There may be different motives behind the widespread othering of Black and LGBTQI+ Americans today, but the tactics are, sadly, effective – and dangerous to our very democracy. Worse, religious rhetoric gets dragged into the conversation even as books on historical racism get banned and some 500 anti-LGBTQI+ bills proliferate in statehouses across the country. This week on State of Belief, Interfaith Alliance’s weekly radio show and podcast, you’ll hear about building diverse coalitions as the key to achieving inclusivity across lines of division, on the way to a multireligious, multiracial democracy for all of us.
More Than I Imagined: What a Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew is the gripping story of meeting your mother in a mental institution, and confronting a deeply racist half of your family. The author is John Blake, an award-winning CNN journalist who covers race, religion, and politics. John joins State of Belief host Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush to talk about this deeply personal memoir, and to share the hard-won lessons that cultivating difficult relationships is the only true way to lasting healing across lines of division.
June, Pride Month, is just around the corner, and that means it’s almost time for Faith for Pride, a national campaign to push back against anti-LGBTQ+ extremism and support the beloved LGBTQ+ members of our communities. Interfaith Alliance and a broad coalition of organizations is leading this effort, and Maureen O’Leary, director of field and organizing at the Alliance, brings a preview of what’s in store – and an invitation for congregations and communities to get involved.
STATE OF BELIEF MAY 20, 2023 TRANSCRIPT
JOHN BLAKE, MORE THAN I IMAGINED: WHAT A BLACK MAN DISCOVERED ABOUT THE WHITE MOTHER HE NEVER KNEW
MAUREEN O’LEARY, INTERFAITH ALLIANCE DIRECTOR OF FIELD AND ORGANIZING
Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, Host:
From Interfaith Alliance, this is State of Belief Radio.
I’m Alliance President Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, broadcasting this week from Washington, DC!
(John Blake clip)
“It wasn’t a book I read to them. It wasn’t a protest or some policy that they read or protest that they attended. It was the interracial relationship. It was the relationship we experienced over time. And, as I said, facts didn’t change them, relationships did.”
More Than I Imagined: What a Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew is an intensely personal, rigorously honest and impossible-to-put-down memoir from award-winning CNN journalist John Blake. On this week’s show, he’ll be with us to discuss the role of religion in his spellbinding journey – and the lessons on race, and what he calls ‘radical integration’ can offer for the rest of us.
(Maureen O’Leary clip)
“This is about pushing back against anti-LGBTQ legislation. This is about fighting against anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and preparing ourselves to go from Pride Month on into the rest of the year to really stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ neighbors.”
Religious communities and congregations nationwide took part in Faith for Pride last year, reminding us that the majority of our religions and spiritual traditions affirm andcelebrate our LGBTQ siblings. This June will be even bigger and better – and we’ll get a preview from Interfaith Alliance Director of Field and Organizing Maureen O’Leary.
You can hear State of Belief on the radio, and listen on Apple Podcasts and all the other podcast platforms. Every week I am in conversation with the most fascinating and impactful civic and religious leaders across the nation. Please subscribe to it today!
State of Belief Radio is made possible in great part by the generous support of our listeners. If you’ve made a donation, thank you for helping get these conversations heard by more people who need them! If you haven’t pitched in yet, information on how you can help keep this show on the air is available at stateofbelief.com. And you can find out more about the work of Interfaith Alliance and join in that work at interfaithalliance.org.
And now to my first guest.
John Blake is an award-winning CNN journalist who covers race, religion, and politics. He’s just published a deeply personal memoir full of unexpected plot twists and, even more important, compelling insights on race, religion, and what our nation needs right now. The book is titled, More Than I Imagined: What a Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew.
John, welcome to the show!
John Blake, Guest:
Thank you for having me.
So, I have to admit I was surprised by how many times I cried during this book. I was deeply moved by your writing, by your story, and what I would call a testimony. In one moment in the book, you talk about testimony and being witness to testimony. This feels like, in some ways, a testimony.
Yeah, it is a testimony; and the idea for the book began in a kind of awful moment in our country’s history. In 2015, I was assigned by CNN to cover a – well, some people called it a race riot, others will call it uprising – but there was this huge racial upheaval in my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, that took place, literally, inside the neighborhood where I grew up. And I remember going back to my neighborhood in Baltimore where I grew up and seeing national guardsmen, martial law, buildings on fire – and I saw my city coming apart because of racism. And then I thought to myself, but these white and black members of my family were coming together despite racism.
So how did that happen? What was happening inside my family that wasn’t happening across the country? And I started thinking that maybe this story that I lived is something that’s worth sharing.
Well, not only worth sharing, but sharing beautifully. This is a beautiful book. And I want our listeners to know that. And in some ways, it is the best of storytelling – because it invites us into a world that we might not have entered into had we not read the book. And you write with a vivid urgency, and also paint a picture that we can really step into that, for me, is not my own but allows me to have empathy and sympathy and learn something and grow. I’m singing the praises of this book because it really was meaningful for me that you wrote it. And so I want to thank you for that.
I also want to just talk a little bit about storytelling and the importance of storytelling. This is also something of a book about journalism, and how journalism led you on a path. And so, storytelling is your profession. So, let’s talk a little bit about storytelling in the context of the story you were telling about race and our society as well as religion.
OK, so almost any good story has a mystery. And so my story began with a mystery. I was born in West Baltimore in this all-Black inner-city neighborhood, but I had a white mother and a Black father. But my white mother disappeared from my life not long after I was born, and no one told me why she disappeared. So I grew up not knowing who she was, whether she was alive. I didn’t even know what she looked like. All I was told was this: that your mother’s name is Shirley, she’s white, and her family hates black people.
And so I grew up knowing that this whole other white side of my family had rejected me. And what I tried to do in my stories is recount how I solved the mystery of my disappearing mother, and how I reconnected with white family members that wanted nothing to do with me because I’m Black, or my father’s Black.
And to go back to your question about storytelling, there’s a larger purpose to writing this story. I tell people that if we’re going to survive as a multiracial, multireligious democracy, those who believe in that vision of America, we have to become better storytellers. Stories reach people in a way that facts, studies, and information – it doesn’t go there. And often the only stories we talk about or tell about race in this country are stories about failure, how we can’t get past racism.
I had a gentleman who told me yesterday that racism is embedded in our DNA. I don’t believe that because I’ve seen the white members of my family change in ways that I never expected. And I think we have to tell these hopeful but gritty real stories if we’re going to get people to believe that we can get past our racial divisions.
I appreciate that so much. You’re in the media, and stories we tell about major moments… One of the great offerings of this book is to recast integration. People are like, oh, failure, failure. Sorry, we tried that… We’re not telling the real story of what integration was about. And also, what does it mean to try something for eight or ten years and see actual major transformations – and then not invest in it anymore and continue to grow it. So, I want you to talk a little bit about that, because it was really important. This idea of integration is a major part of the book, and you start with this big idea of integration, which was a project of the government. And then you kind of take it somewhere. But let’s start with just a little fact-checking around integration.
Well, that’s an excellent question. And I have to begin with a confession. I felt more embarrassed writing about integration than some of the more other unusual aspects of my book – which stray into religion, even supernatural. I mean, it’s kind of strange as someone who has written about race for like 20, 25 years to talk about integration. But I went there because, one, it was the experience in my family. When I looked at what changed me and the white family members that I reconnected with – again, these are white family members who wanted nothing to do with me; these were people who used the N-word freely. These were people who had my father arrested and put in jail when he began to date my mom. These were people who said that white and black people should be kept apart. And yet these same people changed. And I asked myself, what changed them?
It wasn’t a book I read to them. It wasn’t a protest or some policy that they read or protest that they attended. It was the interracial relationship. It was the relationship we experienced over time. And, as I said, facts didn’t change them, relationships did. That is part of the impulse behind integration. What I have discovered is, that when most people think about integration, they think of black people assimilating – meaning putting black bodies into white spaces, where they’re expected to act more white. That’s not integration.
Integration was about shared power as well as shared spaces. It was also this impulse that if you’re going to change racial attitudes, you have to create interracial communities, and you have to carve out these places for interracial relationships. That’s where the change comes in. And that was the impulse behind integration when people talked about it in the 50’s and 60’s.
Think about the context of the time. World War II had just ended. People had seen those black and white newsreels of those death camps in Europe. And they said, this is the price. This is what racial hatred can do to a country.
So people very, very much believed that we have to do this; and one of the prime ways we do it is not just through policy and changing laws, which is vital, but also we have to create these situations where people have actual interracial relationships where they live next to each other, they send their children to schools next to one another. And that is also where change occurs.
And what I was trying to say in my book is that I think that we have forgotten that in the past couple of years. We have seen the spectacular racial protests like with George Floyd. We’ve seen the brilliant books like How to Be an Anti-Racist. But this whole idea that we have to create spaces where people who don’t think and look like need to be around one another – nobody really talks about that. And I think we should, because that’s what changed my family.
Yeah, it also changed you. I mean, the part when you went to Howard and were looking at other people’s yearbooks… There’s always this yearbook moment. I just, it was funny.
You did that too?
Well, I haven’t thought about yearbooks in a long time; but you were talking about yearbooks and then you saw your fellow students in situations that were interracial and you’re like, what? Because you didn’t have that experience. It was just a very interesting thing, you came into contact with the idea of integration and that some of your peers had experienced that. It was a moving moment.
Thank you that’s really key. I went to a very elite, historically black college called Howard University. To give you an idea of how elite, Kamala Harris was one of my classmates. I was at Howard at the same time. And so it was ironic to me that I had to go to a black school to realize how important integration is. And what I found is that all these black students that I met there, they were incredibly intellectual, poised, brilliant. And one of the primary reasons that they were like that is because many had gone to integrated high schools, junior high schools, where they got a chance to not only sit next to and know white people, but this is key: they had access to the same educational resources as white people.
So, they were so far ahead of me. When I looked at these yearbooks, I looked at these college campuses, I realized that my world was so narrow and segregated and I did more research in that period. And it turns out from around mid-1970’s to around 1988, the test scores between Black and white students converged in this country in a way they never had before. And why did that happen? Because that was that same golden period where we were really integrating schools throughout the country.
It worked. It worked!
See, that’s really the important point here. And I want to get to radical integration, which is a concept that you introduced, which I hadn’t really heard before. But the important thing, and what I was intimating earlier, was that that was successful. Integration actually had a success story around it. And yet it is told as a total failure – in part because it’s told by people who maybe forget the part where all the white people started fleeing because of racism. Let’s have the big picture. But this radical integration that you get to, which I want to put a placeholder there, because I want to start talking about your mother a little bit. Because this is a very fulsome, difficult story that has a lot of facets, nuances to it that unfold throughout the story.
But let’s talk a little bit about your own experience of integration, because it was in you and your mother. I’ll just say one more word about the beauty of this book – every new chapter reveals something… The picture becomes bigger, more rich, and goes deeper and deeper. And all of a sudden, these people are going from two-dimensional to three dimensional, and even more dimensions, four dimensions. I’ve talked enough, I want you to tell that.
Well, keep talking more. I like what you’re saying. I think it’s very perceptive. Because I wanted to show the complexity of human nature. And that started with my mom. And you talk about integration. My first experience with integration, really, was meeting my mom.
OK, so the backdrop is this. I didn’t even know she was alive, didn’t know what she looked like. And here I am at 17 years old, about to go to college, and I had dismissed all thoughts of her. And my father just comes to me one day and says, hey, do you want to meet your mom? He just drops this bomb.
And I said, yes, of course, because I’m curious. And we’re driven out to this really menacing-looking red brick building on the outskirts of Maryland. And I, along with my younger brother Patrick, we walk into this building, and then we go into this waiting room. And I still don’t quite know where I am. But I can tell it’s a bad place because I hear people moaning in pain in the background, while others are breaking out into this hysterical laughter.
And then an orderly guides this thin white woman into the room, and she looks at me, and she looks at my brother, and her eyes, her whole face lights up with joy. And she says, “Oh, boy, oh, boy, John and Pat, it’s so good to see you!” And I hug her. And it’s my mom.
Now, I’m feeling very awkward because that’s the first time I’m meeting her, but I’m also feeling awkward because of where I’m meeting her. I’m standing in a waiting room of a mental institution. That’s when I realized that one of the big reasons I didn’t see my mom was because she had been institutionalized not long after I was born. She suffered from a severe form of mental illness called schizophrenia.
And so I’m standing there and all these things are happening, and I talk throughout the book about how that meeting impacted me. But one way I vividly remember it impacted me, just at that moment, it began to change the way I looked at white people. In the world that I grew up in West Baltimore – and keep in mind, my neighborhood in Baltimore is infamous. The HBO series, The Wire was filmed there. That’s where the Freddie Gray riot took place. Nobody liked white people.
I didn’t think that any white person could understand what it meant to be Black, to be treated with contempt, to be looked down upon just because of the way you were born. But when I saw my mom in that waiting room and realized that she had been staying in this hellish place for most of her life – she shattered all those assumptions within 15 minutes. So, she began to immediately give me empathy toward white people in a way that I never had before.
And that’s part of the reason why you need contact with people. It’s different than reading a book. It’s different than thinking about it. It just began to widen my empathy. So, I developed this relationship with her that began to change me.
And it continues. It’s not linear. It’s not like, and then we became friends! There was a lot that repelled you. I don’t mean to put words in your mouth. But it was a shock. And then – we’re not going to give away… I mean, there’s a moment in the book, and I’m almost going to cry now; the name of the chapter was Mama, Can You Dance? And it’s so beautiful, because you tell this story of your dad and your mom, and then you see them as she was; you got a glimpse of her and all of her joy, all of her potential. And it just was so beautiful that, in the end, she became a real person for you, and you show up. And she became a person.
Paul, I appreciate those kind words, and that’s a beautiful scene for me. She became even more than a person. She became like a hero to me, a heroine. The thing about, sometimes, when you’re dealing with a person who’s suffering from a mental illness is it’s hard to see past it. And for the beginning of my life, I resented my mom, I think, because I wanted her to be what I expected her to be. And I couldn’t see past her illness.
But as I got to know her, as the years unfolded, I began to see that that same young white woman who defied her family and her community in the mid-60’s, when interracial marriage was illegal in much of the country, and saw and dated this black man and had two black sons – that same person was still there. That resilience, that spikiness, and that tremendous Christian faith she had was still there.
And so that scene you just alluded to was one of those first moments I began to see, wow, she is something. I mean, just think about it. When she began to see my father in the mid-60’s, over 90 percent of Americans were opposed to interracial marriage. Today, a Gallup poll revealed, I think, about a year ago, that something like 94 percent approve of it. And that cuts across political and racial lines. How did that dramatic transformation take place in a lifetime.
And one of the things I say, it was because of people like my mother, her courage. When people started saying, I’m going to love who I love, regardless of what the courts and the politicians say, that created a ripple effect in the mid-60’s. And they were part of this vanguard of these people… And that created this new norm where interracial marriages now come in play. She helped make this new world possible! We go out now, don’t think anything about interracial couples or biracial children. And it was because of the courage of people like my mother. And it took me a long time to see that in her.
You mentioned her faith, which is really also very touching, because she would always say, I need the St. Jude, give me a prayer card for St. Jude. And then you say, the prayer of lost causes, St. Jude is known as the person you pray to for lost causes. It’s almost analogous to when someone says racism is just our DNA. You know, like pray for the lost causes. I mean, like, you know what? You were praying to St. Jude and she no longer became a lost cause. And so it’s actually the stuff of the book.
But religion plays a role in all of this – in your own journey. You were not raised, particularly, in the church, but you had an aunt who certainly introduced you to church – four hours of it! You may not have been the one dancing, but you were aware of it. But throughout the book, there are very strong moments when prayer and community – religious community – makes a difference Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah, that’s a very key point. One of the things that helped me reconnect with my mom and other white members of my family was Christianity – and more specifically, white evangelical Christians.
Now, we hear a lot about white evangelical Christians and the problem with racism and Christian nationalism; but one of the things that really helped me when I was in college – I happened to join this interracial church. I didn’t know it was interracial when I joined. I discovered that later. And for the first time in my life with those white evangelical Christians, I became friends with white people. I became vulnerable with them. The thing that converted me, I tell people, was not when people start talking to me about the atonement or going to heaven and all that. The thing that converted me is when I went to these churches and I saw white, black, and brown people hugging one another, calling each other sister and brother, being friends with one another after Sunday, going into each other’s home. That was the thing that really converted me.
And so as I became a Christian, the language about grace, forgiveness, seeing sin in yourself as well as others – that gave me the same type of language that I could connect with my white family members, because my mother and other people, they too had a Christian faith. So that became this kind of meeting place where we could kind of work out our differences.
Yeah. And you also talk about a pastor that was very important to you, a white pastor. And about that this is hard-fought it’s not all kumbaya. There was a great scene about one of the black women leaders of the church confronting the pastor, and that rang very real to me.
Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
I think that, first of all, pastors don’t like to relinquish power in any way. And then when there’s a racial dynamic where someone is saying, I see this as wrong; and you say, oh, well, it seems like you’re getting angry. It’s like, no, I’m just stating a fact, and you interpret that. And so what was beautiful about that – and again, I encourage you to read the book, More Than I Imagined: What A Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew – there’s these nuggets of moments where you see the transformation. Not instantaneously and not easily, but people who decide to stick with it – recognizing that no one’s going to be perfect in these moments. But if you don’t show a willingness – especially for white people, to be aware and show a willingness to hear and listen, critique – really, really important and really hard. But if you really are clear about building a multiracial church, it’s just going to have to happen. And so I felt like that was also instructive.
Thanks. Yeah, one of the points I wanted to make with that story is that there’s a huge difference between a racially mixed church and a racially integrated church. A racially mixed church, you have different people, different races sitting in the pews together. In a racially integrated church, you have people sharing physical space, but they also share power. And that’s a huge difference.
In the racially integrated church I went to that you alluded to, we just didn’t share space with people of different races. When I looked on the pulpit, I saw women, I saw brown people, I saw black people. When I heard the songs, they weren’t just from one tradition, they were different traditions, all that.
And here’s something else that’s key. There wasn’t peace all the time. There’s this belief among some people that if you have a multiracial church, you know, there shouldn’t be a lot of conflict; that conflict is a sign that something is wrong. No, conflict, open conflict where people are talking about their feelings and getting their anger out in the open and talking about all these ugly issues about race is actually a sign of health. And that’s what happened in that church. We got stuff out in the open, we talked and we debated and we stuck together.
Yeah. And in some ways, people were using the discipline of faith, which people forget, the spiritual discipline that it takes to move our own hearts and be in community with people who are moving their hearts. And so that’s an asset.
So, okay, I’ve got to go there. This is the…
I think I know where you’re going, but it’s all right.
You know where I’m going to go. And it’s… OK, so I’m just going to say it. There is a specter that lives in various places throughout the book, starting when you’re like nine years old. It’s a specter of a white man who you and your brother saw rifling through your stuff, actually taking birthday cards, with bloody footprints – and he shows up throughout the book. And the nice thing about the writing is you’re like, I know this shouldn’t be real. I know this makes me sound a little crazy and I’m doing everything in my power to have this not be real for me – but it’s real for me. That’s the way I read it.
No, that’s true. Unfortunately, it was real for me. I would not have put that in the book if I had only seen this apparition myself. In each case, someone was with me. In the first instance, my brother saw the same person. And in the other two times that followed, my wife was there, and she knew nothing about this.
Just to give readers a little backdrop, when my father began to see my mom, the person that opposed him the most was my mother’s father. And he was the one that called my father the N-word, had him arrested and physically assaulted him when my father tried to visit. He died without knowing me. So, I just knew him as a stone cold racist who hated black people.
And so as a kid, I was awakened one night. My brother was right below me in a bunk bed, and we just saw this white man floating around my bedroom, taking things from me. And I thought I was dreaming. I woke up the next morning and I saw bloody red footprints all throughout the house.
I thought nothing about it as a kid. I mean, it terrified me, but I had no frame of reference. What could I do about it? I tried to forget it. My brother and I, we talked about it briefly, but we never talked about it again. But we didn’t know who that man was. It wasn’t until I began to meet the other white members of my family, when my mother’s sister said, hey, here’s a picture of your grandfather. And when I saw that face, I said, oh, my God, that was that same man that was in my room!
And then I still don’t know what to do with it. I get married. And then my wife wakes me up one morning and says, who was that white man standing over your bed staring at you? So, part of the story is me trying to figure out why my grandfather was coming back. I didn’t want to just say this is a little ghost story, let me titillate you. There was a point to it. And the point to it was this. We hear a lot about racism, that how racism hurts white people. And usually when people frame that argument, they talk about like, they talk about economic arguments. You’re going to vote against your economic interest, blah, blah, blah. But I think on a deeply personal, soulful level, racism hurts white people. It does something that poisons their soul.
That happened, I believe, to my white grandfather. He grew up never knowing me or his other nephew because of his racism. And I think that tormented him with the guilt. And so what I had to do when those visits kept on coming is I had to find a way to reach out to him, to show him that I forgave him – but also to see him beyond his worst act, to see that he was more than just a racist, that he had all these other sides that were actually good. So that was part of the story as well.
You put in the time to learn about him, learn where he came from, learn that he had a really shockingly tough upbringing. He also was on his own, was a laborer when he was very young, and also was dealing with mental illness all around him. Your act was… It started as prayer, and then it kept on going into investigation and learning. And then he hasn’t come back, I assume.
No, no. I hope he doesn’t mind the book.
We haven’t even talked about Aunt Mary and all of the incredible work, that fight – that was a fight. And then in some ways you just decided, I’m not even going to open her letters anymore. I’m not interested. I’m not interested. And she was trying… And at one point, you go back and open the letters. And this is the sister of John’s mother, who, basically – she was a racist. But then she started to try to change. And you went back and found all that evidence. And I just thought that was a really interesting almost parallel story. It wasn’t the central story, but it was a very important way of imagining a way forward in some ways.
Yeah, it was vital because there’s this growing belief, now, I see in the country through my job, that racism is just a permanent part of American life. That people can’t change. And I think I said it earlier where a gentleman told me, he says racism is embedded in our DNA. I do not believe that, because I’ve seen people change in my family in ways that I never expected. And I’ve changed in ways I never expected.
And my Aunt Mary is a prime example. When I met her, she denied that race had anything to do with her absence from the first 25 years of my life. But then we had this relationship, and she changed and she evolved. And I asked myself later, how could a woman who felt that white and black people shouldn’t grow up together, who freely told me she was ashamed at one point of having black nephews – how did she go from that to asking me to send her copies of White Fragility and To Kill A Mockingbird, and accepting me and just sending me all these beautiful letters saying that she wanted to grow as a person and she confessed to her racism? How did she change?
And I think part of it is, we go back to integration. Facts don’t change people. Relationships do. It was that relationship we had over the years, just a trial and error, getting to know one another, where she stopped being a category, a white person, and became an individual, my Aunt Mary. Just that, that ,over time.
And you became not just this black nephew, but became this important relative… So much so, that she asked you to handle her estate! Basically, she trusted you more than anyone else in the world to handle it. It’s very moving. And it’s not like, oh, and then everything’s happy. This is hard fought. All of this was hard fought – a lifetime of hard foughtness. So, this is not a simple story. It’s not an easy story. But it’s an incredibly important story. And I want to make sure that we’re not painting an easy picture, because John does not do that in this book. But he does tell a story that shows possibility.
And I’ll just say, as a gay man who’s married… I’m married! I was born in 1964. And I basically thought I’d be dead by 30 because AIDS was just the only thing that we talked about. You know what I mean? It was just, everybody was dying.
And here I have a husband, I have two kids, you know what I mean? Like, this was impossible. And people would have told you it was impossible. And yet it’s possible, and exactly for the reasons that you said: because people started to know gay people and lesbians. And right now we’re in a moment where most of the country has never seen a trans person. They have no idea what that is. And it’s just scary. And there are people invested in people being scared. And I know you know something about that from your work with race.
I do want to ask you, what can radical integration do for us right now? Because our listeners of this show know that I am sounding the alarm about Christian nationalism, about white supremacy, and really worried – especially because, in some ways, white evangelicals are carrying that flag right into the Capitol. I mean, it definitely isn’t all… In fact, there’s millions of white evangelicals who are horrified by what’s happening. But there is a potent section who are using religion to create fear and antagonism towards people who are different from themselves.
Well, as far as what radical integration can do, I think what it can do is, really, prevent this country from abandoning a democracy. I really think when we talk about integration, it’s not just a moral call to say, this is what we should do because of morality. I think we need to do it for survival if we’re going to remain a democracy.
And I’ll tell a quick story. Bill Moyers, who was once the White House press secretary, said that LBJ said, President Lyndon Johnson said, that the opposite of integration is not desegregation, but disintegration – a nation unraveling. Now, when you look at what’s happening in the country today, the white supremacist violence, the mass shootings, the January 6th insurrection, just the fear. I have people now say, I don’t even want to live in this country. So much of this is so because we live so in separate worlds.
We have to find ways where we’re living together, going to communities of worship together, sending our children to school together. If we don’t do it, the nation is going to unravel.
And one of the best ways we can do this, and I talk about this in the book, is kind of like a paradox. If we get together people to talk about race and these issues, that can have some limited impact. But one of the best things you can do is to get together for people in a common purpose that goes beyond race. I talk about this thing called contact theory. For example, if we created a national service program, we tell young Americans, we’ll pay for four years of college. But once you get out of college, you give us two years on a national program to do something to make this country better. They will go there, they will meet people of different races, different sexual orientations, different religions. That will do a tremendous amount to create tolerance. And that’s what the military does. So I think we have to also create possibilities, programs like that with different types of people together. Because if we don’t do it, every day is going to seem like January 6th.
I think that’s right. I wrestle with this because I’ve done a lot of bridge building work as well and I believe in it; and I think right now, people of goodwill from diverse religious traditions, diverse racial backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds – we need to band together. We need to cast a vision for a future of a democracy that includes everyone and recognize that some people are just fighting the exact opposite battle. We have to recognize that that’s a reality. We have to come together to inoculate, in some ways, this country and neutralize this attack that is coming. It really is. They’ve already shown they will be violent.
But one statistic I wanted to ask you about. So I had this fellow by the name of Eric Ward, who’s just a wonderful guy, if you ever get a chance to research him or interview him. He’s at a place called Race Forward. And he, on the show, he said, you know what, the majority of Americans actually post-the Civil Rights Movement believe that we should become a multiracial country. And the other statistic that I offered him is the same is true for multireligious, that the majority, it’s like maybe 70%, believe in that vision.
But there are a very potent organized minority, which is driven by fear and a sense of the clock running out. And that’s what Trump is talking about when he’s like, I’m your last hope, I’m your last hope. That’s what he’s talking about. And I do feel like the American public is on the side of integration. We have to get involved in doing it. And so, I’m just wondering what you think about that. How do you understand the demographic change and all that we’re confronted with.
Yeah, I agree with you that most Americans want this multiracial, multireligious democracy to work and they believe in it. But I do also know, as someone who’s covered race, that you can ask that question in a survey in an abstract level, a lot of white Americans will say yes. But if black people start moving into their neighborhood and it goes past a certain ratio, they move out – and vice versa.
And what I say is that if we’re going to have this multiracial democracy that’s going to work, multi-religious democracy that works, we have to convince enough white Americans that it’s in their self-interest to do so; that the country will be better. We will be more competitive, we will be able to stand up to China and to Russia, when you see this vigorous democracy that attracts the brightest people from around the world who want to come here. And when you look at, for example, the demographics, the 18 and under group for Americans is the most diverse in our country’s history. Whether you like it or not, the future is going to be browner. So if you want these kids to grow up to pay into Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the social safety net; if you want them to be competitive – we have to treat them better. We can’t separate from them. So I think one of the best ways you can appeal to groups is to stress self-interest. And it’s in our interest.
There was an editorial from the Washington Post that I read, and it says, we either embrace diversity in this country, or we embrace decline. As simple as that.
It’s analogous to the quote that you mentioned from Bill Moyers – well, LBJ – but, absolutely. John Blake, it has been amazing to talk to you, and thank you so much for this really fantastic book.
John Blake is an award-winning CNN journalist focusing on religion, race, and politics. His just-published memoir is More Than I Imagined: What a Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew.
Thank you so much for being on this show with us!
Thank you, Paul.
Last June, a broad coalition of faith organizations joined Interfaith Alliance in launching Faith for Pride, a celebration of the inclusivity most faith groups and congregations offer towards LGBTQ persons. But unfortunately, the loudest voices in our public square continue to shout the exact opposite. With June traditionally designated as Pride Month, Faith for Pride is back and expected to be bigger than ever. And I’m joined in the studio by Maureen O’Leary, Interfaith Alliance Director of Field and Organizing.
Maureen, welcome back to State of Belief Radio.
Maureen O’Leary, Guest:
Hi, always great to be here!
Yay, Maureen! Thank you, already, for all the great work you’re doing on this. It’s so exciting and so necessary. So, first of all, let’s take a step back. What is Faith for Pride?
Faith for Pride is a month-long effort to engage congregations and religious communities and other people of faith across the country to use Pride Month, to, this Pride Month, stand up in support of our LGBTQ friends, family, and neighbors. This is about pushing back against anti-LGBTQ legislation. This is about fighting against anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and preparing ourselves to go from Pride Month on into the rest of the year to really stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ neighbors.
Wonderful. As someone who has celebrated Pride for a long time in New York, and a lot of it is like, hey, dancing floats and wonderful. What I feel like this year, we’re recognizing the urgency of what’s happening.
The origin story of Pride Month, of course, is the Stonewall riots in 1969. That’s why Pride Month was started. It feels like we’re back in that moment where we have to have an attitude of inclusion, welcome, joy, but also insistence of standing up for our rights. And religious people have a specific obligation to do that. I think that’s part of the reason we’re involved in this effort.
Yeah, I mean, across the country, we have 500 plus anti-LGBTQ pieces of legislation moving at the state level. You know, these will limit access to health care for LGBTQ people. This will limit trans youth from participating in sports. Now is the time for faith communities to fight back.
All too often, it’s Christian nationalism that’s used to really push these bills through state legislatures. But we know that according to PRRI polling, 69% of people of faith support non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people.
It’s so important to hammer home that statistic, that we’re actually not in the minority; we’re in the majority, and we have to act like that and say, no, you do not represent us.
A lot of people have felt hurt by religious organizations, and they are surprised, sometimes, to even hear about efforts like this. But as someone myself who’s both gay and a Christian, when I went into a faith community and they welcomed me as my whole person, it changed me. I was like, oh, this is life-giving, being my whole self. I don’t have to leave anything behind.
And I think faith communities have a real opportunity to show up and say, we are with you and we will stand by you, and we will be part of the force that fights back against laws that are targeting you, targeting families. I mean, it’s really, really important. If we think of faith and freedom, I was at the family equality dinner a couple nights ago. They said, family, freedom, and love. And who doesn’t want to be for that? But unfortunately, in a lot of places, families are being separated because parents can’t care for their children, is the way they feel like.
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty. What is, actually, Faith for Pride and how can people get involved?
We’re asking for religious communities, whether it’s a congregation or a faith group, no matter where you are across the country, to host events. Whether that looks like an online book club, whether that looks like dedicating a religious service to really focus on LGBTQ rights. We’re asking people to show up, whether that’s in person or online, for equality this June.
We’re also asking for organizations, whether you are a faith group, you work in the LGBTQ space, no matter who you are, to co-sponsor this event. Sign up, raise your voice as an organization to say, these are the values we stand for. We overwhelm the Christian nationalist minority that is pushing these bills, and we are stronger together when we fight back.
Absolutely. So how does someone find out about this organizing effort and sign up?
Go to www.faithforapride.org. You’ll find a map of events across the country. You can register your events so folks know what’s happening. You can sign up as a co-sponsor and also explore our library of resources. We are continuing to roll out Faith for Pride specific resources to help interfaith leaders engage in this effort. You know, we want to make this easy and accessible for people so that we are limiting barriers to mobilization, because that’s what we’re all about.
So Faith for Pride is Faith-F-O-R-Pride, or for the numeral?
For, F-O-R, so FaithFOR.org.
Okay, okay, good, good, good. I want people to find it.
The resources that we are putting together, Interfaith Alliance is not doing this alone. We’re in coalition with some other groups, including Anti-Defamation League, including…
Yeah, ADL, Keshet, the RAC, we are in such wonderful community. URI of North America…
United Religions Initiative.
We have such a diverse, multi-faith, multi-group coalition that is coalescing around this event, and we want people to be a part of it. This is an invitation to get involved.
And don’t think you have to be an expert. That’s the thing: none of our work is about experts doing expert things. It’s about people showing up for one another.
So go on the website, see what you can do. You can hold something really modest; but for some people in your community, for your organization, your congregation, your spiritual group to say, hey, we’re doing something specifically, outreach for the LGBTQ people in our congregation or in our neighborhood. Literally we’re saving lives, we’re expanding what community can mean, and we’re also just fighting back against this terrible rhetoric. I mean it is so demeaning, so demonizing; and it’s kind of surprising, I have to say, to find ourselves here. This has been a well-coordinated, top-down attack on LGBT rights that is showing up in statehouses across the country. It’s not grassroots movement.
Yeah, they’re coordinated. You know, it’s coming from the national level, trickling down into statehouses. And I’m glad you brought up kids, because it’s kids that stand to suffer the most, right? We know that they’re going after trans youth specifically. And when could a time be more critical to enable and empower a young person to explore their identity in a way that is safe? I cannot emphasize enough that this is about saving lives. You know, trans kids, LGBTQ kids, need us to carry this fight so that the next generation can grow up in a safer, more inclusive environment than they are right now.
Just to expand it into another area, which is so crazy that we have to talk about this, but banning any books that have any mention of LGBTQ families, LGBTQ characters – it’s an erasure of a whole part of our society. and it’s all done – this is what really drives me nuts – in name of protecting the children! And yet it’s parents whose children – maybe trans, maybe queer in some way, or families like mine that have two dads, two moms, or single moms. It’s not protecting children, to erase that opportunity for people to see themselves reflected.
We’ve had people on this show who are fighting to be able to care for their trans son. I’m thinking of Maharat Rori, who’s in Missouri. This is a serious Jewish leader who’s trying to care for her trans son, and we don’t know but she may have to leave the state in order to care for her family. This is anti-family, it’s anti-faith, and it’s anti-freedom. And so we have to fight back and we have to organize. And faith communities have done this forever. And people forget, actually, a lot of the organizing that was done in early years of LGBTQ rights was done, actually, in church basements, in synagogue basements, P-Flag was formed. So this is not outside of what we do. We’re not trying to introduce something crazy. We’re saying let’s live up to our promise to love our neighbor and our promise to show up for one another in an interfaith, intergenerational and inclusive way.
It can feel so hopeless. It can feel so paralyzing that this legislation is moving across the country; but I can’t emphasize enough that we are the faithful majority. We represent the overwhelming moral voice of people of faith in America, and if we are able to join together, to put out that proactive positive message that says hate has no place here, we stand with LGBTQ, our friends, our neighbors, our family that need our solidarity in this moment – we will win! You know, we will win. It may take some time. It may feel exhausting and impossible, but we are in such strong community with people of faith across the country.
And the other thing that… We talk a lot about freedom of religion, and freedom of religion has been totally distorted. But freedom of religion also means freedom in our communities to show up for LGBTQ people, for people of faith to care for their children in the way that their faith leads them to, which is a freedom issue. This is also a freedom of religion issue. And so I think it’s really important for us to claim that and not shy away from it, for those of us for whom that language is really important.
Okay, so here’s the deal. Faith for Pride. And Maureen, I want to say to everyone listening, Maureen O’Leary is amazing, and she is organizing this with great partners around the country. Maureen is your friend. If you have a question, we want to be responsive. FaithforPride.org. Come on, y’all. And let’s do this. Let’s sign up your congregation. And even if you’re already doing something, register it, so we can have this map filled with great glowing fabulous dots that show that people are showing up across the country.
So, Maureen, any last words to help inspire and invite people into this movement?
This movement is about motivating people at whatever level of advocacy you come with. You don’t have to be an expert. This can be your first time dipping your toes into speaking out on these issues. You are still part of this community. You are still part of this movement. All you’ve got to do is take that first step.
And that first step is going to faithforpride.org. Join us.
Maureen O’Leary, thank you so much for being such a great colleague and for all the work you’re doing on this important effort.
It’s a pleasure. Thanks so much.
And with that, I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for this week’s show. We need your help keeping State of Belief on the air. I hope you’ll consider being a partner in this crucial work by making a financial contribution today. Information on how to donate is available at stateofbelief.com, that’s stateofbelief.com. And you can also be part of making sure that informative and encouraging voices like these are heard by sharing this program with family and friends. Let’s get more people listening and more people taking part in these conversations, both on and off the air.
Never miss an episode by subscribing to the weekly State of Belief podcast on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast platform. And join the conversation. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @StateofBelief and share State of Belief with the people in your life. State of Belief is produced by Ray Kirstein and is a production of Interfaith Alliance. Become a member today at interfaithalliance.org and be sure to join us next week. I can’t wait. Until then, I’m Paul Raushenbush on the State of Belief, where religion and democracy meet.