Episode 69: Gerald Britt on Local Advocacy for Racial Justice

What's all the fuss in Dallas about Confederate monuments? What do they mean? Why should we care? We'll be talking with Gerald Britt from CitySquare about just that and other matters of race and public life in Dallas on Good God.

Listen here, read the transcript below, or click here for the full video version.

George Mason: What's all the fuss in Dallas about Confederate monuments? What do they mean? Why should we care? We'll be talking with Gerald Britt from CitySquare about just that and other matters of race and public life in Dallas on Good God. Stay tuned.

George Mason: Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm your host, George Mason and I'm pleased to welcome back to the program Gerald Britt. Gerald is the vice president of external affairs for CitySquare. And I think Gerald, maybe we should just stop at this point to give you a chance to talk about what you do and what CitySquare really does, because it's such an important player in Dallas.

Gerald Britt: Well, CitySquare is an organization that works to fight poverty from the standpoint of direct service and advocacy. So we've got a number of different programs that address direct service. Food pantry, job training, housing and the like.

Gerald Britt: And then in terms of advocacy, that's work that I and my team do. And so we do any number of things to both accentuate the programs that we have. But also to work to build relationships with other nonprofits and other programs that we hope will enhance our work, and that whose work we can enhance as well.

George Mason: Well, I do think it's important that we always help people to recognize the distinction that is not a difference that we want to have to choose from. And that is charity or justice. They are two different modalities of how we care for the community.

Gerald Britt: Right.

George Mason: But one or the other always leaves a gap, right? And so I would say if we go back to the whole concept of give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime. That's one way to look at that.

George Mason: But of course, if somebody builds a fence around the pond and then locks it, so you can't, even if you know how to fish, you can't get there so you can do that. That turns into a matter of justice. That's more than just a strategy of helping create personal responsibility and helping create skills that make a person. It is about, do we all have opportunity and access here that is God-given and a right for us to participate. And so the advocacy part of that really focuses more on that question of what happens to that fence.

Gerald Britt: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And a lot of people either know it or don't associate this work with CitySquare, or may ask what does this have to do with CitySquare? But we work on issues of public education, we work on issues of job training, we work on providing access.

Gerald Britt: And as a matter of fact, we are organizing right now a forum, a mayor's forum for after the election in May. Because we believe that politics is an important part of citizenship. And we're not just trying to... We're, trying to recalibrate a little bit of way CitySquare talks about itself. And I heard a phrase the other day in a meeting that I really liked. We're trying to provide people with pathways out of poverty. And one of those pathways is by participating in government. In participating in meaningful ways in government, not just getting people to vote, but to getting them involved in politics. Because I think that is going to be a way that people are able to help determine their own future.

George Mason: Right. Well, so when we talk about addressing matters of advocacy. We've had one recently here that has been very public and it's been something we've been working side by side about. And that is to take down the Confederate monuments in Dallas that are presided over our city in a symbolic way. It always makes me smile a little bit and then frustrates me when I hear people say, well, what's the big deal? They're just statues. They're just symbols.

George Mason: And I say, wait a minute. So is baptism, so is the Lord's Supper. They're not just, they're not mere symbols. They represent something. They mean something about who we say we are and that sort of thing. So you have been passionate about the inappropriateness and really the wickedness of continuing to defend the symbols of the Confederacy and injustice that took the lives of black Americans with impunity. And made it a cause that these represent a kind of cultural amnesia and an intentional offense to a part of our community. The speech you made at our church actually was a dramatic one in which you addressed that. What were some of the key points that you would want to say to people as to why this has to change?

Gerald Britt: Yeah, because A, I think it's very important that we understand some of the basic historical facts. A, the Confederacy lost the war. I think that's very important place to begin. They were not, at the time that they were fighting, Americans. They were citizens of a foreign country.

George Mason: They seceded.

Gerald Britt: Exactly.

George Mason: Exactly.

Gerald Britt: Nobody forced them to secede, they decided to secede. So that's one thing. Which means in effect, they would trade us. They would trade us to the American government. It is only by... I know that some of them may hate to hear this, it's only by the compassion of Lincoln that they weren't treated as traders after the Union won the war. So that's one thing.

Gerald Britt: The other thing, too, is we have to understand what the true legacy of the Confederacy is and that war was. The true legacy is not valiant soldiers or of valiant and people who fought for ideals like state rights. The true legacy is Jim Crow and segregation. A period during which 4,000 people were lynched. A period during which our rights were taken away, were given, taken away, and barely acknowledged after a period of a hundred years

George Mason: And these monuments all over the South were put up every time progress was being made.

Gerald Britt: Exactly.

George Mason: As a way of reinforcing white supremacy and, and continuing to make the claim that black people would never have the same opportunity to participate fully in local communities.

Gerald Britt: Exactly. And I am proud of my people, in the sense that they have persisted throughout that period. And so, one of the things I said it in the speech was, when black people would not be able to be buried in cemeteries or prepared for a burial in funeral homes that were owned and operated by white people, we built our own. We bought our own cemeteries. When we weren't able to shop in stores, we developed our own. When you wouldn't provide us with the insurance, we developed our own insurance companies.

Gerald Britt: Every area that roadblocks were thrown up to prevent us from participating, and prove our competence and our ability to participate in public life. We proved just the opposite by building our own. Not because we thought it was right, but because that's what it had to be.

Gerald Britt: And so those monuments are structures that harken back to a day when we were determined to be less than you. They are reminders of a period during which our ancestors were whipped and beaten with impunity and were literal property by law and by custom of a people. It shouldn't have been, but it was.

Gerald Britt: And so why do you want to keep those reminders up? I hear people talking about using them as teaching tools. Well, they've been up now for a hundred years. When are we going to start to listen? And if they are such great monuments, why don't we have anybody calling to put them in the middle of Prestonwood? Or why do we have them in Highland Hills? Why don't we move them out to North Dallas, where those people who claim that these are such great teaching tools can use them. We don't need those monuments as teaching tools. We've got hundreds of thousands of books, documentaries, and other types of legitimate teaching tools to tell, to teach people the truth about the evils of slavery, the dangers of Jim Crow and segregation and the horrors of that period of our lives. And so that's why I think they need to be taken down.

George Mason: Well, and the claim is often made that you can't erase history. You can't rewrite history. But what's ironic about those claims is that these very monuments were attempting to do just that, right? They were attempting to reinterpret the whole cause of the civil war. And the whole point of the Confederacy, which was to maintain white supremacy and the legacy of slavery and the predominance of this idea that God had established an order in the universe, and that human beings were a hierarchy. And maybe even black Americans were not fully human to begin with. So it kept reinforcing, that's the statement that those monuments reinforce. And instead of the noble cause of the South and States' rights and the like.

Gerald Britt: Yeah. The various statues themselves are denials of history. And so it is ironic that they say that by taking them down, we are trying to erase history. We're not trying to erase history by taking them down. We're trying to redeem history. And we're trying to present a clear, factual basis on which to judge history so that we don't do this. This never happens again.

George Mason: Well, and if we really care about about history, we're not going to just take these down. It's time for monuments to people who were lynched in Dallas, too. So Allen Brooks, for instance who was lynched at Main and Akard. And who is represented in Montgomery in Brian Stevenson's tremendous museum there to American lynching.

George Mason: I mean, maybe it's time... If we want educational moments in Dallas, let's be honest about the history of how we've functioned there, and not just say, we want to remember this part, but we don't want to remember that part.

Gerald Britt: Exactly. And you hear these arguments for what's called contextualization, whatever that means. I don't get that. There can be no contextualization that puts a statue that includes Robert E. Lee, Jeff Davis, next to Juanita Craft or a Martin Luther King, or an Al Lipscomb for that matter.

Gerald Britt: There's no contextualization that can present those two characters or those characters on equal footing. And before we do anything like that, I will call for no monuments. Because what it shows is that we are still trying to appease people who by and large have latent or obvious racist tendencies and sympathies. And what it means is for all of Dallas's pretext, we've been wanting to be an international city, we will be a caricature of an international city and not a real substantive international city.

George Mason: Well, I think we want to get into a little more about how we move toward a new Dallas, and how we do politics together differently. Because the day has come when it's time for us to work together and figure out what is needed from each of our communities so that we can trust one another, that we can build a sense of all being in this together to prosper together. And so when we come back from the break, let's be constructive about that and see where we go.

Gerald Britt: All right. Okay, good.

John Seibert: One of the challenges we face in the fight against poverty is that it is such a big, broad problem, that it can be overwhelming to people. Can I really make a difference? Is that something I can really impact? And the answer is yes. My name is John Seibert. I am president and chief operating officer at CitySquare.

John Seibert: The mission of CitySquare is to fight the causes and effects of poverty through service, advocacy and friendship. The service takes the form of about 17 different programs. Advocacy takes the form of different forms of community organizing and really speaking up for neighbors in poverty. And then really the key, the secret sauce to who we are at CitySquare is friendship.

John Seibert: CitySquare is really in the people business. And so our fight against poverty is all about relationships and investing in people. There are no clients, there are only neighbors, and we're all in this together as friends and in community as one. And so I think when we focus more on recognizing our shared humanity, that's when poverty doesn't stand a chance.

George Mason: We're back with Gerald Britt of CitySquare. And Gerald, before the break, we got to talking about how we work together in the future to create a new Dallas. And I'll tell you what you already know and that is, we've been together in various organizing events for social change in Dallas through the years. But pretty much every time I do, I hear from people in my community about, why are you doing what you're doing? Why are you out there? You know, it makes them uncomfortable as we've said, uncomfortable in the past. It's too much politics. We need to just be doing religion, not politics. Leave the politics to the politicians.

George Mason: And sometimes it's a feeling of somewhat betrayal of the white community that you're out there. What would you say, first of all, to people in white churches in Dallas about, a lot of my colleagues, I think, would like to do more. And they feel somehow that they are constrained by their sense that they have a congregation that is, they're going to lose their trust if they're out there on the front lines in this way. What do you want them to hear?

Gerald Britt: A, I'd like for them to listen to some George Mason sermons, because I think you make the case just as well as anybody does. I would tell them pretty much what I even tell black churches. Black churches that are concerned about being too political and whatnot. I tell, you know, politics has the lights on. We don't pay the light bill for new Mount Moriah Baptist church to heaven. We have to pay that to a company that is regulated by politics. You know, we, we have, we run water in the baptismal pool to baptize people. There is no heavenly outposts where we go to pay that deal. That's paid downtown and regulated by politics. Everything our parishioners come to us for, whether it be healthcare, whether it be jobs or whatnot ultimately it's regulated by politics. So we have to talk about politics because it touches our everyday life.

Gerald Britt: Then you also have to understand that politics is the means by which in the public square we settled... Or it should be a place where we settle the arguments about how we're going to live together. And so everybody doesn't go to church. And so everybody won't understand what the Bible says about divorce or what it says about in a number of the doctrinal issues that concern us as people of faith. But they do understand when it comes to issues of gun control, when it comes to issues of jobs and economic development. And as we are talking about that, we've got to talk not just to one another. We've got to be able to talk to the rest of the world. And we've got to be able to talk to the rest of the world in a language that makes sense to them.

George Mason: Without losing our faith at the same time. Well, when we talk about getting involved though, politically, the usual way that people in the white community do that is by having relationships with politicians, people we've supported, people we know, people we go to church with, people we go to the country club with and all of that. All of these things that I'm saying are part of my experience.

George Mason: So the truth of the matter is, I can pick up the phone and call or text a lot of people in public office and they will hear from me, and we will be able to get in touch with them and we'll be able to talk. Well, that access is something that is not a reality for everyone in Dallas, Texas. Even if it should be, it's not.

George Mason: So the idea of organizing, of protesting, of bringing people together to make claims of public officials. That's something that's somewhat foreign to people who have the privileged access to officials and so it makes them very uncomfortable. But it really is democracy, isn't it?

Gerald Britt: Exactly. Yeah, it is. It is what I refer to as advanced democracy. It goes beyond just voting and it goes beyond just going to listening to a speech or reading a position paper by a politician. It is substantive engagement at a very important level. And what I will tell people all the time is that if I go down to city hall with a Michael Waters or Edwin Robinson, or any number of my other friends who are engaged, politically, they pretty much know what to do with us. They pretty know what to say with us. But if I go down there with you and I go down with Jeff Warren and I go down with any number of white.

George Mason: Andy Stoker.

Gerald Britt: And we go down there together and we're all saying the same thing, that gets a different kind of reaction. And that's because they know they can't just hand us the same old line. And think that it now, is that the way it should be? Actually, it is the way it should be. And so that's why I've challenge even white pastors during the Botham Jean shooting to come out and to have a talk with somebody. I said, white pastors need to have their own press conference about this. Not under the safe covering of heaven, me and Brian Carter and some others stand behind it but have their own, because they need to see that these men are standing for justice and that is important to their community. Just like it's important to ours.

George Mason: You know, it's sometimes difficult when you are trying, in the white community to, as the white pastors, when I talk to them, there's a feeling of if we only do something ourselves, does that say that we think we're... We don't need you, or we're going to solve this problem without you and what not.

George Mason: And then there's the other side that's confusing. When we'll say to you, Gerald, what do you need us to do? As if that's the great mystery.

Gerald Britt: I'm glad you're saying that. Cause I've gotten tired of saying it.

George Mason: Well, it is sort of ridiculous. Like hello. Just say the truth, speak the truth and be there. But we need to ask permission somehow or ask instructions because we're... But part of that is just that we're looking for ways always to protect ourselves while we're also prophetic and it's very difficult.

George Mason: It doesn't work like that. And if I had a nickel for every time someone said, be careful George. Yeah, be careful. With some of these relationships you're getting a little too far out there. Well, what does that mean, out there? Like out there in where Jesus is? Out there where God is at work. Out there where it makes us uncomfortable.

George Mason: But because there's a difference, there's a gap between the way the world is and the way God has called us to make the world. And in that gap is where we live. And we've got to acknowledge that, and that's going to cost us something.

Gerald Britt: Exactly. And I think that's exactly right. You cannot take a prophetic stance and have it call it not cost. It just does. Old preachers used to say, you can be prophetic or you can be a pastor. You can't do both.

George Mason: We dispute that.

Gerald Britt: Yeah, it's kind of a harsh thing. But what I think what they mean is you can have the dynamic and the dynamism of the prophetic ministry, Or you can have a comfortable pastoral ministry. But you can't do both.

George Mason: But if you love people, and if they know you love them, and you are there for them over a long period of time, there may be rifts that happened between you. But our call is not just to make life comfortable for each other.

Gerald Britt: Well, yeah. And Larry James says the same thing. And I've experienced that as well. If you spend enough time baring enough people, baptizing enough people, vising enough folk in the hospital, making sure that people are taught, they'll give you a tremendous amount of license to do some of the more... What people might consider the eclectic stuff that we were talking about. They understand when the pastor has to go out and speak at city hall or speak about a controversial issue, and they will support that. And so I think that to the white pastors I would just say, the water's fine. You just need to come on in.

George Mason: Yeah. Come on in. Exactly. Well, the waters have to be troubled sometimes too, in order for them ever to be calm. And you can't do it the other way round. But I understand the critique also in that it's hard to do both things well and it's necessary to do both things well. That people need to know that we care about their souls. We care about their relationship to God. We care about their confidence of their spiritual life and their capacity to pray and their families, the way they care for one another. But it's also necessary for us to keep the second part of that great commandment. And that is to love your neighbor as yourself.

Gerald Britt: Exactly. Exactly. And I think that understanding that it's important to be that. I explained to one friend of mine, sometimes I have to be Martin Luther King, sometimes I have to be Billy Graham. And so the people that I preach to need both. And it's important for me to keep that balance in mind.

George Mason: Right, right. And I think it's fair to say that you can go into most black churches in Dallas, Texas and hear that very same thing taking place. And it's not like it... I think sometimes the white churches have the sense that it's all politics all the time in the black church in Dallas, Texas. And that's certainly not true. In fact sometimes to the frustration of the people in the pew.

Gerald Britt: Exactly. Yeah. You hear a number of complaints that my pastor isn't political enough or engaged enough. Some of those pastors are engaged in levels that we don't know about and are doing work that we don't know about. So we have to be fair about this. But at the same time, they have to understand that there are a number of people who come there to be comforted. A number of people who are in grief. A number of people who are suffering through any number of types of losses that you can't imagine. They have to be spoken to as well. And so you have to preach that prophetic word, yes. But you also have to preach a pastoral word.

George Mason: Well, and I think people often mistake politics and partisanship. It's not about getting up in the pulpit and naming all the ills of the opposing party who you might not like. So that you are in a position where you're only leveraged with one sort of people, with one sort of political approach. No, politics, every politician has to be held accountable regardless of party for are they seeking the common good in our communities and in our country.

Gerald Britt: Which is one of the reasons I've never endorsed a candidate. I tell people, my job when I was a pastor is to be more like Nathan than to be...

George Mason: The Biblical Nathan.

Gerald Britt: Yeah. But who stands alongside the King, telling the King what the Lord wants him to hear versus what he thinks he needs to hear.

George Mason: Well, Gerald, I think you've spent a lifetime of ministry in Dallas doing just that. And you've also helped me learn to do that. And if to whatever extent I succeed, it's in part because of your friendship.

Gerald Britt: I appreciate your friendship and I appreciate the work that you are doing here at Wilshire. Not just the traditional pastoral work, but the prophetic work as well.

George Mason: Thank you so much. Glad to have you on Good God.

Gerald Britt: Thank you so much.

Jim White: Good God is created by Dr. George Mason, produced and directed by Jim White. Guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Good God, conversations with George Mason, is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God and faith and the common good. All material copyright 2019 by Faith Commons.

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