Living and Leading Change for Good: Meet the Disruptors
The Forum for Theological Exploration series, Living and Leading Change for Good, invites you to meet the disruptors – theological explorers and visionary architects inspired by their Christian faith and fueled by courage. These leaders are actively addressing civil and human rights issues and the anxiety about the rising tide of color in the U.S., along with creating social entrepreneurial ventures that respond to issues our communities face today. Our hope is that their voices and stories toward peace and justice might inspire you to be the disruptive change you’ve been waiting for. You can find the full series, here.
Shoulder to Shoulder: A Black Pastor, a White Pastor, and an Imam’s Journey for Justice
By Rev. Dr. Michael W. Waters
“Then I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder.” – Zephaniah 3:9
I remember our first meeting well. It was a sweltering summer day in Dallas, Juneteenth, to be exact. The nineteenth of June is usually quite jubilant, especially in the South, a day of family and fun, of heritage and heart, indeed, a day of great joy.
This Juneteenth was somber. Two days before, a young white supremacist entered a Bible Study at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He sat amongst the pastor and his congregants for one hour. Before departing, he bombarded their Bible Study with bullets, leaving holes in the walls, in the floor, and in the bodies of those who had sat with him around the tables.
There we were, standing near the foot of a towering statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: a white pastor from affluent North Dallas, a Black pastor from impoverished South Dallas, and an imam from a Dallas Suburb, all meeting together for the first time. We had come together with others to stand in vigil for Charleston. The white pastor and the imam sincerely offered me their condolences. I had not experienced any personal loss of family or friends, but as an A.M.E. minister, I grieved all the same with my Connectional family.
Six months later, we sat together around tables. A film crew and correspondent with VICE on HBO were also present to film our proceedings. We had gathered together this time to develop strategies to counter armed Islamaphobes who were busy carrying out an intimidation campaign against Muslim Americans in North Texas.
For months, heavily armed individuals had been parading outside of mosques, carrying signs of bigotry and closely walking behind Muslim worshipers as they approached their mosques. Taking a page from bigots during the American Civil Rights Movement, one hate group went so far as to publish online the home addresses of Muslim American leaders in the community.
Six months following that assembly, we stood together amid a massive crowd that had gathered under dreary and weeping skies. Earlier that morning, another bloody act of terror unfolded in America. This time it was at a club, Pulse, in Orlando, Florida.
We gathered at the then weeks old Resource Center of Dallas, a center for Dallas’ LGBTQ community. Cowardly acts of violence had been directed at Dallas’ LGBTQ community in the Oak Lawn community for the better part of a year. Upwards to 30 reports of violent assault had been reported since the previous September. The imam and I spoke at a press conference to denounce these acts of terror. We remained for a vigil for the fallen, where the imam spoke, before marching together in memorial through the streets of Dallas.
The following month, I stood together with the imam on a small hill in a park in Downtown Dallas. Over the previous 48 hours, the world had viewed the brutal deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers. Again, we gathered under a sweltering summer sun, in Dallas, hundreds of people spilling over to the very edges of the park. I addressed the crowd, and afterwards, marched peacefully throughout the streets of Dallas with the mass. At the conclusion of the march, I stood shoulder to shoulder on a street corner with the imam.
Suddenly, our peace was interrupted with the sound of an assault rifle and screams of terror. We ran to take cover behind the marble columns of a nearby courthouse. In another cowardly act of terror by a lone gunman, five police officers lay dead. When the imam and I had made it safely to my church, I plugged up and checked my phone. There was a message from the white pastor pleading to know that we were okay. I responded that we were, but that he continue to pray.
Six months later, we stood, again, shoulder to shoulder, a white pastor, a Black pastor, and an imam. This time, our standing ground was an international airport. The American Commander-in-Chief had signed an Executive Order banning Muslims from seven countries from entering the United States of America. We joined a great mass that had gathered together to denounce this bigotry and hatred.
As we stood, grandmothers and infants who had harmed no one had been detained for 24 hours. Having traveled by air for almost an entire day, some weary travels had already been sent back overseas. Attorneys worked feverishly to get the ban lifted, and protestors lifted their voices to apply pressure to this unjust system.
During these recent and volatile years, we have found ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder frequently. We have stood shoulder to shoulder while speaking out against acts of domestic terrorism committed against our communities, while mobilizing our communities to resist injustice, and while creating spaces for comfort and encouragement to keep our communities committed to the struggle. What continues to draw us together near the shoulder is not merely empathy for one another, but the unshakable knowledge that, as Dr. King, at whose feet we first gathered, spoke, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
We stand shoulder to shoulder at this harrowing hour with a keen sense of intersectionality. The same system that justifies and enacts violence towards one justifies and enacts violence towards us all. In our present struggle, there are no days off. There are no issues resigned solely for one oppressed, persecuted, or marginalized community. What impacts one impacts all.
We do not stand shoulder to shoulder because that is where our doctrine meets. There is great diversity in our expression of our faith. Moreover, what draws us together at the shoulder is the conviction that all God’s children deserve to live free from harm and from the threat of harm.
Given the near constant turmoil and trauma surrounding these days, it is likely that we will soon be called, again, to each other’s shoulders, but we will do so without hesitation. In our modern struggle for civil and human rights, we find strength and allies in our work for justice at the shoulder.
We lend our shoulders to help carry the burden.
We lend our shoulders as space upon which to weep.
And there, at the point that our shoulders meet, we find God. There with God we are reminded that all things are possible to them that believe.
And we are they who believe in justice.
The Reverend Dr. Michael W. Waters is the author of Stakes is High: Race, Faith and Hope for America. He is the founder and Senior Pastor of Joy Tabernacle A.M.E. Church in Dallas, Texas, one of the newest and fastest-growing A.M.E. churches in the state. He also serves as the newly appointed Senior Pastor of Agape Temple A.M.E. Church in Dallas, Texas. His website is michaelwwaters.com.