The Witness Is Building a Community for Christian Outsiders
Black Christians found a home in a Facebook group. Now that online community is coming together in Chicago.
On Jemar Tisby’s previous interview with The Calling, he spoke of the moment he launched a Facebook group for what he then called the Reformed African American Network. That group has since experienced explosive growth, expanding into a publishing platform, a podcast network, and a nation-wide tour. With a new name, they continue to focus on centering black voices and providing spaces for those who feel like outsiders in mainstream Christian spaces.
We spoke to The Witness President, Jemar Tisby, and Creative Director, Aadam Keeley, about the challenges of creating a safe space that is also open to all.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The full interview is available to listen to above.
Is there a particular place that you guys have felt the most known or understood?
Jemar Tisby: You know, it's going to sound weird to a lot of people, but moving down south for me has been an extended pilgrimage. I was always cognizant of racial dynamics—being a black man in America—but it wasn't until I moved down south that I really started to get a sense of the history.
One of the things that is tricky is not to exceptionalize the South particularly for race. There's racism everywhere—really everywhere—across the country. I don't think the South stands out for that, but I do think what is different for me has been the physicality of it and the geography of it. When I'm teaching Sunday School, James Meredith, the first black person to integrate the University of Mississippi, is sitting in my Sunday School class. Or, my commute to the University of Mississippi is literally through cotton fields, which as we speak right now are blooming. How can you not think of that history?
Even beyond race, I think what living in the south—the deepest of the South, the Delta—has taught me is, in many ways, this place is a microcosm of the nation as a whole. What I see here, I see is played out in different ways across the nation—politically, religiously, culturally. I've constantly felt out of place not being from here, but at the same time, it's a place that's helped me understand other places.
In the Delta, both on the Mississippi side and the Arkansas side, it’s got the highest concentration of black people in either state. So, in a sense, racially I feel very at home because my town is 75% black. When I lived in Jackson that was 80% black. When I go to some other places, like driving through Missouri or parts of Illinois, there are fewer people of color there, and so that's a little bit stark for me.
Aadam Keeley: Moving to Chicago for college and plugging into the comedy scene, I realized Oh, I have a tribe of people that are cut from a similar cloth. I hadn’t really experienced that. I think being a comedian is to be a very specific type of person.
And the second part, coincidentally, is just being a part of The Witness team. I became a part of The Witness team to work on a tour. We were in D.C. at that time, and we were all sitting around talking about our journeys of faith and our upbringings. It was such a healing moment for me.
When you feel alone in your faith journey, it's tough to keep going because you feel like no one can understand you. What is the importance of our faith if it isn’t to be understood? That’s a goal. So that was a really important, healing night that changed the trajectory of how I moved artistically and professionally.
In what sense did you feel alone in your faith journey?
Aadam Keeley: I grew up in a Southern Baptist context, very evangelical. I went to a very evangelical university. I was in a megachurch. I saw that a lot of the pillars—the manmade pillars—of my faith didn’t have my back. So, to talk to people who were on the same journey—from different seats, but on the exact same journey at the exact same time—was really refreshing.
Neither of you answered that first question with “church.” Why is that?
Jemar Tisby: We're only a couple of generations into integration—legal integration. It was the late 60s, even into the 70s, when a lot of the big, flagship white churches wouldn't even allow black members. That's within people's lifetimes who are still breathing today.
But we have grown up in a society where certain forms of legal, racial segregation are no longer the rule of the day. And there's increasing numbers of us—black Christians, I mean—who have been in predominantly white spaces, including church settings similar to Aadam.
I didn't grow up Christian, but when I became a Christian, I found myself in a lot of white Evangelical settings. There are some really good things about it: some lifelong friends that I've made, some really foundational spiritual truths that I've learned. But at the same time, there was always a racial and cultural gap. That all came to a head in the 2010s. First Trayvon Martin, then Mike Brown and Black Lives Matter. These human beings become hashtags, the 2016 election, Charlottesville, The Emmanuel Nine, you name it.
That highlighted for the entire nation, but also for the church, the racial divisions that have always been there. It brought them back to the surface more starkly in a way you couldn't ignore and revealed just how big that gap was. So, in the past few years especially, the church unfortunately has been a place of pain and mistrust and difficulty for me and I think a lot of others.
Aadam Keeley: One thing Jemar just said is really important. A lot of times when people hear these conversations, they think there was all of this secret animosity the whole time. But there wasn't. That’s why there is so much pain coming from black Christians. Because it was all good until this other part of us needed addressing.
And that's an infinitely more heartbreaking story.
Aadam Keeley: Right.
Jemar Tisby: There's a whole lot of misconceptions out there. A certain type of person listens to a discussion like this and says, “Well you should have known. You were around white evangelicals. Of course, this is how they were going to respond when you know racial tensions flared.” And there's definitely a point to that. If you look at the history, it would certainly indicate a lack of understanding rather than an abundance of understanding.
But it's also important to bear in mind that white Christians were making sincere overtures at racial reconciliation, integration, equality, all of those things. And I don't think it was duplicitous. I don't think people said one thing and meant another. What happened is they didn't realize what it took.
Jemar, the last time I had you on The Calling, you talked about your finger hovering over the Facebook group creation button, and you were thinking, What is this going to do to my life?
The reason that haunted me, and I even related with you in that moment, was that it reminds me of the seemingly low stakes involved. Creating a Facebook group can become this thing that completely changed the course of your life and many other lives.
Jemar, how did that Facebook group sort of defy your expectations? How did it delight you? And then in what ways did it disappoint you?
Jemar Tisby: We started with a public Facebook page, which we still have, but we had to create a private Facebook page based on our podcast Pass the Mic. We screened all of the members—even though now it's up to several thousand people—because, when you're out on the public page, any troll could hop in and completely derail a comment, thread, or a thought. Now we have this private Facebook group where we try to see, “Are you in here just to troll or do you really want to learn?”
Jemar Tisby: Aadam, you cued up this conference that we're doing—The Joy and Justice Conference—when you were talking about interacting with the team and how it felt like a community where you can breathe again, where you feel safe, right? Where you find some kindred spirits.
That’s the whole vibe of this conference. There are a lot of people out there—black, white, and across the racial and ethnic spectrum—who are feeling a sense of alienation from the faith communities that they know.
Campbell Robertson of the New York Times had this great article called “A Quiet Exodus” about black Christians quietly leaving their predominantly white churches over, particularly, the 2016 election. That's not just Black people. That's people of all different races and ethnicities, I’ve found.
So, there's been this quiet exodus, or that's still happening, but now there's the wilderness wandering. A lot of us feel lost; we're looking for a community. We’re in between. And this gathering is an opportunity to come together in a space where there are people with similar experiences and similar mindsets.
And I think it will feel safe for people. This is going to be a conference where you can actually just put your guard down and sit back in the seat and be filled. You can also contribute in other ways: be a support to other people, and go there without feeling like you need to cringe at every other speaker. It can be a place of healing for people.
The elephant in the room here is that you're talking to a predominantly white audience right now. They're probably asking a lot of questions right, like: Is this conference something I would enjoy? Is this a conference I'm supposed to go to? If I am, what’s my posture supposed to look like?
Those are questions I'm interested in you guys addressing because I'm included in that audience.
There's a tension, right, between creating a safe space and then creating a space that is open to a broader and more varied audience?
Aadam Keeley: First of all, everyone is welcome. We are Christians first and foremost. We're all created in the image of God. There's not a space that everybody is not welcome.
Kumail Nanjiani, the actor and comedian, had a quote about movies becoming more diverse where people said, “Well, I can't relate to them.” And he said, “Every person of color since the beginning of film has related to movies.” I was a young black kid from South Florida and I wanted to be Ferris Bueller and Zach Morris. And it's healthy to begin to build that muscle to reverse that.
The question in and of itself is a part of the problem. Like why do we feel like if this space isn't predominantly one way—if it's a minority group—that means you can’t go? It's just a recentering—a shifting of what the center is. And as we begin to build up that muscle, the more you do it and expose yourself to it, the more comfortable you get with it.
Jemar Tisby: We've always said “specific” does not mean “exclusive.” We are “The Witness: A Black Christian Collective.” We have a specific audience in mind as we record podcasts, as we select blog post topics, and as we put together a conference. All of our speakers, so far, are black. That's somewhat purposeful. We want to make sure that we're hearing from people in our racial and cultural communities that we don't always get a chance to hear from. And we are hoping and praying for a plurality of black people.
But even conferences or events that are put on by and for black people get outnumbered by white people in terms of the constituency. So, we're working really hard to make sure black people know about this conference and can come because as we plan the topics and invite the speakers, we have black people in mind.
What I would say to somebody who's not black and not sure if they can come: you can come. Absolutely. And when you come, be prepared not to be the center. There may be songs, vernacular, illustrations, and traditions you're not familiar with. All I can say is, “Welcome to the club,” because black people do that every day.
We are trying to make this a place where black people are not retraumatized. That's high on our priority list, which may feel different for somebody who's not black.
If you are not sure you want to come, or you just can't logistically, then donate. Support. One of the realities of being a black-led organization is that we don't have access to the institutions that have money, whether that's the big historic churches or the large, Christian non-profits. That’s one of the many effects passed down to us from race-based chattel slavery. Black people haven't been able to build institutional and generational wealth like other institutions. If you think this sounds helpful for the church, then you can always visit JoyandJustice.com and give a financial contribution.
I'm curious what lessons you've learned from the Facebook group that you're now getting to apply directly to this conference.
Aadam Keeley: There’s this idea of highlighting the joy in this whole journey. Everything in the beginning of the group was informational and serious–deep dives. If you look in the group now, it's people posting stuff to cut up with each other. That has always been a part of a survival technique of being black in America—having these moments of joyous reprieve.
I'm really excited and working very hard on presenting some of the elements of the black experience, what it means to be a black person in general and a Black Christian specifically, through different mediums.
Jemar Tisby: The reason it’s joy and justice is there's been this turn from talk about racial reconciliation to more talk about racial justice. There are conferences, books, and conversations on that, which are all really valuable and needed. But that tends to be where the conversation stays and we don't get to the joy version, the cultural creation version.
We consider joy to be freedom, which would be the freedom to express the range of emotions common to the human experience. So, if you need to weep, if you need to mourn, if you need to just sit in silence and sort of take it all in—there's space for that.
My hope and prayer is that people leave this conference with a sense of catharsis. Whatever they had inside them that they feel they couldn't let out before, they can let it out there. It's this feeling of being empty—but it’s satisfied emptiness. It’s full emptiness.
I want to talk about your hopes and dreams for The Witness. What do you want The Witness to look like in ten to twenty years?
Adam Keeley: In my heart, I see The Witness in the way that I see National Geographic. A body of work—written, TV shows, documentaries—that are giving history, elucidating theology, and reconciling people to the image of God and to each other. Doing a great work that shows the black experience as Christians through various media platforms.
Jemar Tisby: One of the things I continue to want to be true of The Witness is that we leave a record. As a student of history, it's all about the sources, being able to go back in history and find the writings, events, and individuals who were standing up for justice. Should the Lord tarry 50 years from now, I want historians to be able to look back at The Witness, our blog and podcast and events, to get a snapshot of what black Christians in the 21st century were thinking about and how they were talking about racial injustice and Christian identity.
It feels weird, but probably this is the most I've ever talked about money as it relates to The Witness because we did this thing from 2011 up until now with no revenue. God has had to crush my pride in planning this conference and humble me to ask for support—financial support—and I hate doing that. But, at the same time, what we've been able to do with nothing compared to what we've been able to do with just a little money is breathtaking.
What I'm hoping for in the next several years is a budget. If we had a six-figure budget, my goodness the content we could produce, the voice we could be, the changes we could make. On a national level we could present the reality that there is more to Christianity than an ultraconservative, white, evangelical form. There's more to Christianity than the Jerry Falwells and the Franklin Grahams.
We need to produce scholarship. We need to be writing books. We need to continue to gather and assemble and get people together in person so that they get a taste of this community. We need to mobilize politically, and I'm not talking about partisan politically. But I do mean politically. Voting rights is a huge issue that Christians of any sort of partisan leaning should be able to get behind. Criminal justice reform is a massively pressing issue. All of these things that should be part of what it means when we pray the prayer, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
What I'm thinking is, How can The Witness, given our composition and our identity best serve the cause of justice, particularly in terms of racist policies and changing those? That's a conversation that needs to be fleshed out. But the next step would be getting all the right people in the room and having that conversation.
This special episode of The Calling is brought to you by CT Creative Studio in partnership with The Witness’s Joy and Justice Conference, taking place October 4-5 in Chicago, IL. For more information, go to joyandjustice.com.