Riverside Event Kicks Off Social Justice ‘Revival Tour’

The Rev. James A. Forbes addresses the launch of the Revival Tour at Riverside Church in Morningside Heights on April 3. (Photo by Gabe Carroll for Voices of NY)

Rev. James A. Forbes addresses the launch of the Revival Tour at Riverside Church in Morningside Heights on April 3. (Photo by Gabe Carroll for Voices of NY)

A 15-state tour will attempt to blend activism with a call for spiritual revival, in the midst of this year’s bitter election campaign.

A small, mostly middle-aged crowd gathered at Riverside Church in Morningside Heights on Sunday afternoon to sing hymns, listen to speeches and kick off a 15-state “Revival Tour,” aimed at countering policies and narratives perceived as racist and xenophobic.

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes hosted Sunday’s event, which served to launch the “Revival Tour to Challenge Racism, Poverty, Voter Suppression and Xenophobic Rhetoric.”

Barber is pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and founder of Repairers of the Breach, while Forbes is senior minister emeritus of Riverside Church, president of Healing of the Nations Ministries and national minister for the Drum Major Institute, all sponsors of the Revival Tour.

According to a press release, the Revival Tour will include trainings for clergy and community leaders, direct actions in state capitals and actions in Cleveland and Philadelphia in conjunction with the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

Crowd at the launch of the Revival Tour at Riverside Church (Photo by Gabe Carroll for Voices of NY)

Crowd at the launch of the Revival Tour at Riverside Church (Photo by Gabe Carroll for Voices of NY)

At Sunday’s event Barber and Forbes gave strongly worded speeches, condemning the appropriation of moral and religious language by politicians that the speakers consider opposed to racial and economic justice.

“I don’t understand how you can consider the Bible inerrant and not care about justice,” said Barber. He criticized the use of the term “Evangelical” to refer to an exclusively white Republican-voting demographic. Barber, who considers himself an Evangelical Christian, finds this offensive and misleading.

While many criticisms seemed directed at Republican politicians, and support for Democratic candidates in this election cycle was implied, both speakers affirm that the tour is non-partisan. Rev. Barber is the leader of the Moral Mondays protest movement in North Carolina, which on multiple occasions has clashed politically with Republican governor Pat McRory.

The Rev. William J. Barber II (Photo by Gabe Carroll for Voices of NY)

Rev. William J. Barber II (Photo by Gabe Carroll for Voices of NY)

“There are some things that transcend political majorities,” said Barber in his speech.

Speakers also included Rev. Dr. Traci Blackmon and Sister Simone Campbell, who spoke in a recorded video. Blackmon and Campbell are the main faces of the Revival Tour, along with Forbes and Barber. Riverside Church Executive Minister Rev. Michael Livingston and Rev. Liz Theoharis of the Kairos Center and the Union Theological Seminary also spoke.

All speakers paid homage to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., the day before the 48th anniversary of his assassination and the 49th anniversary of his “A Time to Break Silence” speech.

“We are going to try and introduce a discussion of moral dimensions which inform the patterns that develop in the body politic.”

Rev. Forbes explained that the objective of the Revival Tour is to promote discussion about the deep moral values at the heart of contemporary political debates. “We are going to say that if you talk about race the delusion of white supremacy is a spiritual problem,” said Forbes.

In an impassioned speech following Forbes, Rev. Barber repeatedly emphasized the limits of current political language, stressing that current labels are insufficient. “We can no longer, in this America, have just a left-right conversation,” said Barber. “It’s too puny, too small, too controlled.”

Rev. Barber listed resegregation, the dismantling of welfare, xenophobia, homophobia and the destruction of the environment as major concerns that the tour would address, by promoting discussion, staging protests and training clergy and activists in nonviolent organizing.

Chorus at the launch of the Revival Tour (Photo by Gabe Carroll for Voices of NY)

Chorus at the launch of the Revival Tour (Photo by Gabe Carroll for Voices of NY)

United Church of Christ minister Rev. Tracy Blackmon echoed previous speakers in linking social justice concerns to spiritual values.

“God hears the cries of little Black babies, who are 500 times more likely to die of asthma, a treatable disease.”

Blackmon spoke of the importance of answering the call to protest and organize. “The moment we say yes, freedom has begun,” she said.

Catholic Sister Simone Campbell said she agreed with the idea of “an interracial call to revive our values.”

“We have a long way to go, but we have to start somewhere,” Campbell said. “I’m hoping that by lending my voice to a public expression of faith values that it principally helps us move beyond fear and anger. Those are the crippling realities of our time.”

The tour will touch 15 states in its first leg, which ends in January. The first stop of the tour was on Monday, at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Anita Jenkins, 69, came to the launch event from New Jersey, with her husband. “We needed this,” Jenkins said. “We start, as we started in the civil rights movement, in the church.”

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