From white Jesus to Hispanic stereotyping, the PC(USA)’s Young Adult Advocacy Conference took on tough issues

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins asks, ‘Are we going to be on the side of justice?’

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins gave the keynote address Saturday at the Young Adult Advocacy Conference. (Photo by Darla Carter)

LOUISVILLE — During an advocacy conference for young adults, the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins used the traditional image of a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus as a symbol of the need to challenge the status quo.

Standing next to examples of that Eurocentric depiction, Hawkins asked, “Why is this the image of Christ in our church when we all know that Jesus did not look like this in no form, shape or fashion?”

Hawkins, the advocacy director for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), went on to say that it’s “a question that we’ve got to deal with because it’s a promotion of white supremacy. Everything good has got to be white.”

That was one of the issues raised in Hawkins’ keynote address on Saturday during the Young Adult Advocacy Conference held online and at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, Kentucky.

The conference with the theme “Jesus and Justice” was designed to teach young people, such as college-age adults and seminarians, how to stand up for what they believe in. It was hosted by the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations and attracted people from as far away as California and Iowa.

Other activities on Saturday included worship, discussions with community leaders about issues affecting the African American and Hispanic communities as well as society at large. There also were workshops on topics such as gender justice, education and hunger.

During his address, Hawkins expressed dismay about the state of political leadership in the United States. He cited multiple areas of concern, including dysfunctionality in Congress, gold bars being found in the home of a U.S. senator who has been indicted for bribery, and former President Donald Trump facing numerous charges.

“Why can’t we elect better people?” Hawkins asked. “It’s not on them. It’s on us. … Individuals who are running for office right now 30 years ago never would have made it out of the primaries; people would not think about voting for them.”

One way to address the situation is for younger people to consider running for office when the opportunity arises. “The reality is until some of you get in the game, it’s not going to change,” Hawkins said, “and we have to be able to utilize our faith to empower us.”

Hawkins acknowledged and praised young people for being involved in many of the movements that have arisen in recent years. For example, protests against a Muslim travel ban; the March for Our Lives, a gun control movement that sprang from a school shooting in Parkland, Florida; and waves of protests following the wrongful death of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis.

“We’ve got to be a part of this church because the movement is happening, and the question is, are we going to be on the side of justice, or … sit back and say, ‘Woe is me?’” Hawkins said. “We’ve got to push back and especially against our politicians who are making horrendous decisions, not only for the life of this country, but for the life of the world.”

Later, the audience heard from Louisville activist Melvin Boyd, who was interviewed by Hawkins about various topics, including what it was like to be part of local protests of the killing of Breonna Taylor in 2020. Taylor, an African American woman, was shot by police who had forced their way into her apartment on a drug investigation in a manner that raised many questions. Her death sparked a major outcry in the city and nation.

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins interviewed Louisville activist Melvin Boyd at the conference. (Photo by Darla Carter)

Before that, Boyd had been paying close attention to police-involved shootings of people of color, such as Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, around the country, and vowed that he would get involved if anything like that ever happened in Louisville. He sprang into action when he learned that people were gathering to show their outrage over Taylor’s death.

“I went out there that first night, May 28, (in) downtown Louisville, and for the first few weeks, first few days, you could literally feel people’s energy of anger about the situation coming into downtown,” Boyd said. “Like if you were from anywhere outside of downtown, as you started driving, you could feel frustration. Like it was that tense in the air, so I drove out there that first night and just decided I’m going to be out here every day,” as long as protests continued.

The police officers’ actions received intense scrutiny and later resulted in a multi-million-dollar settlement with Taylor’s estate. Since then, a lot of bridge-building, networking and other community initiatives have taken place to try to improve community relations. But more progress is needed, Boyd said.

“There’s a lot of inequities that happen, whether it is education, whether it’s jobs, whether it’s housing, there’s a lot of inequities that people face based on where they live,” he said. “And that can affect things such as car insurance. It can affect you buying a house. It can affect your children going to school. All of those things come into play. It’s not necessarily said outwardly or said boldly. But that’s pretty much what’s going on.”

Boyd, who is Pentecostal, was asked about churches’ role in justice issues. While some churches get involved, others prefer to stay out of such controversies, said Boyd, who was told at the time he should be home praying instead of protesting.

However, “because of a lot of the work that I did and a few others that were … heavily paying attention to it, my church organization as a whole, which is the Pentecostal Centers of the World, has started a social justice ministry now,” said Boyd, who is a regional leader of the effort. It is “focused on being involved, speaking out from a church standpoint of helping the community and speaking on injustice.”

He stressed that there are numerous ways that churches can be active in communities. “While some may march, some may support financially, some may pray, some may bring supplies or donate supplies,” he said. “There’s always something you can do that can help out — whatever it is that the movement is needing at that time.”

A second discussion featured Ricky Santiago, local chapter president for the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, being interviewed by Flor Vélez-Díaz, a ruling elder who is manager for digital process and social witness for the Office of the General Assembly.

Santiago, who is also digital inclusion manager for Louisville Metro Government, spoke on a number of topics, including making sure that no one is left behind in the digital age. “We need to make sure that all our communities are connected and that they have the proper skills to use technology,” he said.

He also stressed the importance of recognizing that people from Hispanic or Latino communities are not all the same.

Ricky Santiago, local chapter president for the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, was interviewed by Flor Vélez-Díaz, a ruling elder who is manager for digital process and social witness for the Office of the General Assembly. (Photo by Darla Carter)

“We tend to allow those in power to reduce us to a blanket statement of Latino and Hispanic, and we can no longer do that,” Santiago said. “We have to advocate and uplift leaders of those particular communities, so that it’s not just ‘Oh, Latino outreach.’ No, it is a specific outreach to that community, to Puerto Ricans, to Colombians, to Cubans, because only they understand their experience.”

He also noted that there are differences in the level of privilege, so it’s important to show up for each other, Santiago said. “Use your privilege to protect, right? And use your privilege to deflect.”

He said sometimes Hispanics are reluctant to speak out. “Those of us that have the privilege to rattle the cage” should do so “because if not, our community’s going to continue to be invisible.”

Turning to food insecurity, Santiago noted how the built environment is impacted by racist policies that have resulted in limited opportunities to shop for groceries in downtown Louisville.

Vélez-Díaz told a story about her struggle to find groceries while staying in a hotel in downtown Louisville when she first moved to town. She ended up having to settle for what she could find within walking distance at a pharmacy.

She also told a story about how difficult it was to find someone to rent to her and her husband, though they are both well-employed, and being stereotyped once they did finally move into a neighborhood. A new neighbor mistook her husband, who is Puerto Rican and Dominican, for a mover.                                                                                                                                                                                                                        “We were able to rent it because the owners were Chinese and the Realtor was Chinese,” she said. “They treated us as any other, right? As humans.”

The Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations are part of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.


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