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Unlikely collaborators seek out their "truth in progress"
by Matt Simonette

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A straight African American minister from New Jersey and an out lesbian writer living in Montana might, on the surface, seem to have very little in common. But for several years, Rev. Gil Caldwell and Marilyn Bennett, both longtime activists, have been collaborating on a multi-media project they hope will illuminate the intersections between race, sexual orientation and religion in America.

Caldwell and Bennett will discuss their project, Truth in Progress, after a film screening at Broadway United Methodist Church, 3338 N. Broadway St., at 9:45 a.m. July 21. Caldwell will also preach that morning at the church's 8:45 and 11:00 a.m. services.

They met in Chicago in 2000; both were helping prepare for a UMC conference alongside Rev. Greg Dell. A few weeks later, they were both arrested at a civil action in Cleveland. "That was a bonding experience," Bennett said.

They began a written correspondence that helped both Caldwell and Bennett gain new insights into their activism. "As we took the layers off, we would come to more and more truth," Bennett said, adding that was how the name of their project, Truth in Progress, came about. It consists of a book, documentary film and a website. In 2012, Archbishop Desmond Tutu expressed his thoughts on the Trayvon Martin killing on the website.

"We wanted to have the information available immediately, which is the reason for the multi-media project," said Bennett. "We had written a series of letters to each other about the topic, but we knew that only a certain number of people would buy a book."

The film shows the pair travelling across the country engaging in conversation with activists, religious leaders, artists, "people on the street" and scholars. So far they have filmed at Selma, the Stonewall Inn, Montana and Texas.

A provocative question for the pair has been how to engage the right spaces and times in which to hold conversations on race and sexual orientation, and, as Bennett asked, "How can you have them in 'mixed company?'"

"It is important for people to engage in a kind of self-inventory," said Caldwell. "Conversations on race and gayness often need to take place in existing groups, where there's a trust factor. We tend to have integrated groups to look at race—white people often don't feel they can talk about it unless there are people of color present. And when people of color are present, that changes the dynamic. …In groups that are homogeneous, where you've got trust, you can just be who you are."

Both Caldwell and Bennett were careful to point out that they were not trying to illustrate equivalencies between the civil rights and gay rights movements. Instead they were looking for existing connections the two communities could draw from.

Caldwell explained, in fact, where disconnects might happen between each community's goals.

"The survival issues in the African American community—particularly within poorer communities—are such that gay rights and marriage equality becomes a secondary thing," he said. "Even though I disagree, an appreciation for that is important. That sea change in the gay community is not happening in the African American community."

One of Caldwell's mantras comes from Rev. Martin Luther King's April, 1963, letter from the Birmingham jail: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

"I live by that," Caldwell said. "I try to find myself doing in this movement what we did not do well in the civil rights movement. We were isolated. We dealt with racial injustice, but we did not address women's issues and we did not address gay issues. I find myself in this movement wanting to talk in holistic ways and one of those is talking about both racism and heterosexism."

He said that the African American community has had individual success stories, but, "Collectively, there are some real concerns. I hope there will be a real merging, that gay "power" can somehow partner with the black community."

Very often Caldwell links details from the killings of African Americans and gay men. After the shooting of Trayvon Martin, he remembered that the law commonly referred to as "the Matthew Shepard Act" is officially the "Matthew Shepard and Robert Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act," in remembrance of a black man who was dragged behind a truck, then decapitated, in Texas in 1998.

"Black identity invokes in so many non-blacks an unconscious response, and the same thing happens in terms of gay people," Caldwell said. "You wonder if it's the DNA. There's an 'ominous reality' about blackness and an 'ominous reality' about gayness for many people."

Many public responses to President Obama "emanate from a visceral anti-black, kind of place," according to Caldwell. "We haven't been able to call blackness 'blackness.' With conservatives especially, to talk about racism is racist. That's what we are seeing after the killing of Trayvon Martin—the accusations that we are the ones who made a racist issue out of it."

Bennett said that one way to sustain dialogues about equality over time is to use important events as springboards for conversation. That was a sentiment shared by Lois McCullen Parr, pastor at Broadway United Methodist Church, who's hosting Bennett and Caldwell's visit.

"That intersection of oppressions is always something we're looking at here," said Parr. "…We're working really hard here at Broadway to be an anti-racist, multi-cultural community—that is hard work for white people, to own up to privilege and power. We've been really intentional in our ministry about that."

The day after the Zimmerman verdict was handed down, Parr opened up the floor for discussion during Sunday services. "Our service lasted for two hours. I don't know how many of those conversations like that happened last week, so I'm proud of my people."

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