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Scaling the truth and spreading reconciliation

Greensboro, North Carolina couple who helped launch the city’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission plans a statewide effort

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Joyce Johnson and the Rev. Nelson Johnson spoke Wednesday about their experiences with the Greensboro (N.C.) Truth & Reconciliation process. (Photo courtesy of Union Presbyterian Seminary)

LOUISVILLE — Just as they helped launch the nation’s first Truth & Reconciliation Commission in Greensboro, North Carolina, about 20 years ago, the Rev. Nelson Johnson and Joyce Johnson are making plans for a statewide effort they hope will become a national model.

The Johnsons spoke Wednesday during a session called “Just Act!” as part of Union Presbyterian Seminary’s African American Social Justice Preaching Series. Watch the 90-minute discussion, hosted by Dr. Rodney S. Sadler Jr., who directs the seminary’s Center for Social Justice & Reconciliation, by clicking here.

The seven-member Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission was empaneled following deep community divisions over the events of Nov. 3, 1979, when five people were killed and 10 were injured after an attack during an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally. Click here to read the executive summary of the Commission’s 2006 report.

The Johnsons are co-executive directors of Beloved Community Center, which seeks to “guide Greensboro into a new era of equitable economic sufficiency, peace, social, gender and racial justice that can serve as a model and inspiration for ourselves, our region, and our nation,” according to the Center’s website.

“We’ve decided to revisit a successful endeavor,” Joyce Johnson said during Wednesday’s forum. “We feel called now” with the blessing of the Beloved Community Center’s Board of Directors. Nelson Johnson labeled the planned initiative the North Carolina Truth, Justice & Reconciliation process.

“We are a greatly divided and polarized nation. We are in a cold civil war” in which “we are throwing verbal grenades at each other,” he said. But “it is not unthinkable this dangerous period could descend into a hot civil war,” where states and regions “are thrown against each other in a violent clash … The predicament we are in is not unthinkable, and we have to take it seriously. Preaching God’s truth is more important than it’s been in your lifetimes,” he told the seminarians in the online audience, “and maybe mine.”

What’s desperately needed today is more truth and less falsehood, more community and less polarization among the American people, he said.

The truth, justice and reconciliation process “is a human construct,” Joyce Johnson explained, “something we as humans can and must do. It’s everyday individuals and elected officials and religious leaders coming together and committing to speaking the truth in love.” The fledgling process in North Carolina has an advisory council that includes Sadler and the Rev. Dr. William Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign.

“We think this is a piece of the way out of the situation we are in now,” she said. “It’s not the only way, but without the truth, we won’t be set free.

“We need to have deep, deep listening,” she said. “We talk past each other and we try to prove we are right and the other person is wrong. We have come to understand there is your way and my way. There has to be a third way that does not deny the truth and the sanctity of each one of us … Who better than people of faith, who have heard a call from God to build God’s kingdom? Who better to step out and say, ‘Here I am; send me! I will go out into the neighborhood to build up that aspect of the Beloved Community.’”

Dr. Rodney S. Sadler Jr.

“Instead of throwing in the towel and walking away,” Sadler told the Johnsons, “you have given us a path to do something about it.”

The Johnsons answered questions posed by online listeners. Theologian Ched Myers wondered: What are some of the lessons you learned during the Greensboro experience?

“There was strong resistance to it,” Nelson Johnson said. “After that surge of resistance, there was a significant number of white brothers and sisters who came and joined the process. A challenge was there was not a desire to know the truth, but there was a desire to reconcile. That was a major problem in our process. What are we reconciling if we don’t face what it was that brough us to this moment?”

“One lesson we learned, and we knew it but it was hammered into us by Archbishop Tutu and others, is that you need to be spiritually prepared for this work,” Joyce Johnson said. “Before every public hearing we had a spiritual gathering at a local church.”

How, another questioner asked, can I love those who seem to live for hate?

“You have to believe in the capacity of the other to change,” Nelson Johnson said. “If you don’t believe that, it closes the door on any serious effort to try.” He recounted his efforts to meet with a Klan leader. The man eventually met with Johnson, but their conversation was kept quiet for many years. “You have to touch human beings on the human level,” he said. “You can’t see around the curve, but stay on the road.”

The truth, justice and reconciliation process will not be “a magic bullet,” he said.

“Those in power will not give up their power willingly,” Joyce Johnson said. “We must build up the culture of truth to those who are open to it.”

The process must include changing the narrative, according to Sadler.

“The way we live is shaped by story,” he said. It won’t be enough to change “policies, laws and business practices. We need to change the story we tell, which is based on the openness of human beings. We need to look to each other for justice and equity.”

“You have to bring together a relatively small group of diverse people who share a thirst for the truth and have a relationship to a sector of people they can reach out to,” Nelson Johnson said. “I advocate deep listening over winning an argument” because “as you listen deeply, the person has to deepen what they are saying.”

Joyce Johnson said one of the biggest obstacles during the Greensboro process was “the impediment of disbelief, the people who think folks cannot change.” She and her husband believed that “if we didn’t [participate] it would plague justice work in this community forever. We wanted a place where our grandchildren could stand.”

It was like tearing a page out of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” she said. “It took a child to say, ‘He doesn’t have on any clothes.’ We had to expose the truth about our society so we could build up the Beloved Community.”

The process will start relatively modestly, remembering that Jesus called 12 disciples to help him launch his ministry.

“Jesus said to enter by the narrow gate. The wide gate is not transformative,” Nelson Johnson said. “It’s clear to me where this nation is likely to go unless we learn to walk toward each other building connective tissue and believing there is humanity in everyone.”

“We need to save this American experiment,” Sadler said, “and unite toward a more perfect union as we tell the truth, do justice and therefore foster reconciliation.”

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