Jennifer S. Leath

Dr. Jennifer S. Leath is the assistant professor of religion and social justice at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where her scholarship is centered on the intersection of sexualities and religions in sacred communities and spaces of African Diaspora. She holds a B.A. from Harvard University, an M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D from Yale University, and an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary. She is also an Itinerant Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, having served as a pastor in New York and Pennsylvania.

work Religious Scholar location_on Denver, CO
Religion Academia Civil Rights Movement Protest tactics Emotional response

Have you engaged in any social justice activism?

Up to the point of Trayvon Martin’s killing, primarily my social activism consisted of engaging people in conversations on race, sexuality and religion. Specifically looking at how Black communities, religious leaders, clergy and lay, and scholars of religion as well as practitioners had been, to that point, thinking about sexuality within their context, whether that was scholarship or within faith communities. That was a commitment of advocacy and research insofar as part of the objective of facilitating conversations between Black religious leaders was really geared toward promoting more progressive conversations, especially with regard to sexuality and gender.

Thinking about how communities could be more open or inclusive, thinking about how communities that’ve been completely silent on matters of sexuality could begin to talk more freely about such matters. Even if these communities were not ready, prepared, or interested to move in more progressive directions with respect to openness to LGBTQ folks within communities, LGBTQ communities outside of Black religious spaces and spaces of scholarship on Black religion. But also, matters such as the inclusion of women at all levels of leadership, congregational and denominational spaces, and also engaging in conversations generally about sexuality. Not just homosexualities, if you will, but also heterosexualities and of those heterosexualities, more normative or traditional forms of partnering. And so just opening a conversation that has been heretofore pretty silent.

That activism, to a significant extent, has been institutionalized. What I mean by that is, it has not been a kind of “on the streets” protest, but it has been a very active, persistent and consistent commitment to certain types of engagement and to the facilitation of certain kinds of conversations among certain sets of people. And the establishment of a center at Columbia, the Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics, and Social Justice, that has enabled conversation on these matters and other kinds of programming that supports these matters.

You mentioned as a break the killing of Trayvon Martin. Have you gotten involved in any of the Black Lives Matter-geared activism since then?

Yes and no. Not in formal ways, but in a variety of informal ways, if you will. I have been in frequent conversation with a number of people who are engaged in the movement, and my scholarship and my interests have definitely shifted and responded to changes that have been taking place. But one of the challenges for me has been that I have been very transient, which has complicated the work of community, which is really what this moment requires. It requires an activism of people who are engaged and committed to deep community. In each of the communities of which I have been a part, my focus has been responding to what’s happening. That looks different ways in different places.

At Harvard Divinity School this past year, it looked like the formation of a racial justice and relief reading group in which members of the community came together for a semester and read about the history of social justice movements, especially racial justice movements, in and during and past the Civil Rights Movement, to kind of decipher what kinds of strategies were used in those movements, and how the strategies might inform our work today.

I was pastoring a church in White Plains, NY and in that context, it looked like engaging with other pastors and religious leaders. From November of last year [2014] through June of this year [2015], the work has been building to a climax. Last November I had the opportunity to address an ecumencial body of Black religious leaders in White Plains on the heels of the verdict that released Darren Wilson back into the world. And then of course moving through to the Charleston massacre and the martyrdom of the folks at Mother Emmanuel, as a pastor of an AME church, that had particular resonance, and there were members of my church who were relatives or had gone to school with folks whose lives were taken. The pastor’s cousin was my seventh grade social studies teacher. And that kind of connection is way too close and too close for comfort. And at the same time, that moment really sparked a community engagement that saw an interreligious gathering at one of the larger churches in White Plains followed by a march to the district courthouse.

Of course, there were lots of moments like that across the country. But I think it really is instructive because without a kind of community ground, the work is not possible. The activism, the protest around these kind of injustices, is not possible. With respect to the Center, what has been happening over the past several months has shifted the kind of conversations that we have and community conversations where we bring together five to seven religious leaders in a city in the United States to talk about the intersection of Black religion and sexuality. But also in the public conversations that we’ve hosted in the past two to three months, there has been an unequivocal emphasis on how we make sense of the movement for Black lives, and other intersecting questions. Like, how those marginalized on account of their sexuality can make sense of the spiritual force that is necessary for this kind of movement, even in the midst of not feeling altogether welcomed in the Black religious spaces that there are.

Materially or logistically speaking, would you say that churches and religious organizations like churches are involved in organizing people in the way they were tied to organizing people during the Civil Rights Movement, or is it very different now?

My suspicion is, we’re actually seeing a replica of that time. It is really at this point a suspicion and a hypothesis, not for lack of understanding Black churches’ role, or lack thereof, in the Civil Rights Movement. We’re in the midst of the movement right now, and so it’s hard to measure what you’re in. So that’s what makes it difficult. But in the Civil Rights Movement, Black churches have sometimes been overemphasized, and given way too much credit, and in other instances have been given little or no credit. The reality is, it was somewhere in between.

Organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and even the Congress of Racial Equality and some other avenues, especially Martin Luther King’s centralized role, has given the Civil Rights Movement not only a religious but a Christian legacy in our collective imagination.

In the Civil Rights Movement, Black churches have sometimes been overemphasized, and given way too much credit, and in other instances have been given little or no credit. The reality is, it was somewhere in between.

What I think is happening now is, there are churches that are helpful, and there are churches that are unhelpful. There are churches that are hosting people who’re engaged in the movement; there are churches where nothing is said about the verdict, the extrajudicial killings that are taking place at the hands of law enforcement and other vigilante agents. So there is a wide, wide range of what Black religious institutions are doing, and of course churches among them in particular. But I think that some different things are happening.

There are folks within the movement who are experiencing a call to ministry while they’re doing their work—who are experiencing a need to tap into something deeper, or finding in the activism itself a spiritual source. And so this is something that we need to be mindful of and sensitive to, and I think—you know, religion can work for good, and it can work for ill. And it has done so consistently over time.

One last point on it though is that the bombing of 16th St. Baptist church and the massacre at Mother Emmanuel are really significant moments in the movement at both times. The fact that these things happened in two churches is not incidental. It is significant, it is intentional, and it raises a different awareness about the spiritual meaning of what’s happening right now.

Think someone like Vincent Harding, who was a ghostwriter for the Vietnam Civil Rights speech that Martin Luther King gave at Riverside Church—he and his wife were Mennonites, which is a bit unusual for African Americans. But Mennonites who also had a very keen sense of Black religion that extended beyond Christianity. And this is a legacy that lives on in many ways through the work of Rachel Harding, Harding’s daughter, but also others who are increasingly aware of the fact that notwithstanding the ways that Christianity has been dominant in the experiences of Black people in the US for the past 150 years, this is not what we always were. And this is not what our spirituality and our sense of the divine always was.

And so this activism moment is, I think, giving us a chance to tap into so many things. And in some cases people are tapping into Christianity, or tapping back into Christianity, or finding ways to express Christianity afresh or anew, but in other cases, it’s a an opportunity to tap into something much deeper.

What do you think of the tactics that the movement has been employing over the past year?

I like to draw a distinction between protest and demonstration. Protest can be a variety of things. It can be blocking the highway, it can be shouting, it can be marching with a placard. Demonstrations, I think, are distinct in that they show in a creative way the very harm that is being done. They strike to the core of the ill. And so it’s significant to sit at a lunch table where your race is not allowed as a demonstration because it demonstrates to anyone who’s watching the ill, the wrong, the fact that okay there are other people that are getting served; I’m not. And it’s clear that what distinguishes them and me is my race. A demonstration that I’ve been really excited about and I think has been really important and in many cases effective is die-ins. Die-ins are demonstrations insofar as the laying on the ground for a significant period of time demonstrates the ill of—especially what happened to Michael Brown’s body. Not only him being killed, but his body being left there for an ungodly period of time.

I have been in places where die-ins have not been well-received. And so I think that it’s not the case that the same demonstration is good any place. These things have to be carefully timed and strategized. Thought through. And for the most part, I really applaud all of those demonstrations and protests that reflect the principles of diversity, restorative justice, unapologetic Blackness, and value a commitment to Black women, Black families, transgender folks, queer folks, and just generally a kind of broad understanding of what we’re supposed to be together as a Black community.

How do you personally cope with the prevalence of the movement over the past year?

It turns out that the racial justice reading group at Harvard in many ways became more of a support group than a space where we were engaged in a kind of rigorous collective research. It was a handful of us, but it was an interracial group where we were learning how to be in community with one another in the midst of the kind of violences we were experiencing. …The space was intended for us to have time together to connect on how we were experiencing these tragedies. It was just what was needed for the time.

It’s just horrific, and it’s constant. It’s just constant, constant, constant.

I still have not watched the entire Sandra Bland video. That was, for me, the limit. Since then, I have not sought to watch any videos, and have been as careful as possible not to. The shooting of the brother in the wheelchair in Wilmington I did see, and that was horrific. It’s just horrific, and it’s constant. It’s just constant, constant, constant. So my self-care in large part has been to not watch these things.

In addition to that, just being very intentional about finding good company. And it has made me much more vigilant about how I engage in interracial spaces. And also a way of coping for me, as a scholar, is engaging in scholarship that addresses it directly and head on. So I’m really excited to be co-teaching a class with Darnell Moore this coming winter term, and it will be a Black Lives Matter course that actually literally and directly addresses the movement for Black lives. And also gives us a space with one another, as scholars of religion, but also among other scholars of religion, to give some focus, dedicated intention, to these matters.