When the Rev. Dr. William Barber II stepped onto the stage at the Democratic National Convention this summer, he made a call to action that brought the audience to its feet.
He warned that people cannot continue to ignore the nation’s mounting problems regarding issues such as gun violence, immigration and the racial tension between the police and minority communities.
There are forces, he said, that are intent to “stop the heart of our democracy.”
“We are being called like our forefathers and foremothers to be the moral defibrillators of our time,” Barber told the audience at the Democratic National Convention. “We will shock this nation and fight for justice for all.”
Barber, the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., and the president of the North Carolina NAACP, will be the keynote speaker at the 10th Annual Interfaith Celebration presented by the Progressive Religious Coalition on Thursday, January 5, at Tabernacle Baptist Church.
“I think having Rev. Barber speak here is probably serendipitous because of the way people are feeling about the results of the election this year,” said the Rev. Dr. Gaye Ortiz of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta, who is also a member of the Progressive Religious Coalition. “But it is not so much the election. It is the things that have been unleashed by it: All the tendencies towards closed-mindedness and intolerance.”
When Barber speaks, he exposes the roots of these problems and inspires people to address these issues instead of ignoring them, Ortiz said.
“He has got tremendous energy and a sense of urgency that we need,” she said. “Because a lot of us feel like we should just crawl back under the covers for the next four years and that is not going to happen.”
Turning your back on these issues will only make them worse, Ortiz said.
“I think Augusta has a lot of energy that is not really being engaged,” she said. “So that is why I am hoping he will come here and just galvanize everyone and we’ll talk about the issues that really need to be worked on in a progressive way.”
Often described as one of the most prophetic voices of our time, Barber is also the architect of the Forward Together Moral Movement that gained national acclaim with its Moral Monday protests, or more accurately described as “progressive activist vigils,” held in Raleigh at the North Carolina General Assembly.
These weekly actions drew tens of thousands of North Carolinians to the state legislature and more than 1,050 peaceful protesters were arrested, handcuffed and jailed in 2013.
The peaceful protesters were voicing their concerns about the governor and many of the Republican lawmakers making policies that made it more difficult to vote in North Carolina and their scaling down of state environmental and labor regulations.
The North Carolina government also rejected the so-called Obamacare Medicaid expansion and repealed a law that commuted death sentences in that state to life without parole if a court found that race had shaped the initial decision to hand down a death order, according to The Washington Post.
More recently, Barber has publicly condemned the actions of Republican lawmakers in North Carolina who have been accused of waging a legislative coup by attempting to strip power from the state’s incoming governor, Democrat Roy Cooper.
Earlier this month, Republicans filed dozens of new bills attempting to impose measures to slash the number of state employees appointed by the governor, require Senate approval for all of the governor’s cabinet picks and strip the governor of the power to appoint University of North Carolina trustees.
Another bill aims to weaken the governor’s control over the state Board of Election and yet another Republican bill would strip some power away from the Democratic governor and give it to the lieutenant governor, who happens to be a Republican, according to the news program, “Democracy Now!”
“We had this election, and what you have here are a group of extremists, tea party extremists, who are very afraid of the changing South and the changing demographics in North Carolina,” Barber recently told “Democracy Now!” “They’re scared because we’re the only state that held off the full weight of Trumpism in the South. We have a movement there, and that movement has been working for years, and particularly over the last three years with Moral Monday movements. We were able to change the consciousness of the state. And the governor lost the election.”
However, Barber said the Republican governor continued to fight the election results.
“It’s a sign of things to come, when we organize in the South. And so, the governor and those extremists refused. They did everything they could. They even purged votes during the election,” he said. “They lost again, and we forced votes to be put back on the books. So they have seen that they have tried everything, but when there is a movement of the people, a moral movement of the people, we can, in fact, change the South. And if you do that, you change the nation. And so now, with these losses, they are now engaging in this extreme power grab and policy grab.”
When Barber speaks, he immediately grabs the audiences’ attention, Ortiz said.
At the Democratic National Convention, his speech covered everything from criminal justice reform and immigration policies to wages and labor conditions, gun laws, homeland security and LGBTQ rights.
Barber also did not shy away from the role religion plays in politics these days.
“I am worried by the way that faith is cynically used by some to serve hate, fear, racism and greed,” he told the audience.
He talked about the power of faith and how religion should lift and unite all people instead of continue to divide this country.
“Jesus, a brown-skin Palestinian Jew, called us to preach good news to the poor, the broken and the bruised and all those who are made to feel unaccepted,” Barber told the audience. “We need to embrace our deepest moral values… When we love the Jewish child and the Palestinian child, the Muslim and the Christian and the Hindu and the Buddhist and those who have no faith but they love this nation, we are reviving the heart of our democracy.”
The Rev. Dr. Sid Gates, an ordained Presbyterian minister and one of the cofounders of the Progressive Religious Coalition of Augusta, said Barber’s message mirrors the Progressive Religious Coalition’s mission to bring different religions together to celebrate one another’s culture.
“There is much more that binds us and bonds us than divides us,” Gates said. “So, there is kind of a credo of this group. There was a Catholic theologian who once said, ‘There will never be peace among the nations until there is peace among the religions.’ He went on to say, ‘There will never be peace among the religions until there is dialogue among the religions.’”
Gates believes this nation needs that kind of dialogue now more than ever because of the divisiveness of the presidential election.
“I woke up on November 9 and I thought to myself, ‘WTF?’” Gates said. “WTF, standing for, ‘Where’s the Faith?’ Where is the faith with issues having to do with Citizens United and gerrymandering. Even the electoral college was done to placate slavery in the South. And where are the clergy talking about these issues? They certainly shaped elections and they will more so in the future. So I am very concerned about single-issue voters in this country that get manipulated.”
Therefore, Gates believes holding the 10th Annual Interfaith Celebration honoring Martin Luther King Jr. on January 5, which is sponsored by the Augusta University’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion and hosted by Tabernacle Baptist Church, is perfect timing.
“Even better than dialogue is co-worship,” Gates said, adding that interfaith event includes Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Bahá’ís, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Unitarian Universalists. “This is a chance for mutual respect, love and learning from one another about what unites us, but, at the same time, nobody compromises their faith.”
While Rabbi Emeritus Robert Klensin of the Congregation Children of Israel said he understands people’s frustrations regarding the presidential election, he wanted the guests of the interfaith celebration to realize that this is not a political event. It is a worship service meant to unite all people.
“There was an election and people voted for lots of different reasons and they might not agree with the candidate they voted for on everything,” he said. “But there are many people, however they voted, that are concerned with protecting our nation’s values like justice and freedom.”
These are values that Barber holds dear, Klensin said, adding that he clearly recalls the first time he ever met the reverend from North Carolina.
“The first time I saw Rev. Barber was the march in Selma across the bridge,” Klensin said. “There was a gathering of the Jewish participants in the march. There’s an old synagogue there that had only a few members, but they got it open and we met. Rev. Barber spoke there and it was a wonderfully inspiring speech. He has a really prophetic voice. It is very powerful, so I think he will move many people here in Augusta.”
The event will be reminder that Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of unity, racial and social justice and peace has not yet been achieved, Klensin said.
“It is not finished,” he said. “A lot of us felt like we were making real progress, and, now, there is a fear that it is not just a matter of finishing his vision, but even more so to stop it from getting stalled.”
10th Annual Interfaith Celebration with Rev. Dr. William Barber II
Tabernacle Baptist Church, 1223 Laney Walker Blvd.
Thursday, January 5
6:45 p.m., gathering and music by Davidson Chorale
7 p.m., service