LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE
by Cynthia Price
Rev. Jennifer Bailey understands that in the face of deeply disturbing events, well-meaning people struggle to know what to do.
Her approach of “accompaniment at the intersections” is respectful to those whose losses are profound and helps to build genuine community to work toward avoiding such events.
The highly effective speaker gave the Sigal Lecture for 2016 last Wednesday at the downtown Grand Valley State University Campus.
The lecture series, which has been held in the recent past through the Interfaith Dialogue Association (IDA), honors a great leader in the West Michigan intefaith movement, Rabbi Dr. Philip J. Sigal. Dr.
Sigal led Ahavas Israel Synagogue and was a New Testament scholar because he felt that understanding Judaism meant understanding what came after it.
After the rabbi’s death in 1985, the lecture series was established. His widow, Dr. Lillian Sigal, carried on his work, before moving away. The Sigal lectures have featured a variety of important speakers over the years since then, spearheaded by the IDA?and the growing local interfaith movement.
Now the IDA?and its programs have become part of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, which is in turn part of Grand Valley State University. Named for Muskegonite Sylvia Kaufman, who pioneered the Jewish Christian Dialogue and the West Michigan Interfaith Academic Consortium, the Institute’s founding director is Douglas Kindschi, the well-known former Dean of Science at Grand Valley.
Kindschi led off the evening by acknowledging his excitement about the IDA-Kaufman Interfaith Institute affiliation and recognizing former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, winner of the Sylvia Kaufman Interfaith Leadership Award given at the Interfaith Leadership Dinner immediately preceding the Sigal lecture. Kindschi then introduced Fred Stella of IDA to talk about Rabbi Sigal. Following that, the Institute’s Program Manager, Katie Gordon, introduced Jennifer Bailey.
Not only is Bailey a national leader in a burgeoning movement for justice — she was recently named one of 15 Faith Leaders to Watch — she is also a friend of Gordon’s. The two met through something called the Interfaith Youth Core, which offers leadership training for those who want to bridge the divisions between different faith traditions. “It’s been a joy and inspiration to see the ldeadership that she’s provided for fellow interfaith advocates as real justice work,” Gordon said.
Bailey studied at Tufts University, then started in the food justice movement as an Emerson National Hunger Fellow. An ordained African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church minister, she was led to found the Faith Matters Network to bring the power of religious faith to bear on injustice and strife.
The topic of Bailey’s lecture was “Racial and Interfaith Justice: A New Vision for Leadership at the Intersections.”
Starting out with her grandmother’s move to Illinois in the early 1950s, Bailey told her story in terms of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers in her mother’s home town of Cairo. “Racial terrorism” forced her grandmother to leave the south, and her mom’s life too was made difficult by her race in the 95% Caucasian Cairo.
“At the confluence, rivers either remain separate with their own distinct colors and sediments, or they begin to blend together,” she said. She likened that confluence to an “intersection,” where unjust events cause caring people from different backgrounds to try to move together toward a solution.
Bailey then brought in another “flow” of thought, talking about the Biblical “Jesus wept,” which she joked was the fall-back in youth groups everywhere when participants had to recite a memorized Bible verse.
She traced the story of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead, noting that before he did so he spent time weeping and mourning with Lazarus’s family. And she added, “I believe we are at a critical moment in our history when presidentail candidates can gain votes by saying they will round up Muslims and register them, when violence makes young black people have to stand up and claim that they matter. We are living in some dark days.
“We’re in a Holy Saturday moment, where we don’t know what’s going to happen next,” she said, referring to the day between Christ’s death and His resurrection in the Christian tradition. “The theological ethic of accompaniment, walking alongside, is deeply Christian, and that’s why I try to show up in an authentic way.”
Bailey also had a very simple suggestion for achieving that authentic accompaniment, which stems from a direct personal relationship between people as they intersect: “break bread with them,” learn their stories.
It was to facilitate getting to know those stories that Bailey founded Faith Matters Network, which “centers the voices of leaders who have traditionally been pushed to the margins of religious narratives.” She wants people to be able to participate in the full realization of all that they are, including their faiths.
Lecture attendees seemed delighted with her personalized answers to their thoughtful questions.
To find out more, visit her website, www.faithmattersnetwork.org.
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