Justice & Jubilee
This past weekend, something new was born. A green shoot poked its head out of the West Virginia soil from a seed that has been germinating for a long time. That shoot is called Justice & Jubilee.
A life turned upside down
Three years ago, in 2019, I went to the Wild Goose Festival for the first time. It came highly recommended, and I went with two things: absolutely no expectations and a great camping buddy (named Joe Webb).
It turned my life upside down.
I’m from southern California, and from a young age I was reared in the Church on acts of service and systemic resistance in a multi-cultural society that I absolutely took for granted. I hippie’d out in college, followed by a move to the South for seminary where I learned just how atypical my church experience was.
Once I began serving churches in West Virginia I quickly learned that to be effective in ministry in Appalachian small towns I had to compartmentalize parts of myself in order to be relatable to my parishioners, since outsiders are often suspect.
The Wild Goose Festival was the first place that I had not personally curated where all the parts of myself were fully integrated…and welcomed: the pastor who likes to drink beer and sing hymns, whose t-shirts have swear words on them, and who loves a good drum circle as much as good preaching. I felt comfortable in my skin, which was probably a pre-condition for this particular step in my radicalization.
Because of the preaching and conversations at that festival (and some pretty amazing music) I didn’t go back to West Virginia the same pastor. I was finally troubled enough with my compartmentalization to be wholly unsettled at my silence in the face of injustice. It was in that space that the first ideas about Justice & Jubilee formed.
When I was invited to publicly advocate with other faith leaders for LGTBQ+ civil rights during our State’s Legislative Session in winter 2020, part of me was scared shitless (because what would my congregation think?) and part of me came alive. Soon thereafter, the new-to-me and weirdly fruitful online ministry that our congregation offered during pandemic rounded out my vision of what could happen in West Virginia…a movement of people who would speak truth to power and act for social change.
The sound of silence
Christianity has failed spectacularly in West Virginia’s public square. The loudest religious voices demand that governing bodies act according to their specific doctrine—even using words like “sin” and “salvation” in formal documents addressed to legislators—on the assumption that all legislators ascribe to their belief system. Their demands are an expression of the white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity which permeate their coercive colonial theology.
Their voices dominate public discourse because the rest of us have let them. We have refrained from entering the conversations, too afraid to speak, fearing the potential backlash from people in our circles and churches. Sadly, our cowardice is sanctified by faith traditions which value niceness over truth-telling and elevate false peace over the discomfort of disrupting the status quo, which always favors the oppressor.
The Church has either spoken arrogantly and hatefully or not at all. I’m not sure which is the bigger failure.
One is the loneliest number
Why haven’t these silent Christians spoken up?
Geographic isolation in West Virginia is real. Small towns dot our hills and hollers, and while they may be more accessible than they were 100 years ago, they often tend to keep unto themselves, having developed distinct identities and practices.
Spiritual isolation is also a barrier. Even mainline denominations with connectional structures have a congregationalist flavor, meaning that our view of the world is often more determined by our local church than the commitments of larger religious bodies.
One time when a group of queer-affirming colleagues came together to study materials pertinent to a major denominational decision about inclusion, a well-respected and well-connected colleague older than myself was so grateful to have been invited to the conversation. He had no idea that there were other affirming clergy in our state. “I thought I was the only one,” he said. I was floored.
A few months later a friend and I identified over 100 queer-affirming clergy in WV in our denomination alone.
The isolation is real.
Justice-oriented Christians need others to stand with them, to encourage, support, and embolden them to speak and act for liberation.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus says, “I am with them.” This Scripture is almost always taken out of context. Jesus gives this assurance in the midst of instructions to engage in a really difficult practice: directly addressing someone who has harmed you or the community. We are more likely to engage injustice with others than if we are left to do it on our own.
We are building power for change
In the pandemic I saw the power of online ministry for overcoming the paralysis engendered by isolation, and I recognized that we could harness it for the work of collective liberation in our state.
Thus, the final piece of Justice & Jubilee fell into place.
Justice & Jubilee fosters relationships and provides resources for people who want to do the work. It’s born in West Virginia and rooted in progressive Christianity, but not everyone involved identifies as Christian…and we love that!
We air a weekly Message & Music Sundays at 5 pm Eastern on our YouTube channel with a chat in real-time, followed by a Zoom hangout for those who want to meet like-minded folx. You can also view the video asynchronously on your own time. We’ll offer online small groups, short-term topical classes to inform us to better speak and act on matters of injustice, training for community organizing, and a platform for action.
We’re also partnering with the good folks here at Accidental Tomatoes to share our blog and podcast with J&J followers. People can participate in as much or as little of these offerings as you want.
Our hope is that we can cultivate moral courage informed by, and reinforced by, faith.
What’s in a name
We use the words “justice” and “jubilee” to indicate that we will follow the call of Jesus and the prophets to stand with historically excluded people in our society and in the Church, working together for liberation.
We are moving together beyond practices of charity, which are often based in a power-differential, to practices of solidarity with people who are the most vulnerable in our society. This means that we’ll take our cues for action from people who are part of impacted populations. For people of privilege this requires a lot of learning and unlearning.
We draw courage from one another to do this work, to screw up in the process, and to keep on for the long haul.
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)
Rev. Jenny Williams (she/her) is an ordained United Methodist pastor who believes the Church needs to reclaim her prophetic witness by speaking into issues of injustice and walking with people marginalized by Empire. She currently serves at the Faith Organizer for the ACLU of WV. Read more of Jenny’s work here.