In Service of Love and Justice in the Black Church: A Conversation with Dr. Jacqueline Rivers
The Fetzer Institute recently had the privilege of speaking with partner Dr. Jacqueline Rivers, the executive director of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies, which focuses on exploring the relationship between religion, particularly within the Black church tradition, and public life. Collaborating with ecumenical Black church leaders, Dr. Rivers advocates for a civic love ethic inspired by Dr. King, that transcends political binaries. Dr. Rivers is a lecturer at Harvard and prominent scholar at Notre Dame and Baylor. In these roles, she has helped reshape the narrative around religious freedom and racial justice, highlighting their synergies.
Fetzer Institute (FI): Could you share your journey of faith formation and its influence on your commitment to civic life and political communities?
Dr. Jacqueline Rivers (JR): I became a Christian at the age of 19, a transformational moment in my life. Before that, growing up in Jamaica, I was not particularly concerned with issues of poverty or social justice. My faith altered my perspective completely. I realized that encountering Christ was revolutionary and should change every aspect of my life. In 2026, it will be 50 years since I've been a Christian.
When I came to Harvard, I met Reverend Eugene Rivers. At that time, he wasn't a reverend, and we weren't yet married. However, we shared a strong commitment to helping the poor through our faith. Even as undergraduates, we founded the Seymour Society, a student group focused on serving impoverished communities. Our approach combined intellectual discussions of theological and philosophical issues affecting the poor with direct service in underserved neighborhoods.
We would gather on Saturday mornings to discuss works like Hans Kung's Does God Exist? and Jose Miranda's Marx and the Bible. Following these discussions, we would head into impoverished Black neighborhoods to distribute food to those in need. This dual approach of serving the poor and engaging deeply with faith-based perspectives on poverty was highly complementary.
This marked a significant shift from simple social service to a more profound involvement with social justice. We began to ask ourselves, "How can we promote greater justice, especially within the Black community and among the less privileged?" After graduating from Harvard, we made the deliberate choice to live in a disadvantaged Black neighborhood, believing that our calling was to serve God by serving the community. This journey has profoundly shaped my faith and my commitment to fostering healthy civic and political communities.
FI: Are there spiritual touchstones from the Black Church that shaped your civic commitments and formation?
JR: Absolutely. One scripture that deeply influenced my commitment to justice is Luke 4:18.
The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.
This verse served as a guiding principle as we established our Christian community in an area grappling with poverty and crime. Our goal was to truly immerse ourselves in the community, understand its needs, and provide practical assistance. We aimed to offer not just a spiritual home but a physical one, addressing material needs as a means to introduce them to Jesus.
This approach aligns with the historical role of the Black Church, which has been a spiritual, economic, social, and political anchor for the Black community. Since the days of slavery, it has provided a sanctuary and a platform for Black people to unite against racial oppression, support one another through mutual aid societies, and develop vital practical and civic skills when excluded from wider society. This enduring role of the Black Church was substantiated by a study led by Ram Cnaan at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 2000s. The study revealed that Black congregations in Philadelphia, despite their smaller and less affluent congregations compared to white churches, were proportionally contributing more to the social and civic well-being of their communities, with services valued at $90 million annually at the time. The Black Church's significance has remained central since its inception.
FI: Can you discuss the interconnections and the distinctions between social service and social justice within the Black Church?
JR: The Black Church has long recognized the difference between social service and social justice. Social service involves helping the poor, feeding the hungry, and assisting those in need. On the other hand, social justice focuses on creating a more equitable society. This distinction has been a core aspect of the Black Church's mission since its inception.
The Black Church has historically played a prophetic role in organizing voting rights and voter registration drives, serving as a platform for political discussions, and contributing to movements like the Civil Rights Movement. It was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, not just Martin Luther, King, Junior, even though he was truly an inspiring leader. But it was an organization. There was an institution that was a vehicle for his work, and it also brought in other clergy and spread the movement to other cities. So, it's always been very important that we're not just doing social service, but we're also working for social justice.
FI: How do you view the alignment of faith and politics within the context of the Black Church, and the challenges posed by a secular, binary political landscape?
JR: Unfortunately, some Christians, including within the Black Church, have placed their political allegiances ahead of their spiritual beliefs. This can be observed in the passionate support of some white Evangelicals for their unconditional alignment with the Republican Party platform. The critical question is whether they prioritize their political party’s worldview over their faith-based worldview.
Likewise, Black Christians, who predominantly vote Democrat, face similar scrutiny. The challenge, for Christians, lies in remaining faithful to the Gospel while supporting policies that align with principles of racial, economic, and environmental justice.
As Christian, our allegiance should primarily be to the Gospel. We stand with Democrats or Republicans when their positions align with the Gospel's values, rather than molding our beliefs to fit any party’s agenda. I believe these principles are true for people of other faith traditions, as well. Are we privileging political party platforms, or any other framing ideologies, over the sacred animating beliefs of our faith traditions?
Additionally, it's essential for us to embody love, not just justice. We must engage with those we strongly disagree with in a loving manner. The example of Robbie George and Cornel West, despite their opposing political views, demonstrates the importance of respecting and listening to each other. As people of faith, this is urgent because it offers a way out of polarization in our society.
FI: How is love lived out in our civic lives and political communities?
JR: I believe it's crucial for us to understand that love isn't just about warm, fuzzy feelings, although those are delightful. It's about practicing agape love, where we prioritize the interests of others above our own. This is especially true in our civic communities. We can seek out civic programs and policy-shaping research that align with Cornel West’s principle, "justice is love in public."
FI: The Fetzer Institute is interested in spiritually guided solutions that transform our political communities and public policies. What role do you see faith-based leaders and organizations playing in shaping policies for justice and social well-being?
JR: Crafting effective public policy demands data-driven precision. Faith-based leaders play a crucial role in advocating for policy changes and guiding their meticulous implementation by legislators.
Consider the case of mass incarceration in the US. While progress has been made in reducing prison populations, it's a slow process that often leaves individuals with criminal records, limiting their future opportunities. Here, diversion programs prove valuable by intervening effectively to steer young individuals away from criminal paths.
My research, supported by Fetzer, focuses on evaluating the social service programs of Boston's Black churches and their capacity. Identifying congregations with potential resources can bridge gaps with additional funding, facilitating program development and ensuring a positive impact.
These successful programs serve dual purposes, benefiting both society and politics. They contribute to healthier communities and influence policy formation. The Black Church, grounded in holistic principles, is uniquely suited to connect small-scale trials to effective policies. Collaboration across faiths and political perspectives is essential in addressing issues like mass incarceration and criminal justice reform, demonstrating the potential for diverse groups to unite around common objectives.
FI: I'm curious about the connection between the civic engagement work you and so many other Black faith leaders do and your notion of “enacted religious freedom.” What is it, and why is it important to help bridge the gaps between White-church dominant religious freedom advocates and Black-church dominant racial justice advocates?
JR: You've highlighted an important gap we're working to bridge. On one hand, the White Church often doesn't acknowledge the moral authority of the Black Church in discussions of religious freedom. On the other hand, the Black Church has, for a long time, embodied religious freedom while not actively engaging in the broader conversation about it.
Our goal, demonstrated through activities like the very recent Black Church and Religious Freedom Conference held at Notre Dame’s Law School, is to raise key issues important to the Black Church, like racial justice and the teaching of racial history in public schools, and view them through the lens of religious freedom. We want to explore how religious freedom impacts and intersects with these issues. It's essential because the Black Church may not fully recognize its own use of religious freedom, while the white Church hasn't extended its discussion of religious freedom to encompass matters crucial to the Black Church.
Many smaller, poorer Black congregations already face numerous pressing issues, making it challenging to take on additional concerns when those calling for action don't seem invested in the ongoing struggles. Therefore, it's vital for the White Church, in its pursuit of religious freedom, to embrace and genuinely care about issues that matter to the Black Church.