Rev. Donna Jones Interview

Read more of Kim Lawton’s January 10, 2009 interview in Philadelphia with the Rev. Donna Jones, senior pastor at Cookman United Methodist Church:

Q: Tell me a little bit about the ministries you have here, especially aimed at kids.

A: Well, our overall ministries are called Beloved Community Coalition, and within that the purpose is really taken from Isaiah, where you find the—there’s a famous painting of the beloved community that has the lion and the lamb together, and the little child leading them and the whole thing. The beloved community is a place where all God’s children has enough, and nobody has too little, and based on that our ministries with children actually started because we had some older members here who have since passed on who were concerned about the young people who were actually the children of women who were engaged in prostitution. And what they found was a lot of the kids weren’t really eating healthy meals. So we did an after-school program—we were the first Kid’s Café. We did an after-school program that included full dinner, and then we got to know more of the moms and their friends, and along the way we got involved, because of that, with welfare reform. From welfare reform we started doing adult education, adult basic education, because the literacy rates were so low. As we did that with welfare reform, in time the ages got lower and lower and lower. We started with 40-year-olds, 30s, 20s, and then we started to see 18, 19, 20s coming in with literacy issues. And then the older women started to bring their teenage children with them, because they were home and couldn’t get work. So we started to see a real need around young people who are teenagers who weren’t going to school for all kinds of reasons. Not because they didn’t want to go to school, but because of family problems and other things going on. So we started to add 17,18s, and then we applied for a grant with the Department of Human Services truancy to do a program that would allow us to offer a diploma, and we based it off of Urban Promise, which is done in Camden, [New Jersey], founded by Tony Campolo, and we use a home school company and a home school curriculum, but we educate everybody here every day, 9 to 3, and they get a high school diploma, and it’s working really well. We get referrals, from the Department of Human Services and the courts, of young people who’ve been chronically truant, and they can come and work on their diplomas, and we’ve had two graduations.

Q: Two graduations with how many?

A: We’ve graduated 15 so far.

Q: Does it have a name, the school?

A: It’s the Cookman United Methodist Church Alternative Learning Community for Youth. We also have a teen center, and we are the only open teen center in, I think, a mile radius of this area, and what “open” means is that anybody can come, and we really specialize in older teens and young adults, so 19, 20, 21s, and we don’t screen the teens or anything like that. So those are the two things.

Q: Why do you feel it’s important that the church in particular be involved in these kinds of social service operations?

A: I believe that Jesus was involved in social service. He went around healing; he healed a lot of people. He healed before he went out with the gospel message. Because if people are suffering that should be our first, you know, our main thing as Methodists: do no harm and do good are like the two cool things that we talk about a lot. So it’s an expression of Christ’s love, and whether people even accept Jesus Christ or not, his love should be offered.

Q: You mentioned the beloved community. That’s a concept Martin Luther King Jr. talked about. What did it mean for him, and what does it means for you and for this church?

A: The beloved community concept, that really gets fleshed out in all of the Bible, but especially in Isaiah, where there’s so many texts that talk about—when I think about Isaiah 61, for instance. That was Jesus’ kind of first sermon: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor, release the captives, set at liberty those who are oppressed, declare the year of the Lord’s favor.” To talk about the fact that these things aren’t things we have to wait for after we die, they’re things that should be available to people right now. So people should be able to build houses and live in them, people should be able to raise up devastated cities, people should be able to deal with health care and education, and this is all very biblical. And the beloved community is, like I said, that place where all of God’s children have enough education and health care and food and fun and, you know, just everything that is necessary for that abundant life that Jesus talks about. And so for Martin Luther King there’s civil rights, but I think the better term, which is a quote from a very dear friend of ours, Dr. Vincent Harding,  says it was more than civil rights. It was a pro-democracy movement. So King’s movement that led us into considering whether everybody was being able to live that abundant life was a movement that said we have the power as people to create the world, with God’s help, that everybody is entitled to. And [King] had that great gift of being able to mobilize with others large groups of people to really know that it’s possible and to say, you know what? We can do something about this. We don’t have to live in poverty. Right now as it relates to Cookman, when we became concerned around truancy and around young people not going to school, and we met the young people realizing that they wanted to learn but that there were so many barriers to them learning, we could have just kind of grumbled and complained about the Philadelphia public school system. But what we decided to do was, well, this is a big city. There are probably opportunities for people who can design good programs. So we can all do something, and I think that’s the legacy of King. First putting out the reality of the beloved community, again all of that’s very biblical, but also putting out the hope and the encouragement to say you know what? You can do something to help create that, whatever the something is. And so for us that’s it. The legacy of Dr. King was he set out the vision of the beloved community based on Isaiah, based on his background as a minister. He was able to mobilize the people around the vision, and in mobilizing the people he gave the people hope that the vision could be accomplished, and it was that hope that caused so many people to work together, to know that it’s not nothing you can do; there’s something that you can do.

Q: For a lot of people it’s a point that just gets lost, especially today, to think back to the fact that King’s movement wasn’t just about civil rights or voting rights or segregation.

A: I mentioned Dr. Vincent Harding and the Veterans of Hope Project.  They’re veterans of the civil rights movement, and what they are encouraging people to realize is beyond civil rights, that’s one specific thing, but the movement was a pro-democracy movement. It was really about the way this country operates: by the people, for the people, of the people—that the people have the power to make a change and affect public policy. So if you look at the King movement, a lot of it really was radical, dangerous public policy advocacy, but back in those days advocacy meant they would come after you. Today, you know, we make a lobby day, we all get on a bus, we go to Washington, we have lunch. You know, everybody’s opening doors for us; nobody’s got dogs out there to bother us. But in King’s day, the same thing that we take for granted was done in great costs. But it was about teaching democracy in rural communities and poor communities with garbage workers and sanitation workers and immigrants and migrant workers and saying this is the way this country works and if we practice democracy and we practice democratic, nonviolent advocacy, then a renewal will happen in this country. And what renewal means is you go back to the old landmark to find out what was it supposed to be like, and then you build from there. Well, same thing with beloved community. Beloved community was about what was it supposed to be like? So when God created the heavens and the earth and placed everybody in the garden, that was beloved community. That’s what it was supposed to be like. So we don’t have to look at what it was supposed to be like and say it can’t happen. It’s our responsibility to figure out how to make it happen.

Q: To what extent was the election of Barack Obama a fulfillment of King’s vision, a fulfillment of the dream we talk about?

A: To a major, major, major extent. I think we are all still excited about it, because in the legacy of what we talked about, about a pro-democracy movement—I grew up in a family that was very active in the civil rights movement. We were making placards to go down South to protest. My mom was part of a citizens organizing group. So there was a lot of protest work being done in my household. The FBI had a file on my mother, and there were bomb threats and all kinds of things back then, and to even believe, having grown up in that era, that it was still possible for the citizens of the United States to elect the president is just amazing to me. It’s sad that it has to be amazing, but especially after the last, the election of about four years ago, where many people felt, you know, that there’s nothing that we can do, this democracy thing—it really doesn’t work. And that’s what made Barack Obama’s campaign so exciting, and we give credit to not just Barack Obama but all the people, and that’s what makes it so exciting. There are people in this community that worked on the presidential election. There are students in this school that worked on the presidential election. So the beauty of it was that it took the concepts that were forged with the civil rights movement and the pro-democracy movement and said you know what? These things still happen. So Barack Obama basically was a community organizer, and he used the things that my mother used and that my father used and that Martin King used and that Fanny Lou Hamer used. He used the same tools, but without the dogs, which is kind of cool, because it meant that we could mobilize with joy as opposed to mobilizing in fear, and it ended up being a spark and a different kind of spark and very important to the generation of students that are here, because they saw that ordinary citizens in ordinary time could make a huge difference just by doing ordinary things like voting and making sure people knew how to register to vote and blogging and emailing and texting, and to see even the use of technology that caused an increase in consciousness that just made it possible for people to actually vote and then to see that happen—beyond Barack Obama. No matter who this person would have been, it was critical for our country to see that the people could elect a president.

Q: Did you grow up here in Philadelphia?

A: Yes

Q: Are your parents still living?

A: No, my parents are both gone.

Q: You mentioned having that memory of fear. Is the election message different, do you think, for the generations? Is it different for you or people older than you who were really part of that movement and for the kids you deal with? What are those different messages the election gives?

A: For the generation that I’m in, or for me, I can’t speak for my whole generation, but I’m a boomer, and we do speak for our whole generation. That’s part of what we do. But for me there’s a message of hope, and then there’s a message of closure, in a way, and for our generation, especially those of us who work with young people, year after year after year we would see people look at us as if that was then and this is now. And it was almost a look, for Vietnam-era people as well, and it was almost a look of failure, you know. “You guys did all of that, and at great risk, and what has it gotten us?” So for our generation I believe it was a sense of confirmation that this stuff of democratic renewal and public policy advocacy and community organizing really does work. And I think that we needed to see that, because we were getting really cynical. For the young people who are our children and our grandchildren, they would see that cynicism and so they wouldn’t grow up with a sense of what it means to live in a democratic country or what it means to make a difference. And so that cynicism for them could turn into nihilism, which says nothing matters. So for these generations that experienced the movement, and generations that grew up with the cynicism of having experienced the movement and still seeing all of these, if you look at the triplets of evil that King talked about in the Riverside [Church] speech: racism, materialism, and militarism. For these kids to see these things continuing 50 years, 40 years, 30 years in and you can’t do anything about it, for Barack Obama to be elected by the people in a grassroots kind of way says that, okay, it definitely hit racism in a big way, materialism in a big way. Just to see how $25, $5— you know, I went on line and it was the first time I’ve ever contributed to a campaign, and I hit the PayPal, $25 Barack Obama. First time. To see how even collective economics—my $25 made a difference. And militarism for us here especially deals with nonviolence and gun violence and things like that. To think that, you know what? We can step up our efforts in changing gun laws and gun control and other things like that. For the kids today to see that it’s possible means that the issues that have been around for these 50 years, 40, 100 years, we can actually make a difference.

Q: You’ve talked about how this fulfilled a vision, but in fact maybe a lot of people want to think well good, we’ve solved that problem. We’ve solved the problem of racism. Clearly, we have a black president now. We don’t have to worry about that. What are the parts of King’s vision that still have to be worked on?

A: All of them. What this campaign has done in its entirety, and this is beyond Barack Obama, is it let us know that the process can work to effect change. But it didn’t necessarily change anything. So racism is still alive and well in America. But things were so bad in America that across, you know, white males—when I saw the number of white males that voted for Barack Obama I was, like, either the country is in really bad shape or  we’ve come this far, and it’s probably a mixture. There are probably people who are racist that voted that way because they are concerned about the country. But it says that I can overcome racism for the sake of the country. That says a lot. I can overcome sexism for the sake of the country, you know, if we look at Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton. I can overcome religious intolerance for the sake of the country. So it gives us a starting place, and the hard thing for us right now is, that the election did, was just gave us a place that we as Americans can start. So when Barack Obama four years ago said, you know, it’s not a black America, its not a white America, we’re Americans, I believe that for the first time since I’ve been American I feel like an American, and that feeling spread out throughout the country means that we finally in this country, I believe, have a place to start. And with a place to start, if we come back to the beloved community, what are we going to work on? Well, let’s work on eliminating racism. Let’s work on eliminating gun violence and other acts of violence. Let’s work on not living for money, which with the economy right now it means that we have to. So that even as bad as the economy is, we have to start, so we’re not going to be doing predatory lending, we’re not going to be doing some of the things that were hurtful. His election as the first African American and the first family of African Americans going into the White House says something about where we’re starting with racism. His historic dialogues on race mean that there are dialogues coming out of that, coming out on a deeper, deeper level. The same thing about militarism: we’re going to be looking at what’s going on in the Middle East and what’s going on domestically, because you’re talking about somebody who came out of Chicago but also somebody with Indonesian and Hawaiian and other backgrounds, and somebody whose father was Muslim and mother was Christian. That’s going to say something about militarism. And then again on materialism: his campaign was run in such a way that said your $5 makes a difference, and therefore pay attention, and in the economic crisis we’ve got to pay attention. And so we’re at a wonderful place to—Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and I’m not saying the kingdom of heaven like, you know, Jesus is going to come back tomorrow, which would be fine with me, but the concept of beloved community is within our reach and has been within our reach. What happened now is that we have the hope. We’re at a starting place. The election of Barack Obama ended up confirming something that many of us had stopped believing, so there were activists and community organizers that were doing what we have to do but not necessarily believing 100 percent that this beloved community we would see in our life time. So this election said something to us, especially the generation of organizers that said, you know, what all the organizing we’ve done for 40 years has contributed not only the nation being at this place but also been contributing to this 40-something-year-old growing up to believe that these activities make such a huge difference. I mean, can you imagine an organizer saying I can be president? I mean, that’s like you must be insane is what one would think. So all of it—the hope that we saw that he had to have and actualize, the hope that we’ve had we actualized. So hope actualized is where we are right now, and we can see that hope, just acting on the hope, means that change can happen. And even the dialogue around change was, I think, encouraging, because the campaign didn’t necessarily always clearly define what was going to change, but what changed was the hope that there could be change. And so as we come back to the concept of beloved community, it can be a nebulous concept. You know, what does it mean for all God’s children to have enough and nobody to have too little? We have to live into that. But the hope says we can live into that. The hope says this is a beginning. This is a time that we know that the things we think, the things we dream of, this world that we envisioned and that’s in our hearts can be tangibly achieved by certain methods over time. And so that’s it.

Q: What is the role of the church in particular in helping to realize that? What is the responsibility?

A: I think that the responsibility is—and I’m going to change it from church to faith community—mainly because we have a responsibility to realize we’re in a global world, that God created a whole universe and we are not, and this is going to really—I am a Christian, I say the Apostles Creed and I believe in Jesus Christ, the Bible, I believe that Jesus is coming back, I’m a very conservative Christian. However, I believe that in God’s wisdom that God can work with all people of faith to achieve that place where all God’s children have enough and nobody has too little, that beloved community, that God allows the sun to shine on the just and the unjust alike. And so the first thing that needs to happen is that we’ve got to work interfaith. We’ve got to work intercultural. We’ve got to start understanding a little more about the Jewish community, the Muslim community, the Hindu, the Bahai, the Buddhist, all of these ways of looking at the universe and the world. We’ve got to come to a place where we can just like—not one black America, not one white America, there’s America. I think right now—not to say that Christianity doesn’t make a difference or that belief in Jesus Christ doesn’t make a difference or isn’t important for salvation, that isn’t what I’m saying. But what I am saying is that we have to come out of—the church is always 50 years behind everybody else. How do we stand as one?  That’s something we’re going to be seeing the president-elect doing with the Congress. How do we stand as one? You’re a Republican, and you feel this way, and I’m not taking away what you feel about fiscal responsibility. But how do we feel as one? I’m a Democrat, and I just used the term fiscal responsibility. How do we stand as one means that I understand what you saying when you talk about it and now how do we stand as one to create this community that we can fight about still leads to one place? And that’s the place where all of God’s children have enough and nobody has too little. And then we can fight over who God is and how God is and in the end God will let us know, but in the in-between time, as people of faith can we look at what can happen when diverse people come together and make a change in such a way that their differences are not deal breakers? As a community of faith, how can demonstrate the love of Christ strongly enough to work at Al-Aqsa [Mosque] down the road, or to work with Mosque No. 9, or to work with Temple Beth Shalom? How do we do that? And then secondly as clergy, I have to really think about, what’s my prophetic voice? We just started here a series on Isaiah so that we can understand a little bit more the biblical concept of beloved community. As clergy, how do I preach hope? That means that clergy, we need to think about issues. What do we preach most? What’s morality? That dialogue started before Barack Obama, where we started to think about, well, wait a minute, we’re not happy about some things, but is it more immoral that somebody just stole a television or is it more immoral that we had an unjust war? And so what are we going to be talking about from our pulpits? And also how do we encourage community, and that has to do with—there’s individual salvation. I’m saved, baptized, sanctified, Holy Ghost, nine yards, all of that. But if it’s just me then we’ve got a problem. So how do we look at social holiness that says my individual holiness means nothing if the world is falling apart? Because individual holiness without social holiness—you know, if I’m only looking after myself, even if it’s my relationship with Jesus Christ, if I’m only looking after myself and the world is falling apart, when I stand before Jesus Christ and he says when did you, you know, I was poor and you didn’t feed me, or I was hungry and—you know the scripture I’m talking about. When I stand before the Master and I say to him, well, when did I see you like that, and he says, well, I was the Muslim kid in Iraq, and I say but wait, wait, Iraq is the enemy of Israel, and it’s, like, that Muslim kid is a friend of mine. You know, how do we start to preach differently so that we can become one people, even though we might worship in many ways and we might have different images of God? So I think there is a lot for the church to do, because I think we have a prophetic voice that has been silent on the beloved community. The church itself, but all communities of faith—we have to revision, because we’ve been 50 years behind, and how we preach, how we teach, and how we unify across faiths and still maintain our integrity with our faith. The fact that I’m saved, my own personal journey, my own personal holiness is critical to me. However, what’s critical to God right now is the universe, is the world, is everybody in it, and so the most important thing we have to do is make sure the child in Iraq, the child in Israel, the child in America, the child in Sudan are whole and have a whole planet to live on and a whole universe to grow up in that is a place where they’re not begging for food and they’re not worried about the next shoe to drop. So take it back specifically to the church, and specifically to the Christian church’s tradition of Sunday morning declarations and Communion and baptism is to link that personal call to holiness to God’s call to social holiness, so that together we can with integrity achieve beloved community with not only ourselves but with the whole world.

Q: On January 19 we’re going to have a day when we remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and everything he did and stood for, and the next day we’re going to be inaugurating Barack Obama. What are your reflections given this confluence of events?

A: It’s amazing. For the inauguration to happen on the weekend that also includes Dr. Martin King’s birthday that includes what we do in Philadelphia, the Martin Luther King Day of Service—not being a day but a way of life. The Beloved Community Coalition, one of our key events that we did last year was we honored, on April 4, the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination—the interesting thing about that was that it was 40 years, and so many people were talking about this 40 years in the wilderness and this whole experience of us finding ourselves together for 40 years trying to figure out how to work together or even be together. And this is before we even knew the name Barack Obama. And I remember we were standing in the park, holding hands around the water fountain for the candlelight 40-year vigil, and we had asked the mayor to say that Philadelphia, right now our motto is we’re the city of brotherly love and they tack on “of sisterly affection,” which I think is kind of sexist, personally—that we would look at the city motto this year as not so much being city of brotherly love but city of beloved community, which is a deeper thought. And then to have this year also be the year that Barack Obama is elected and to have the inauguration coming in the wake of celebrating the life and legacy of King, and what it says for our country, for this biracial guy with an immigrant father, with roots in community organizing, with an African American wife and two black kids to move into the White House. And all that—not only what that means individually, but also socially, what kind of country do we have today that that can happen is such a testament of hope, and a testament to the sacrifice of Martin Luther King, and a testament of the sacrifice of all those who stood, named and unnamed, to work for true democratic renewal in America, and to work for the consciousness of Americans, that we would set aside differences. There are people who voted for Barack Obama who can’t stand black people. There are people who voted for Obama who can’t stand immigrants. There are people who voted for Obama who can’t stand all kinds of things. There are people who voted for him who can’t stand Democrats. But they voted because they were voting for a change in our country that they felt we could achieve together, and they felt that his message was critical for our survival and achievement of better things for our children.

Q: And for you what are the spiritual messages?

A: The spiritual message is, number one, I believe that God doesn’t give up, praise God. Number two: God’s vision of beloved community. I believe God inspired—that Dr. King was inspired by God through an understanding of the scriptures, especially an understanding of Isaiah and an understanding of the Beatitudes in Matthew—that even the young King couldn’t get away from the prophetic voice of God saying that this must be done differently, and I believe that voice and that message of the preacher—something was inspired by the Holy Spirit for such a time as this. And it spurred on my parents and it spurred on people like me and it spurred on Barack Obama. So that spirit-inspired message to be strong enough to go through lynchings and burnings and murder, to go through Vietnam, to take a critical and honest look at Vietnam, to help us take a critical and honest look at Iraq, to help us take a critical and honest look at our economy. Basically, the message of Jesus was a very simple message of look at this stuff and then behave differently toward each other and toward God. You know, love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and love your neighbor as your self is something that Jesus said he came to fulfill, is something that Martin King gave his life for, is something that Barack Obama and his family have already given their lives for, because you don’t run for president without giving up some of your life. It’s something that all the people who worked on his campaign have in some ways given their lives for. And it’s something that they now stand, as we sometimes says in preaching, something like they stand in the shoes of the fisherman, stand in the shoes of Peter. What you will give your life for? The real message is something that we reaffirm each Sunday with Communion. What are you willing to give your life for? We’re willing to give ourselves for something that we have hope in, and hope is something—and faith is the substance of things hoped for. So faith is the substance of hope. So I have hope. As a Christian I have hope. My hope is affirmed by my faith, and my faith tells me Abraham had faith and it caused him to be righteous before God. In other words, he could live right and he could live peacefully and he could create peace for others and he could do the right things for the right reasons, based on his faith. So if faith is the substance of hope, then my faith, my Christian faith makes my hope substantive, and it allows me and my congregation and others that we can influence—it makes the beloved community a tangible possibility, so that it’s possible. That’s the neat thing about this election. I would have said “not in my lifetime.” Now I don’t have anything that I will say “not in my lifetime.” So that means beloved community could happen in my lifetime. Even if Jesus doesn’t come back in my lifetime, it’s possible for us to achieve beloved community in my lifetime. For King to hear that in heaven, he’s probably, like, all right! They’re coming out of the wilderness.