Book Review: From Lament to Advocacy: Black Religious Education and Public Ministry

Book Editors: Anne E. Streaty Wimberly, Nathaniel D. West, Annie Lockhart-Gilroy

From Lament to Advocacy: Black Religious Education and Public Ministry tackles the problem of racism in contemporary US education, society, and religion. The book is unique: unlike a lot of the racial justice books I read, it didn’t talk about the complicity of the white church. It didn’t deny it, obviously – white complicity in the problem of anti-Black racism is undeniable. No, white complicity was not its focus (though it has been the focus of a lot of authors, Black and white, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and then the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, among others – for example, Becoming Brave, The Color of Compromise, Rediscipling the White Church, Dear White Peacemakers, to name just a few).

The book is refreshing for its lack of what social justice and ethnic studies educators term the white racial frame, which is what the other above-mentioned books feature prominently.

How to describe the white racial frame?

Well let’s just say that they assume that the majority-culture audience is reading it, that they write the book with white people as the implied audience, often to incite awareness and sometimes shame or remorse of the broader public. Unlike these other books, written to the dominant hegemonic white culture, which they seek to overcome by describing the injustices perpetrated by it, From Lament to Advocacy: Black Religious Education and Public Ministry gives the impression of being written by African Americans for African Americans, though they are not forcefully excluding any other races or ethnicities from potential readership.

The introductory chapter, written by Anne E. Streaty Wimberly, is harrowing as it recounts the scramble of Black religious educators to make sense of the senseless and indescribable victimization, marginalization and overall harm, up to and including brutal murders, of African Americans in American society in the past decade, many at the hands of the police who were then acquitted of any missteps by the legal system that imprisons Black and Brown bodies with impunity.

Wimberly writes that the book was birthed out of the recognition that “Black religious education is at a crossroads” (xiv).

“Moving forward entails taking seriously a public ministry emphasis in religious education focused on personal, sociocultural, political, and spiritual crises,” writes Wimberly (xiv). “The call is not for loner leaders” (xix), and therefore, the book that follows is rich, contextual, specific and yet widely accessible and actionable. It will take a village to accomplish the vision of the book, and given the many gifted contributors, and the wide variety of exemplars of the African American tradition discussed, that village and its success seem imminent, and the victory is processual and ongoing, with movements of progress and moments of heartbreak alike. The book ends with the hope of African American youth getting out of “da hood” – their phrase, not mine. This is good and all, but it also didn’t seem to have solidarity with rejuvenating the neighborhoods that are overburdened. It had more of a sense of escaping them. And I wonder if some African American activists would have some opinions about that move. It’s not my place to say.

Chapter 1 acknowledges the need for the lament that the book itself pushes us to move past. You must engage this rich history of lament in the African American tradition, it says. But then we are pushed into the rest of the book, for which Chapter 1 is just a springboard. Chapter 2 discusses religious educators as public ministry leaders, Chapter 3 addresses teaching and advocacy, and Chapter 4 touches on how to integrate Black Lives Matter in a way that doesn’t co-opt the movement from its secular, though religious-inspired, roots. This chapter was particularly interesting because it engaged the embrace of the queer and gender-expansive community by the Black Lives Matter movement, which I found refreshing in a religious book.

Chapter 5 touches on the wisdom of Womanist meaning-making that would enable mothers to reinterpret dominant narratives that the dominant society ascribes to Black girls and women (e.g. imbecility, laziness, hypersexuality, etc.) so that a sense of dignity and self-worth can emerge. In case you didn’t know, womanism was a term coined by Alice Walker that has come to encompass the genre of theology from the vantage point of a Black woman. But it exceeds theology, embracing Black womanhood as beautiful and sacred and as something to be cherished and this, in a way that graciously illuminates the beauty of Black womanhood for the whole world.

Chapter 6 was my favorite chapter. It is entitled, “Religious Education and Prison Ministry: Where Public Theology and Public Pedagogy Meet.” The author, Sarah Farmer, proposes 5 core pedagogical commitments in prison ministry: unmasking, countering, discerning, enacting, and reimagining. She argues that, “these commitments serve as formative actions in prison ministry and orienting movements toward a deeper engagement and transformation of the criminal justice system” (140). The entire chapter is stunning. It features gems like this: “Faith and public life are not juxtaposed; rather, they mutually inform one another” (140). She describes her approach to prison ministry and religious education in prison as follows: “People are formed as they do the work of ministry in jails and prisons, with the families of those in jail and prisons, or with the victims of crime. Further, prison ministry is an education that facilitates encounters that ultimately enable new knowledge, enhanced skills, and practical wisdom” (142). What I liked about this was that she was taking the stance of a learner. She also talks about how God is already in the prison, though it may take a little intentionality to see God at first. God is probably already in the lives of the imprisoned in ways that they are already aware of, she observes.

A lot of Chapter 6 is also focused on talking about mass incarceration, and it builds particularly on the famous work of Bryan Stevenson and, especially, Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow, which describes mass incarceration as the new slavery). The book advocates for restorative justice over retributive justice. Prison ministry is about racial justice:

“We can’t talk about the disproportionate number of Black people in the criminal justice system without talking about the ways Christian theology has contributed to the ways we punish. Penal pedagogy is not just operative in the criminal justice system but also in the faith community […] Blacks have always been cast in the role of sinners in need of redemption. And now, incarcerated persons are cast as godless and in need of redemption. Thus, the question becomes, How do we form people in a way to see the fullness of God’s grace manifested in individuals and systems?” (154).

She also talks about the need to reimagine religious education in the prison context:

“Broadening our religious educational view of what prison ministry might entail challenges us to widen the prism of who we minister to and with and how we minister. To apply criminal justice ministries to only those in prison also fails to pay attention to all those affected by incarceration. Criminal justice ministries include families of people who are incarcerated, the communities that experience a vacuum due to incarceration, and those who have been victimized by crime. Criminal justice ministries engage ministry with victims and victimizers alike, since all people are made in the image of God” (165).  

Chapter 7 talks about religious education and the organization “Sister’s Keeper.” It touches on how a lot of the focus has been on rehabilitating Black boys and men, and how, though that’s good, there has been an astronomical rise in the number of women of color who have been pushed out into the margins of society and even into prison. The number of women in prison has gone up compared to the number of men, even! As a white woman reading this was the most telling moment of how society distorts perceptions of women of color:

“[The directions told the young Black girls to] write words and draw images that represent what you think about yourself. […] In every instance, they shared negative words and images. I then read the following affirmation for the group, which indicated we would say at each session: “I am in pursuit of identity, I am a boldly believing beautiful creation, I am striving to be my best self, my authentic self, I don’t care about the world’s opinion, I am becoming the best I can be, I am discovering my purpose on the planet.” (196)

Surely, the deep, “profound intentionality” (182) of this educator, is to be revered. We should all be grateful for the vulnerability of this rich chapter.

Chapter 8 was wonderful, about spiritual retreat encounters for youth and young adult resilience and spiritual formation, and it featured as an epigraph this final quote, which I will close with:

“It is important to release the gifts of personal agency within people; it is equally important to address those forces in culture that recruit persons into negative stories, plots, and images that destroy personal agency and full participation in society” – Edward P. Wimberly, African American Pastoral Care and Counseling: The Politics of Oppression and Empowerment

In sum, this is a refreshing read for me, since I am used to reading books about race that are addressed to society at large and not from the Black community to the Black community. I learned a lot.

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