Dr. Leah Gunning Francis describes herself as a seminary dean, mother and author.
As a seminary dean and scholar, she shares a theology of anti-racism and racial justice that begins with the imago dei, the recognition that all human beings are created in the image of God.
As an author, Dr. Gunning Francis wrote Ferguson and Faith after interviewing more than two dozen faith leaders who participated in the protests following the shooting death of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. She shares how people of faith joined the work for racial justice, and how we are called to join as well.
As the parent of two sons, she also shares some insights on how we can raise children to be anti-racist.
This is an important and inspiring conversation.
Dr. Leah Gunning Francis
- Read Ferguson and Faith.
- Visit her website.
- Watch her 2017 speech at the World Council of Churches.
- See a list of Dr. Gunning Francis' publications on her Christian Theological Seminary faculty website.
Listen and Subscribe
In the conversation, Dr. Gunning Francis recommends checking out where The United Methodist Church is already at work in the area of racial justice.
- Black Methodists for Church Renewal
- Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century
- General Commission on Religion and Race
- General Board of Church & Society
- United Methodist Women
- Dismantling Racism: Pressing on to Freedom: UMC.org/EndRacism
Popular related items on UMC.org
- Read Perspectives: A conversation with civil rights titans about racism by Crystal Caviness.
- Listen to GYSIS: Bishops United Against Racism.
- A Town Hall offering a historical perspective.
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This episode posted on August 7, 2020.
Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
My guest today is Dr. Leah Gunning Francis, Dean of the Faculty at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana; the author of Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community, and a practical theologian who works to help us understand that faith and justice are inextricably linked. She’s also a mom. And we take a few minutes to talk about teaching children about racism. This is an important and timely conversation.
Joe: Dr. Leah Gunning Francis, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Dr. Gunning Francis: Thank you so much for having me today.
Joe: I’m really excited to get to talk to you. And we’re gonna spend the next 30 minutes or so talking about race and racism. And one of the things that I’ve been learning is lots of us have different idea about what we’re talking about when we talk about racism. And so could you give me a good working definition of what we mean when we talk about racism?
Dr. Gunning Francis: When I talk about racism, I talk about power. Oftentimes I’ll hear people say that any person of any race can be racist when in actuality that’s not true because racism is connected to power, and the culture in which we live here in the United States is one that has been framed as a system that is built on white privilege. Racism is connected to being discriminatory against people of other races by white people.
Joe: Staying on the definition, let’s talk a little bit about white privilege. Tell me about a working definition for that.
Dr. Gunning Francis: Sure. Often people will say, well, you know I wasn’t born wealthy. I’m not a wealthy person. I don’t have privilege when in actuality by virtue of the fact that as a white person in the United States of America, because of the way our country has been set up from day one, we recall that black people were deemed as 3/5th of a person in the Constitution. That was not the same for white people who were given and acknowledged as whole human beings in the U.S. Constitution. So as a result of that we see that white privilege, people being given privilege just by the benefit of their skin color is where that idea comes from.
Joe: When we talk about racial justice, we’re talking about combating the systemic racism that we experience in the United States today and has been present for 400 years or more. When we think about those things, when is a society that is racially just look like?
Dr. Gunning Francis: To me a society that is racially just humanizes all people in the same way. As we know in this country that is not the case. The data does not support that. Where this current movement for racial justice where we’re saying that black lives do indeed matter in the same way as white lives and other people’s lives, that until our society reflects that, that we still have work to do whether we’re talking economic empowerment, whether we’re talking education, access to varying places of employment, what’s happening in neighborhoods and how neighborhoods are designed, share a very few facets of our country in the way that we’re fashioned where you cannot see disparity when it comes to black people and white people.
Joe: And you were in or around Ferguson at the time of Michael Brown and wound up writing a book called…you wrote a book called Ferguson and Faith. Tell me about that experience of being there during that time.
Dr. Gunning Francis: Sure. When Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson police officer on August 19, 2014 I was living in the St. Louis area with my family. I was on the faculty at Eden Seminary. And I, like many, got involved in the protests, got involved in the calls for justice. And just to be there and see the sheer numbers of people, all kinds of people, who were willing to take a stand for justice on behalf of black lives, and say: just as Michael brown’s life mattered, all black lives matter. So, to be able to witness that and to curate some of the stories, many of the clergy that were engaged in this movement for racial justice was not only an honor to do, but something that was deeply moving on a very personal level because we saw that while young people, to be very clear, were the ones who took to the streets very early on, made very clear that we will not stand for these acts of injustice anymore. It was after that time that we saw more clergy and others sort of coming alongside and saying, we have come to stand with you. We have come to seek out, on behalf of you and all black lives, to say that we’re here and we’re not going to continue to remain silent to these issues any longer.
Joe: What were some of the takeaways in your interviews from that? What were some of the stories that you heard that really moved you and still speak to you today and to where we are today?
Dr. Gunning Francis: One of the things was just being able to see so many people being willing to take risks. So often we think that to engage in any movement for justice we will be able to do so from a place of comfort and we’ll be able to stay nice and tidy and secure. We won’t have to risk anything. And that’s just not true. There were some clergy that actually lost their jobs as a result of engaging in the movement for racial justice. There were other clergy and people that lost friends and their social circles weren’t always as welcoming because unfortunately when it comes down to issues of race and in particular issues of race when you’re talking about black people and white people in the context of the United States of America, some of your most well-meaning people can draw a hard line and say, Well, I can’t say that black lives matter because I believe that all lives matter. When, in fact, that can’t possibly be true because if you in fact believe that all lives matter, you would actually be working to ensure that all lives do indeed matter. And so the evidence suggests that all lives only matter to God. And so since that’s the case, we heard stories of so many people…I mean, to see pastors who were young and not so young, and black and white, and different denominations, and different faith traditions use their resources, use their positions to put those things on the line to say that we need to bring an end to the brutality against black people by those who charged to serve and protect them. And also to be willing to say to the faith communities that they serve that this is, in fact, the work of God. Doing justice as the Bible declares that we do. And many times whether you’re talking on the prophet Micah, or Zachariah or Isaiah. You know, there are so many who talk about…you see the tenor of doing justice all throughout the scriptures. And so for clergy to make the connections of doing this work of racial justice is in fact doing the work of God, was something quite risky to do because not all people sitting in congregations believe that to be so. And so to be willing to take those kinds of risks and do that was just absolutely remarkable and very important.
Joe: I want to dwell there for a second because we get some of that pushback here. I monitor one of our email addresses at United Methodist Communications. And because we’re doing this dismantling racism push every once in a while we’re getting emails that say things along the lines of, you know, we’re being too political and that this is somehow a political movement that’s not…the church doesn’t have a place in. You’re a pastor and practical theologian. Tell me the church’s role within all of this.
Dr. Gunning Francis: What does the Lord require of us? But to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. When we look at the life of Jesus and what he did during the time that he was on earth and the way in which he often went outside of the status quo to critique and to say, no, this is not the way the Kingdom of God is designed to be. And so to show the way of actually doing the kinds of things—healing, restoring, providing for people even when the rules said that he shouldn’t do that, he did it anyway because he knew that this is the kind of kingdom that God was seeking to bring on earth. And so in the same ways today when we see people, human beings, all of us created in God’s image being denigrated, being discriminated against, being terrorized, that we as Christians especially have an obligation to say that’s not right, to say that has to stop. And so for people to just say, Oh, that’s being political…no, that’s actually being Christian. That’s actually doing the things that God has called us to do and to do it faithfully. To not do it is actually to not follow in the way of Christ.
Joe: And so today, you have a role in training pastors as a seminary dean. What are some of the things that you’re telling your pastors to talk to their congregations about?
Dr. Gunning Francis: You know, as many of the things that we’ve already mentioned in terms of just the work of doing justice (right?) the need for bringing about a more just society can be given expression in so many kinds of ways. There are so many people around issues of race or gender or sexual identity or age or ability levels that find themselves disenfranchised, on the outskirts and not being treated as fully human. That is an injustice. We think about environmental challenges that here we believe that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof as the Bible reminds us. And that we are yet both stewards of the world in which God is permitting us to live. And so a part of that means to take care, to steward something means to take care of it. It means to leave it better than we found it, and to think about all of those who are gonna come behind us as well as all of the animals and the life that inhabits the world and doing justly on behalf of that. That’s a part of our responsibility, too. And so, I would say—and I do say—that all of these kinds of things are doing the work that is very Christian. It is very God-focused, and it is the callings of each and every one of us.
Joe: On your website one of the things I noticed, too, is that you identity yourself as a mom. Isn’t that your being a parent influences the way you think about these things. Is that right?
Dr. Gunning Francis: That is so true. You know, I often say that the day that my oldest son was born, I was born again. And what I mean by that is now being blessed to have 2 sons that giving birth to them, becoming their mother has called me into a new way of being and seeing the world as well as my role and my place in it. I no longer could just look at it through my own eyes and my own feelings, but having to everyday—24 hours a day—in everything I do always be mindful of what these things mean for the children, for my children, for all children. And so that kind of new birth for me that occurred once I became a mom is something that is integral to who I am and how I engage every aspect of my life to include the work I do, the purpose of racial justice.
Joe: When you think about that as a part of …if you were giving advice to other parents, when do you start your kids in understanding what race is about?
Dr. Gunning Francis: We need to do that from the day one. And what I mean by that is…. And people may say, well, how can an infant understand anything about race? Well, we now have enough information to know about human development and the development of our bodies and our minds and our spirits, and just how that happens over time, that from a very young age what are the sounds and the sights that you’re exposing to your infant child? When your child is a toddler what are the things that you’re permitting her or him to touch and take into their world? What are the foods you’re allowing them to taste? What are the sights you’re allowing them to see? And then as they’re getting older and beginning to talk and speak what are the languages you’re exposing them to? Are they only hearing English? So that they might grow and think that only humans speak English when we know that’s not true? In like manner, who are the people you’re exposing your young children to? For a white child to only grow up seeing white people, white adults, white friends, white teachers, white pastors, white people in the grocery stores, white people on the ball fields, what kind of orientation to the world is that child having? So often people will say to me, when I’m out lecturing on Ferguson and Faith, they’ll say, Oh, Dr. Francis, I don’t teach my children to see color. And my response is, well, what you don’t teach them to see me or anybody else for that matter because a part of what white privilege has done is seeing white as a non-color and everybody else as having a color when the Crayola 64 box teaches us that white is indeed a color. And so even the notion that white is white and everything else is a color sets up this hierarchical thinking about who we are as human beings and as the human race, and what the hierarchy is. So from young children, as you’re talking, as you’re engaging as they’re playing, what is the world that you are feeding them? Is it a white-washed world or is it a world that celebrates the human diversity that is imbedded in it?
Joe: Wow. That’s powerful. That’s really helpful for us because so often we do hear it as if teaching about race is somehow corrupting the child, somehow teaching them something they wouldn’t learn if we didn’t teach them. That’s really helpful to hear.
Dr. Gunning Francis: It’s essential because in the United States of America racism is in the air; it’s in the water; it’s in the soil. It’s everywhere. You don’t have to teach a child to be racist. A white child will just pick it up because it’s in every aspect of our world. And so actually white parents, if you are to be faithful to the Scripture that you hold dear, the work is not to teach your children not to see race, but the work is teaching your children to be anti-racist because the world in which they’re being born into, the culture in which they’re being born into, is inherently racist.
Joe: What does it look like to be an anti-racist individual?
Dr. Gunning Francis: To be an anti-racist individual is to be intentional in doing the kinds of things that are going to bring the rich diversity of the world into your child’s life. And not just bring it into their lives, but talk about what that means and why you’re doing that, and expose them to how you go about doing that. So for example, people might say, Oh, where we live there just are no black people anywhere near where we live. And I would say, Well, it might be true in your neighborhood, but I promise if you get in your car or you get on a train or a bus, within 5-10 miles you’ll encounter some black people. So really, it means you’re going to have to step outside your circle of comfort. You’re going to have to be willing to go into places and to connect with people that aren’t in your immediate sphere. So, if when you go to your children’s schools and 98% of the children are white but within the town in which you live you know that there is a black population there, are you raising questions as to why that is so?
Joe: And I hear you saying that as a United Methodist Christian that’s work that we should all be doing. We need to be pointing out those things, noticing those things and working to bring wholeness to those systems.
Dr. Gunning Francis: So, I grew up as a United Methodist in New Jersey. For as long as I can remember…
Joe: We have that in common actually.
Dr. Gunning Francis: …I attended a United Methodist Church in Willingboro, New Jersey. And it was a place of love and affirmation and joy in so many ways for me as a child growing up. And so I grew up in this denomination believing that all United Methodist Churches were spaces where every person could be welcome, where all voices were valued and heard, when as we go from childhood to adulthood we realize that that’s not necessarily the case. However, I think that the founders, that the Scripture, that history and reason and tradition and experience all give us grounding to be able to stand firm, and not only say black lives matter, but to be intentional within our congregations, within our faith communities, to allow everything that we do in resisting the racist tentacles that have permeated into every facet of our society and to be willing to say, you know what? We’re sorry. We know that these things have happened. We know that we have not stood up and spoke up and spoke out to say this is wrong. But today we’re going to turn over a new leaf. Today we’re no longer going to look away from all of these killings that we see and pretend that, oh, that happens to everybody. So, you know, why should we make a big deal about it happening to black people? Well, I just haven’t seen the videos of it happening to everybody. I keep repeatedly seeing the videos of this happening to black people. We can’t pretend that this is not so.
Joe: For a long time I believed this work for racial justice was not my work to do as a white person. This was somehow a space for others. And I’m learning or hearing more often than maybe I’ve heard before, and maybe it’s because I’m paying attention in a different way….but I’m hearing more from that, the work of racial justice or a lot of the racial justice work or the work of dismantling racism is really work that needs to be done by the white community and not for the white community to just kind of stand aside and let it happen. Am I correct in that? Can you help me with that?
Dr. Gunning Francis: Absolutely. Dismantling racism, disrupting white supremacy is white people’s work to do. White people created these systems and structures, and it is white people’s work to dismantle them and be part of the recreation of new equitable structures which includes within the church, absolutely.
Joe: And so that means going to the rally or getting involved in the work that’s being done and not just standing on the sidelines kind of cheering other people on.
Dr. Gunning Francis: Absolutely. And as we’ve said especially as Christians. We have plenty of justification as Christians to engage this work for racial justice. And it is not something we can do from afar. It’s not something that we can do just through our thoughts and prayers. Yes, prayer is important. It’s integral to my life and I hope that that’s true for your life as well. But at the end of the day faith without works is still dead. And our prayers must take on flesh, that embodiment, and be put to work. Many have said that we pray with our feet. That means we pray with our actions. We pray with our doing. We pray as we’re going. And to do that means that we have to be willing to take the risk, to step out of our comfort zone, to see this as integral to our Christian faith and what God calls us to do.
Joe: If I’m a United Methodist member feeling led to kind of get into that work and want to encourage my fellow congregants, my Sunday school class, my small group to get involved with me, what are some steps you would encourage us to take to kind of get this thing started.
Dr. Gunning Francis: As a United Methodist church, I would say start within the denomination. The denomination has wonderful resources available to you, how to engage your congregation, your groups within the congregation in the work of racial justice. Black Methodists for Church Renewal have been doing this kind of work for decades. But there are many others, and through many other divisions within the United Methodist Church. All you have to do is go on to the website and download some of the resources and make up in your mind that this is what I’m going to do. Many said…and I’ve heard many times throughout my life, racism is gonna die away with the next generation. As young people grow and they become more accepting and more open-minded, that that old racist stuff will just go by the wayside. If that were true, we would have seen young adults marching onto the campus of the University of Virginia carrying lit tiki torches which was nothing short of a resemblance of a 'night ride.' And as you recall night rides are when the Ku Klux Klan used to go into black communities with their lit torches in the middle of the night to terrorize them, burning down neighborhoods, homes, businesses, lynching people. And to see in the 21st century young white people still carrying on that tradition, no, they did not go as far as to burn down houses that night. But the message they sent was very clear because they did intimidate and terrorize people that were gathered in a church on the campus that night. And they sent a very clear message that racism and the attempt to uphold white supremacy is alive and well among young people. And so, as long as we believe that racism will die away, we have to dispel that myth. It will not just die away. There are things that we have to do. And I’ve been saying, now in this present moment, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd where we saw police office kneel on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, as he pled for his life, and he died there on the street. And you saw the response to that where thousands, tens of thousands of people around the country came out in their respective cities and towns and said, Enough; we’ve had enough. We can’t keep going down this road. I’ve said, we have to fight racial injustice and the coronavirus at the same time. We’ve got to get busy doing the work.
Joe: As you look at things that are happening today with the marches around the country and the ways that people are standing up, is it encouraging?
Dr. Gunning Francis: I find it very encouraging to see people around the country and around the world standing up for the purpose of racial justice, saying unashamedly that black lives matter. And we have to changing our structures, our society, our rooms of engagement until that is actually true. What’s challenging for me is the fact that even after Ferguson and the uprising that happened for months and the television cameras that came from around the world and many people thought that this would be the time when this country said, Enough. There have been more than one hundred unarmed black people that have been killed by police officers around the country since the killing of Michael Brown 6 years ago. And so here we are today. And even after this killing of George Floyd there have still been other killings of unarmed African American black people. My question is: When will enough be enough? What is it going to take for us to say we cannot continue going down this path.
Joe: We just pray that we continue to work in that direction and that we continue to encourage our members and friends to do the work that’s necessary. And, as you said, to make ourselves uncomfortable and to get out and do what needs to be done.
Dr. Gunning Francis: And I also ask people, you know, what’s at stake if you don’t do this work? What difference will it make if you don’t? We’re pretty sure that if we do not reconstruct our society for it to become more equitable and just for all people, but in particular as we’re talking on this call, for black people, the disparities will continue to grow. The disparities in education. The disparities in wealth. The disparities in housing and employment. And all of these disparities only serve to further dehumanize people. And the more that we dehumanize other people, the more that we ultimately dehumanize ourselves.
There’s an African proverb that is a philosophy that is titled Ubuntu, which means, I am because we are. And Scripture throughout really shows that kind of interconnectedness between us all regardless if we look alike or if we live near each other or if we speak the same language. But if we’re going to be faithful to the ‘imago dei,’ that means that the least that we are all created in the image of God, and continue to permit the dehumanization of some people thinking that it’s not going to impact all of us, we’re sadly, sadly mistaken. The dehumanizing of some ultimately is the dehumanizing of us all because we are all God’s creation. So who better to lead the charge than the church? Who better to lead the charge than the people calling themselves followers of Christ? Racism has been passed down from generation to generation.
One of the stories from Ferguson and Faith was a pastor that I interviewed. She said to me, she said, You know, I grew up in Mississippi. I’m nearing retirement now. But I remember the day when I was sitting outside of my high school and my mom said, Stay in the car; stay in the car. And I didn’t exactly know what was going on. And she said she looked through the windshield and she saw black children coming out of her school who were being hit, spit upon by white people, white men, white mothers, while police officers stood by and did nothing. And she said she could not believe what she was witnessing with her own eyes, for she, as a white child, a part of this community where she found so much love and security and safety, was witnessing this very evil thing happening to her black classmates. So she said she knew that when Ferguson happened that it was not an isolated incident, but rather part of this long trajectory of white supremacy and racism in this country, that if it is was not stopped would only continue to the next generation and to the next generation. And so that’s why she got involved and got her congregation involved in the movement. And so I say to your listeners today: Are you willing to take a hard honest look at the history of this country, not the fabricated history, but the true history? Some of that history exists within your own families. Some of it exists within the churches where you sat prior COVID-19. Are you willing to take a hard, truthful look at that and say we can’t pass that legacy on to our children? We have to work to become an anti-racist community so that all children—black children, white children, Latino, Latina children, Asian children, children of Indian descent—will be able to grow and thrive and flourish in the same way.
Joe: Yeah. Thank you, because we talk about on Get Your Spirit in Shape all the time, this is work about growing as disciples of Jesus Christ and part of that is praying with our feet, getting involved in the places where God is already at work in the world and finding those places where we can join in to that work. And so as we get ready to kind of wrap up this conversation, which I really, really don’t want to do, but the time is of the essence, I want to ask you the question I ask every guest. How do you keep your spirit in shape?
Dr. Gunning Francis: Several things. One of the things that I do is I powerwalk. I am blessed to live in a space where there’s a lot of green space, there’s a lot of places where I can go and walk safely. And that is something that I try to do every day and if not every day then every other day. Just getting some fresh air in my lungs, clearing my mind, is something that definitely nurtures my spirit. Another thing is regular prayer. And not just the prescribed pious prayer, but the prayer that is indicative of what’s happening with me that day. Staying in touch ‘cause God already knows. And so just talking honestly and openly with God in whatever way I feel is best in that moment, something that’s very important. Being in community and in fellowship especially during this season of being separated physically from so many people, finding ways to stay connected, virtually, on the phone, through text messages has been something else I’ve found to be really important to help keep my spirit in shape. And finally, to keep my feet firmly planted and connected to what’s happening on the ground. We can’t live our lives solely in the comfort of our own dwelling spaces. But rather we have to still stay fully engaged in the world. And in this instance as it relates to racial justice. And so here we are in the middle of an election season. And it’s only gonna become more and more heightened as the days and the weeks and the months along. And with that what does it mean to implement my faith and how I am making decisions on how…not only on how I engage but on who the people are that are going to truly represent the values of human dignity for all people. So all of those are ways in which I try to keep my spirit in shape because I don’t separate this mind, body and spirit, but rather I try to keep it all going at the same time and engaged at the same time. And when it’s time to rest, to lie down in the evening and rest.
Joe: Dr. Leah Gunning Francis, thank you so much for this important conversation.
Dr. Gunning Francis: Thank you, Joe, for having me I’ve enjoyed talking with you. Blessings to everyone.
Joe: That was Dr. Leah Gunning Francis, seminary dean, mother and author. During that conversation she was so consistently sharing profound insight. So if you’d like to revisit any of those moments, you can visit UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode’s page where we’ve posted a transcript of this conversation.
There are also links on the page to learn more about Dr. Gunning Francis, to order her book and links to videos of her talks and articles she’s written. We’ve also provided links there to work of the United Methodist Church that Dr. Gunning Francis refers to in our conversation.
As the United Methodist Church continues our work of dismantling racism and pressing on the freedom, go to UMC.org/EndRacism to learn more about what the church is doing.
Thanks so much for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.