The humanitarian discusses organizing “Friendshipment” caravans to Cuba through a special ministry called Pastors for Peace.
Humanitarian Gail Walker
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Pleased to welcome Gail Walker to this program. She is the Executive Director for the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, better known as IFCO, now celebrating 50 years of its existence. This week, she and several others will embark on a caravan to Cuba as part of an annual special ministry under the Pastors for Peace. Gail, good to have you by here before you take off to Cuba.
Gail Walker: Thank you so much for having me.
Tavis. Good to see you. Tell me about IFCO 50 years later. That’s a long time to be loving and serving people.
Walker: It truly is, it truly is. IFCO was a brainchild of a progressive clergy and lay people who were interested in finding ways to really connect to issues of social unrest and to find solutions to social unrest and social justice projects. So anything from working with the children, issues around race, fighting the Klan, supporting the efforts of farm workers, the American Indian movement.
It’s a real rich history that’s been rooted in the issue of social justice and my father was the founding director. The late Reverend Lucius Walker was really at the helm for so many years. I came about and got connected to IFCO sort of by birth, but really is the result of my own interest in social justice and doing what we can to make this a better world.
Tavis: How does it feel How do you process continuing the kind of social justice work that your father and others started so many years ago? I ask that because there are a lot of folk in this generation who are just coming into their own fight for social justice on so many different fronts. And yet you and others are the progeny of those who were fighting these fights half a century ago.
Walker: Yeah, yeah. I think, you know, literally being a youngish Black woman, having witnessed not only the work that my father did, but others that he surrounded himself with, saw the importance of utilizing the tool of IFCO and the program that IFCO has been associated with as a way to really push back against some of those forms of injustice.
When we look at some of the current projects, Black Lives Matter just being one, and seeing sort of the precursor to some of that, it’s real important, I think, for us to maintain the use of these kinds of institutions as a way to educate people about the current struggles, but to figure out ways that we can use them to advance struggles for justice moving down the road.
Tavis: Broadly speaking, broadly speaking, Gail, you think that the faith community still — I’m trying to be careful here so as not to offend anybody, not that I care, but anyway [laugh] — do you think the faith community still has the kind of interest in this kind of social justice work?
I mean, let’s be honest. We are not your daddy’s generation. We are not Dr. King’s generation. That’s not to say that there aren’t those who are fighting for social justice, but I’m specifically asking about the role that the faith community plays now versus the role that it played 50 years ago.
When we think about the faith community these days, we’re talking about Christian Conservatives and Donald Trump politics and this, that and the other. But on this social justice front, where’s the faith community? How do you situate them?
Walker: That’s a really important conversation and it’s one that we’re continuously engaged in. Thankfully, we’ve got some members of the faith community that work with us as part of our Board of Directors, advisory based. I’m here in L.A. and had the opportunity to worship at the Holman United Methodist Church…
Tavis: Where the world-renowned…
Walker: Oh, my gosh…
Tavis: Yeah, he was there for years, yeah.
Walker: Yes, yes, yes. But Reverend Kelvin Sauls is really holding it down and doing some tremendous work in the community and very supportive of the work that IFCO is doing. So we’re trying to identify a progressive, prophetic clergy, lay congregations like that to continue to find ways that we can keep this work going.
But there are — you know, I could list some of the names of the folk that are continuing to do this work in different parts of the U.S., so I believe they’re there, but it’s a continuous challenge.
And I talk to them, particularly the clergy, and say, “Where are the young faith leaders?” Because it’s real important, I think, for us to continue to do this work with our faith hat on and that’s why we continue to do the work that we do as people of faith and people of conscience.
Tavis: Quick footnote here before I go on to continue our conversation talking specifically about the trip to Cuba that they’re about to take, when she said Holman, I got excited very quickly, as you could tell a moment ago, because, to her point, Holman is a very, very well-known and popular church. Popular is the wrong word, but very well-known and highly regarded church in this city.
It is the church that was pastored for many years by a guy named James Lawson. James Lawson, years ago, was in a place called Memphis. He was the one in Memphis who asked Dr. King to come to Memphis to lead the sanitation workers strike.
He was a friend of Dr. King’s and convinced Martin King to come to Memphis to get on the front lines of that fight for those sanitation workers. James Lawson, for a lot of years, for a lot of pain because he thought that he was the one that got Martin King killed by getting him to come to Memphis.
I know he and James Harding who wrote the “Beyond Vietnam” — I’ve talked to these guys so many times over the years. Harding, of course, deceased now. James Lawson, I just ran into him the other day here in L.A. He’s retired now, but he’s a part of a grand legacy of those who worked alongside Dr. King in Memphis and beyond.
How ironic in just a matter of months, we’ll be commemorating the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination in Memphis, but James Lawson pastored that church home for a lot of years, as you well know.
He’s an icon to many people in the social justice movement. That said, that’s why Holman gets us excited when you hear the name Holman in this city. So Cuba. So you guys have been doing this for a number of years.
Tavis: Tell me what these caravans to Cuba are about and I know you guys don’t get involved in the politics, but how has the death of Castro, the opening of our policy with Cuba under the Obama administration, Trump now threatening to do a 180 on that, does any of that — not to make you political — affect whatever it is that y’all are going to do?
Walker: Well, you know, the caravans we’ve been organizing to Cuba since 1992, they actually got their start back in ’88 when my dad and I were leading a delegation to Nicaragua in which there was a passenger ferry that we were traveling on that was attacked by a Nicaraguan Contra.
This was a different president. Ronald Reagan, who was talking about the Contras as the freedom fighters and the Sandinistas as the bad guys. We found out firsthand just what that really was all about. My dad was one of 29 people who were wounded in that attack, which led to the formation of Pastors.
So we began doing the caravans in Central America and then, in 1992, began organizing caravans to Cuba and really lifting up the information about the blockade or the embargo and what that is all about. So we have done the caravan in a variety of different ways.
We’ve taken humanitarian aide buses and medical supplies, school supplies, bibles, bicycles. Lately, we’ve been really focusing on the educational component because there’s so much about Cuba that people just don’t know.
Even, you just mentioned, the President Obama and the openings that he made which were wonderful. I think it was really — he talked about the approach to Cuba being a failed policy and one that needed to be reversed.
We were very pleased at what he was able to do and now we find ourselves faced with a Donald Trump who has reversed some of what President Obama has put forth. We think that there’s still a lot that can be done, must be done, and that’s why we continue to do this work.
The death of Fidel Castro, I think, was a blow certainly to the people of Cuba, but the reality is that the revolution in Cuba was never about one man. It was really about, I think, the idea of creating a society in which all could benefit. So the kinds of things that were put into place under the Fidel Castro presidency continue to be reflected across the country.
We know that his brother, Raoul, who is currently sitting in that seat, is going to be moving on himself. So Cuba is making change and participating in a changed world. Certainly won’t forget the role that Fidel Castro played, but I think, you know, are prepared to look to the future as we move forward.
Tavis: In the two minutes I have left, what are your personal impressions of the Cuban people?
Walker: I love Cuba. You know, I’ve had an opportunity to go there ever since 1992. They’re a generous people, really interested. I’ll tell you, there are times when people might approach you here and you think, oh, boy, somebody’s going to ask me for something.
That may not be the proper way to think about it, but when that happens in Cuba, it’s often because, wow, I want to practice my Spanish or “You live in New Jersey? You must know Jose. You know Jose, my cousin, Jose?” I’m like, well, there’s a lot of — “No, no, you know Jose.” But it’s fascinating.
The other thing I just wanted to say is that Cuba provides so much and that’s why we continue to do this work. You know, they’ve opened up opportunities. They’ve got a med school there, ELAM, the Latin America School of Medicine, in which they provide all kinds of opportunities for young people to go to Cuba to study to become physicians.
And IFCO had the honor of being the facilitator of that program for U.S. candidates. 145 graduates this summer when we head down to Cuba will be participating in the graduation of 27 new U.S. doctors only understanding…
Tavis: Trained in Cuba, yeah.
Walker: Trained in Cuba, only understanding being that they will return and serve here in underserved communities.
Tavis: That’s beautiful.
Walker: It’s a great work and I look forward to continuing to move this forward. It comes with some degree of pushback. The U.S. government decided to take away our 501(c)(3) at the beginning of this year in part, they said, because of the work that you’ve done with Cuba.
We continue to do the work. We think it’s important that that work move forward. So with the support of folk like at Holman and other churches and congregations across the country, we’re continuing to move forward with that.
Tavis: Well, that’s how you know you’re doing good work. You got the Trump administration resisting you [laugh]. That’s the surest sign that you’re doing something good in the world [laugh].
Walker: There you go. That’s right, that’s right.
Tavis: But I digress on that. All the best on the trip. Be safe. Have a great time.
Walker: Thank you so much.
Tavis: And thank you for 50 years of this ongoing struggle.
Walker: Thank you.
Tavis: Thank you, Gail.
Walker: Appreciate it.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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