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Speaking out about deeper matters of race

Diverse group of pastors work to empower residents in West Louisville

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Empower_WestLouLOUISVILLE – While it may be true from a Christian perspective that “all lives matter,” says the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Campbell of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, she points out that from the very beginning of United States history we have violated this standard of belief: that all are created equal.

“In principle, we do not value one life above or below another, we can’t,” she says. “We are all precious in God’s sight.”

“Yet historically we have said black lives are not worth what white lives are, we said that in our constitution” she says, referring to the Three-Fifths Compromise, which she summarizes, “black lives would be counted as three-fifths of a person in the census.”

“We whites say, ‘that was an unfortunate piece of our past,’” says Campbell. “But I can tell you African Americans have a different perspective on that piece of our history.”

In light of recent police killings of African American men in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota—and the killing of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge—Campbell has spoken out about some of the deeper things she’s been learning around issues of race.

In the past year she’s met on a regular basis with a coalition of black and white pastors in urban and suburban Louisville. They’re trying to understand the underlying social and racial issues facing the black community in West Louisville and working to empower people in those neighborhoods. One of the poorest areas in the country, the unemployment rate for African American men is 51.5 percent.

The Empower West Louisville coalition began organically through a friendship between Dr. Kevin W. Cosby, senior pastor at St. Stephen Church in West Louisville and president of Simmons College of Kentucky, and Joe Phelps of Highland Baptist Church, who happened to be Campbell’s neighbor, and invited her to join them.

“Together we began to consider a perspective I’d been thinking about, one they hadn’t thought about,” says Cosby. “A paradigm on how to think about the lack of pathways to success West Louisville has.”

The essence of that perspective, began with two questions. What if instead of the usual model of integration where African Americans move into white controlled space, whites moved into black controlled space? What if whites who did so came with a servant’s mentality centered in the desire for repentance and reconciliation?

Campbell says the most important thing she’s learned in the last year in considering these and other questions is how important it is not only to do the right thing, but to do it the right way. She cites as an example Louisville mayor Greg Fisher’s interest in leveraging public/private partnerships to create a certain amount of capital as a way of bringing jobs to West Louisville.

“Because I now see issues through the perspective of someone like Dr. Cosby, I’m asking certain questions,” she says, like “will anybody in the African American community own businesses? Will any of the profit from this job creation actually come back into the community?”

These kinds of questions give Campbell pause, which is why she believes it is so important to listen to the wisdom and expertise of her coalition partners.

“We as white people are accustomed to making and doing deals,” she says. “We don’t necessarily take time to see what’s needed to address the underlying issues, and address the bigger picture, of how to create lasting change across the racial divide.”

As a result of Cosby’s paradigm shifting perspective that calls for the black and white community to come together “eye to eye, face to face, heart to heart, and hand to hand,” there is a shift happening.

The coalition of pastors and others who have been invited into the conversation have been able to not only listen but see and hear at a heart level about the disparities in wealth, health, the college graduation rate, and who goes to prison and who doesn’t, across the city’s east-west divide.

“They’ve been able to see that being white brings a privilege of not having to think about these things,” says Cosby. “By getting to a difficult truth with the heart, we began to ask, ‘how can we more inclusive?’ I said, ‘If you’re white and you need a plumber, instead of getting one in your space, why not a hire a black plumber in my space?’”

The coalition has also created opportunities for Campbell and other pastors to create change on issues they care deeply about. Recently they met with two members of the Kentucky legislature who are part of a new criminal task force appointed by Kentucky governor Matt Bevin.

“We discussed the issues that lead to young African American men being incarcerated at a rate completely disproportionate to their place in society,” says Campbell.

She believes this inequity in the justice system for black Americans, along with recent incidents of disproportionate lethal force being used against African American young men, are part of the frustration and pent up anger in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Campbell isn’t sure she understands the movement as deeply as she’d like, but she is troubled by the pitting of black versus police, calling it, “the wrong thing to do,” she points out that police officers are part of a larger system, with policies in place they are asked to implement that may not necessarily work for the benefit everyone in the system.

“How tragic that both shooters of police were [military] veterans,” she says. “What happened to them, where they went from defending the U.S. to taking the lives of those asked to serve and protect them?”

Campbell believes faith communities need to work together to address the problems that keep racial division alive.

“We need to work on a big systemic change,” she says. “What are the underlying issues? “We can’t do it alone, but together faith communities can make a huge difference.”

And change can happen, as was demonstrated by Chris Caldwell, pastor of Broadway Baptist Church, who took the coalition’s message of inclusion to heart. After his father died, instead of calling a white mortician he knew, Caldwell called Cosby for help in hiring a black mortician in the neighborhood to do the funeral service. As a result, new friendships between members of Broadway Baptist and St. Stephens have formed. The two churches celebrated their newfound relationships by worshiping together on Pentecost Sunday earlier this year.

“The white church shut down for one Sunday to worship in black space,” says Cosby. “Whites beginning to know blacks, blacks beginning to know whites. Perhaps one day we can grow and start business together, in black space.”


Churches involved in the Empower West Louisville Coalition:
Broadway Baptist Church
Christ’s Church for Our Community
Crescent Hill Baptist Church
Highland Baptist Church
Highland Presbyterian Church
Kentucky Baptist Fellowship
Peewee Valley Presbyterian Church
Ridgewood Baptist Church
Simmons College of Kentucky
St. Matthews Episcopal Church
St. Stephen Church
Westwood Presbyterian Church

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