on behalf of the National Council of Churches. Following open floor dialogue Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri called the hearing to a close inviting the body gathered to allow the testimonies and reflections inspire deeper discernment and action towards truth and reconciliation, accountability as faith communities and human being, and further, to do so with a great urgency of now.
HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL – The delegation visited the Palais des Nations and attended the UN Human Rights Council session, observing reports and meeting with Ms. Cyndy Nelson (Canadian diplomat) and Ms. Holly Moore (US diplomatic mission). Rev. Garland F. Pierce and Ms. Adele Halliday (Team Leader for Discipleship and Witness, The United Church of Canada) were also prepared to present before the council.
On Tuesday, September 26, the delegation met with Ms. Anastasia Crickley, Chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD); Dr. Fernand de Varennes, UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues; and Mr. Thierry del Prado, Human Rights Officer at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The delegation explored with these UN representatives the ways partnerships could be defined and nurtured in order to sustain the collective and respective efforts toward social justice and eradication of racism. Ms. Crickley shared her plans to visit the US and present her annual report to the Third Committee late October and her desire to engage in dialogues with communities impacted while in the US (31st of October).
The dialogue and exchanges provided by the WCC hearing and the experiences, testimonies and leadership of the delegation challenges the WCC and its member churches to honor the ministry and examples of Christ to be a model and resource of love, liberation and life. And further to practice to be prophetic voices in the world preaching, teaching and practicing acts of justice, modelling peace, and embodying love – not tomorrow, but right now, today. The hearing, which was live streamed internationally via the WCC’s website and social media platforms, also served as a call to action for faith communities to use their resources, power, influence and consciousness to challenge evidence of systemic oppressions that perpetuate racism, classism, imperialism, and harm against humanity in all of its forms.
NEXT STEPS –
- Webinar training on How to Use United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms when advocating for racial justice – 23rd October 2017 at 15:000 CEST (online)
- OHCHR regional meeting for Europe, Central Asia and North America for International Decade for People of African Descent, Room XIX, Palais des Nations, 23 to 24 November 2017 Geneva (Switzerland)
- Minority youth: towards diverse and inclusive societies – Tenth session of the Forum on Minority Issues, Room XX, Palais des Nations, 30 November and 1 December 2017, Geneva (Switzerland)
Full list of delegation members
- Traci BLACKMON, United Church of Christ, USA
- Iva CARRUTHERS, Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, USA
- Leah Gunning FRANCIS, Christian Theological Seminary, USA
- Adele HALLIDAY, The United Church of Canada, Canada
- Michael KINMAN, All Saints Church, USA
- Waltrina MIDDLETON, Howard University, USA
- Garland PIERCE, African Methodist Episcopal Church, USA
- Judith ROBERTS, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, USA
- Alydia SMITH, The United Church of Canada, Canada
- Ann Elizabeth SMITH, Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference
- Bishop Dr Marie Ann SWENSON, WCC Central Committee, United Methodist Church, USA
- Karen Georgia THOMPSON, National Council of The Churches of Christ in the USA
World Council of Churches staff:
- Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary
- Prof Isabel Apawo PHIRI, Deputy General Secretary
- Ms Jennifer PHILPOT-NISSEN, Programme Executive
- Ms Semegnish Asfaw GROSJEAN, Programme Executive
- Ms Clémentine GASPARD, Intern
- Ms Jillian ABBALLE, Advocacy Officer