A program Friday at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church marked the 200th anniversary of the AME church and explored challenges ahead for social justice.
During an opening ceremony, an actor portrayed church founder Richard Allen, the visionary Black leader in Colonial America who sued for a separate church from the controlling white Episcopal leadership. Contemporary themes of social justice were also explored during the event.
The keynote speakers included Dr. M. Jocelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General; Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a professor of history and African-American studies at Harvard University; Jamaal-Harrison Bryant, founder and pastor of Empowerment Temple AME Church; and Albert J. Raboteau, a professor of religion at Princeton University.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore, associate director for the Center for Place, Culture and Politics, challenged the notion that lighter sentencing for drug offenses would reduce mass incarceration of Black people. She called for changes to sentencing guidelines and addressing conditions that contribute to recidivism, or odds of returning to prison for a repeat offense.
The panel speaker suggested a change in approach from believing “the way we solve a problem is by killing it.”
“The way we solve a problem is by loving it,” said Gilmore, who has researched revolution and reform, prison systems and the African diaspora as professor of geography in the doctoral program in earth and environmental sciences.
“You cannot let other folks set your agenda,” Elders said.
She called for more people to be “open and honest and take every opportunity we get to make a real difference.” She also wanted people to take more responsibility to improve their health and change personal habits, and education is the key.
In the panel discussion, common themes among comments touched on the need for honest communication, attitude of acceptance and love and a role for faith-based communities in addressing controversial topics from the dynamic of Black male leadership in the wake of mass incarceration and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender love. The title of the forum is “A General Conference of Freedom’s Prophets: AME’s Re-working Trails to Freedom.”
Panel speakers thanked the AME church leadership for organizing the event. Rev. Jennifer Leath, ordained to preach at Mother Bethel AME, introduced the afternoon panel, saying the program was an “opportunity to be sustained in spirit and mind” and turn attention to the “radical inclusive love of Christ Jesus.”
Jamal-Harrison Bryant, who spoke about justice during the panel discussion with Elders, said he found the forum “overwhelmingly intellectually stimulating.”
Bryant, who earned a high school equivalency credential, later earned a theological degree from Duke University, and served as national youth and college director for the NAACP, has engaged thousands of youth in international campaigns against violence.
Bishop Yvette Flunder, founder of the City of Refuge United Church of Christ, addressed same-gender love, saying many of the issues stem from a lack of understanding and challenge stereotypes, or traditional roles for men and women.
“We’ve got to do more work around human sexuality. We have not yet reconciled this issue among ourselves yet,” she said, adding that teachings in the church force same-sex partners to conceal their love and desire. “I want to tell you closets are for brooms.”
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