On Tuesday, November 6 we’re gathering an exceptional group of philanthropic leaders together on one stage to discuss the topic of faith and philanthropy in the African American community. We’ve teamed up with Spirit & Place Festival 2018 because the theme INTERSECTION is a perfect description of what we intend to see take place in Shelton Auditorium at Christian Theological Seminary in two weeks. Intersections of race, faith and philanthropy. Intersections of academics, practitioners and “pracademics.” Intersections of IUPUI, CTS and Butler. Intersections of panelists, moderator and audience (yes – you have a part too!). Intersections of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, Mays Institute on Diverse Philanthropy and Christian Theological Seminary. Intersections of our annual Distinguished Visitor program, the Mays Diversity Series and Spirit & Place Festival. Intersections of Dr. Brad Braxton, Aimée Laramore, Rev. Starsky Wilson and moderator, Rev. Dr. Leah Gunning Francis. We’re coming to this place of intersection because Race Matters.
We asked two of our panelists a few questions in anticipation of their time with us. It’s our hope that in reading these responses you will be encouraged to join us on November 6th!
Lake Institute: Tell a story of when you’ve seen or been involved in philanthropy that was inspiring or worked well.
Brad Braxton: From 2005-2013, the Lilly Endowment provided a multi-million dollar grant to create the first African American Lectionary, a series of biblical readings and cultural and worship resources for African American Christian communities. The Rev. Martha Simmons, a renowned scholar and the creator of the African American Lectionary, invited me to serve as a founding Lectionary team member and editor along with other scholars. This massive cultural undertaking highlighted and preserved the unique religious ethos and practices of African American Christians, especially as that ethos and those practices relate to social justice. In many African American Christian traditions, religious worship is not an insular “other-worldly” affair but rather a sacred gathering to empower faithful people to transform this world in the name of all that is good.
At its conclusion, the African American Lectionary had amassed more than 200,000 pages of free, online scholarship and resources, and the website has attracted more than 11 million visitors. This scholarly and accessible online tool is enriching the cultural life and enhancing the religious and social imagination of many communities, and especially African American communities that may have limited access to traditional methods of higher education and theological training.
At its best, philanthropy is a process of investing in imaginative people who have audacious ideas and a relentless capacity to “tangibilitate” those ideas for the betterment of the world.
Aimée Laramore: In December 2017, I watched a college freshman, a millennial, make the largest donation she had ever made to any organization. Her gift of $300 to Dayspring Center reminded me of what happens when people personally experience the power of making a difference. Although she had served as a volunteer and at times a seasonal worker for the organization, I did not anticipate the decision or the direction of her gift. In a conversation about what we believe about giving, I asked our daughter about her plans for giving back. She did not offer much commentary on her thought process, she simply indicated “I have been thinking about what I would do for a few months.” She shared a story at some time during the month of December, about a young girl that she had met, that had talked in great detail about her experiences before living in the shelter. A summer conversation about the taste, feel and joy of homemade potato chips, led another young girl to invest in life changing ministry and services. I remain inspired by her choice. Whenever I encounter a negative commentary about millennial givers, I am reminded, all people give. Gifts follow the vision and belief that change is possible.
LI: What are the biggest themes or challenges in your work related to faith, philanthropy and the African American community?
BB: Philanthropic organizations and individuals should make more meaningful investments in grassroots public engagement by African American faith communities. Many grassroots African American faith communities—from congregations to community organizers—are frontline “doctors of the soul” seeking to dispense healing balm in hurting communities. Whether registering voters, staging “ethical spectacles” that galvanize the media’s attention on social inequities, or mobilizing traumatized communities against governmental or corporate injustice, grassroots, African American faith leaders and organizations are compassionate and courageous creators of the social change that the world needs.
AL: The challenges in the work at the intersection of faith and giving can be significant. It can at times be difficult to talk about philanthropy and giving, generosity and gratitude, vision and impact – when the messages that are affirmed in mainstream media and the world around us, often do not affirm the value of African American lives. The racial wealth gap, a myriad of diverse social justice priorities, the inability to talk about money and death, and the changing religious landscape offer opportunities to rethink how we understand, recognize and celebrate the power of giving back.
LI: What led you to the work you’re currently engaged in?
BB: My work is an attempt to “live into my name.” In Old English, “Brad” means “broad meadow.” Thus, my life’s purpose is to create broad spaces where people from diverse backgrounds with divergent beliefs can peacefully probe their differences and celebrate their similarities for the sake of a better world.
As the Director of the Smithsonian’s Center for the Study of African American Religious Life, I archive and interpret the historical and evolving religious legacy of African Americans. The intertwining of religion and race is a notable feature of African American experience, scholarly production, and social activism. Equipping scholars, religious practitioners, and the broader public with a sophisticated understanding of this intertwining and its impact on the ongoing struggle for African American equality is a contribution toward a more enlightened and compassionate world.
I also am the Founding Senior Pastor of The Open Church of Maryland, a courageous fellowship where people endeavor to love and serve God apart from the divisive dogmas that can make religion so dangerous. The Open Church supports LGBTQ equality and participates regularly in interfaith initiatives including Bahá'í, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Religiously Unaffiliated communities. This experiment in radical religious openness is made possible by the grassroots generosity of approximately 100 persons who have raised more than $1.5 million to support the congregation’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity.
AL: God has an amazing sense of humor. After years of working in non-profit management, organizational leadership and capacity building, I began to recognize the growing disconnect between my interests, my secular work and my faith-based projects. The over reliance on grant funding and non-diverse resource streams, however, became a consistent theme in all of my work. Ultimately, I decided that living my best life would mean all of the areas of my work and my interests, would align with my faith.
My broader commitment to the intersection of faith and giving came early in my career, when a philanthropist from my hometown asked if I had ever considered coming back to Toledo, Ohio to work. An exploratory conversation about the potential of serving in my community after graduating from Purdue, led to the first reflection I remember regarding honoring the people who had been the true supporters, anchors and investors in my education. Relative to serving as the Philanthropic Strategist for the PhD Program in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric, the engagement came just over 2 years after serving in Seminary Advancement for CTS. The energy, excitement and vision for the PhD Program led me to ask thoughtful questions about sustainability, the power of black philanthropy and long-term financial support. Once a part of my development portfolio, the leadership team started to dream differently about what might be possible if we worked to cast the vision of no life altering debt, while honoring those who care most deeply about the impact of black preaching.