Interview on the Breaking the Silence Campaign

A conversation with Jamye Wooten about Breaking the Silence, a campaign designed to connect black churches to grassroots movements for social change in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Jamye Wooten, founder of KineticsLive and director of the faith-based Breaking the Silence campaign (Photo courtesy of Kineticslive.com)

UrbanFaith: Thanks for talking with UrbanFaith. What is the Breaking the Silence campaign?

Jamye Wooten: It’s our partnership with our faith leaders and Friends of the Congo to Break the Silence on the deadliest conflict in the world today. In 2012, I traveled to the East Congo with a delegation from the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference.

We were hosted by an ecumenical group that visited the United Nations during the summer. While we were there we stayed with the Kimbanguish Church – the largest African-led Congolese church. In 1921, Simon Kimbangu, the founder of the Kimbanguish Church, prophesied that there would be a black President and African-Americans would begin to return to the Congo. Most of the participants [on the delegation] had no idea about the prophecy. We were greeted by thousands in the streets and it was all over the national news. During our visit the delegation met with the president of the general assembly and Congolese women that have been victims of rape.

When I returned home, I began to organize faith leaders for our PSA campaign. I reached out to  Rev. Otis Moss, III at Trinity United Church of Christ, who had already been involved with the ongoing crisis in the Congo. KineticsLive.com has been in partnership with Trinity United Church of Christ since we launched in November 2011. We are asking communites of faith to host a screening of the film, Crisis of the Congo– a 27-minute documentary – and participate in Congo Week, October 20th – 26th, 2013. There will also be a letter writing campaign, starting in elementary school and going to high school. There is also a petition to implement the Obama law and to get Secretary of State to withhold funds from Rwanda, which is implicated in supporting the M23 [the rebels] who took over the city of Goma.

UF: Who is involved in the campaign?

Thus far, Rev. Moss [from Trinity United Church of Christ], Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Rev. Frederick Haynes [Friendship West Baptist Church], Dr. Iva Carruthers [Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference], Rev. Dr. Bernice Powell Jackson [World Council of Churches], Rev. Raphael Warnock [Ebenezer Baptist Church], Min. Danielle Ayers [Minister of Social Justice, Friendship West Baptist], Rahiel Tesfamariam [UrbanCusp.com], Dr. Allan Boesak [Anti-apartheid activist] and Rev. Patrick Young, who was also a member of the delegation, have done public service announcements. Rev. Johnathan Weaver from Greater Mount Nebo AME Church, who just returned from the Congo, has been a great supporter of our effort as well. Other members of the delegation including, Minister Tiauna Boyd, Dr. Lewis Tate, Dr. Willie Gable and Shannel Oliver are committed to justice in the Congo.

UF: Can you tell us a little bit more about the public service announcement aspect of Breaking the Silence?

JW: Sure. We are reaching out to faith leaders nationally and internationally to assist us in creating short videos stating that they are breaking the silence and shining light on the conflict in the Congo. It’s a two-minute presentation meant to be shown within a worship [and disseminated online]. Currently they are available on our website and are being uploaded to YouTube. We welcome more faith leaders to join us.

UF: How would you describe the goal of the campaign?

JW: First, we want to look at the history. Let’s start with the Berlin conference in 1884. King Leopold rules for 23 years, killing an estimated 10 million people while extracting rubber, ivory, and other minerals for trade. Belgium then rules until 1960. The first elected leader, Prime Minister Patrice Emery Lumumba, is assassinated. Then, the United States installs and backs a dictator – Mobutu Sese Seko – for over three decades. I could say more, but the point is that history contextualizes what’s going on in the Congo now.

The West has a history of exploiting the enormous natural and human resources in the Congo, which has an estimated mineral wealth of $24 trillion. Congo has enough agricultural resources to feed the world until 2050. And the Congo River has enough hydro-electric capacity to illuminate the entire continent and parts of Europe. The Congo is located in the heart of Africa. I believe if you save the Congo, you save Africa. Our goal is to bring awareness to the worst human rights conflict in the world and mobilize people of good will to demand justice for the Congolese people.

Another goal [of Breaking the Silence] focuses on the resource Coltan, which goes into laptops and cell phones. Every Wednesday, participants turn their phones off to break silence around the devastation in the Congo. Again, much of this is a mineral resource war. Major mineral companies are extracting resources – gold, diamonds, and so on – from the Congo. Congo has enough agricultural resources to feed the world until 2050. Enough water and power to energize the whole continent [Africa] and parts of Europe. It’s in the center of Africa, surrounded by nine countries. It’s strategically located – if you save the Congo, you save Africa.

UF: Thanks for providing that historical context. Can you tell us more about what’s happening in the Congo?

JW: Since 1996, 6 million people have died; 2 million individuals have been raped; 2 million have been displaced, fueled by a land grab and resource war. This resource war has devastated the country for over a hundred years. It’s the poorest country in the world, but yet it’s one of the richest countries in the world.

UF: Oftentimes, social justice is invoked on behalf of domestic issues – living wage, affordable housing, public health, etc. What would you say to those who want to globalize their understanding of what social justice entails?

JW: All issues are global issues. The wages that Americans are paid are directly connected to the global economy. The exploitation of labor in poor countries has resulted in many industries collapsing in America. Issues of underdevelopment are present in the two-thirds world and in urban America. I think it is impossible to be successful advocating on domestic issues without a global context. Black bodies have little value globally. We must do a better job of connecting our efforts for justice globally.

UF: Tell us a bit about yourself. What drives your commitment to the Congo? How did you get involved in this work?

JW: I grew up in Baltimore where I attended the Mason Memorial and Good Shepherd Church of God in Christ. The influence of the church and the example of my mom led me to live a life of service and ministry.  Later I was introduced to the work of Randal Robinson, Founder of TransAfrica Forum, and he ignited my passion for global justice. While in college I studied Interdisciplinary Studies focusing on International Affairs, Financial Economic and Africana Studies (Pan-African Development) . Later I would worked as the program director for the Collective Banking group (CBG),  a faith-based community economic corporation, representing over  200,000 congregants  to develop and enhance economic empowerment strategies for African-Americans.

While at the CBG I attended Harvard University’s Summer Leadership Institute. During this program I developed my idea for Kinetics, an information ministry that using dialogue as a catalyst for social change. With theory of change ‘if we knew better, we would do better”   Kinetics works to strengthen social movements within the African-American community by bridging the gap between the church, community-based organizations and the academy.  My first client with Kinetics was TransAfrica Forum.

Six years ago, I was asked to join a coalition of faith leaders along with the Institute of Policy Studies,TransAfrica forumAfrica Action, Friends of the Congo, and the Africa Faith and Justice Network to identify common areas of partnership between our respective organizations. We started off trying to decide what issue in Africa could we mobilize around- Congo was the country of choice. Since the forming of the coalition, I have developed a stronger relationship with Friends of the Congo, and have been working to help them launch a Religious Council. So I’ve been passionate about the Congo for a while. But actually stepping on the soil – touching the people, holding babies…it’s something that I’ll never forget.  I believe in the power of the church. I’m critical, but I believe with our flaws and all, the black church will save the community and be an instrument of healing. 

UF: So the premise is that “if we know better we would do better”.

JW: Exactly. Let’s think about our context. Who is telling the story of the Congolese? You can’t just watch CNN and MSNBC and think you’re engaged. We have to tell our own story. When it comes to media ownership, we’re not part of the game. We’re not controlling local radio or national syndication – even with the Grio, the Root, and Huffington Post Black Voices.

Let’s take, for example, the Baltimore campaign against Governor [Martin O’ Malley] proposed construction of a youth prison. No one was telling that story [emphasis added]. Rev. Heber Brown, pastor of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, called and said that the Governor wants to build a $100 million youth jail when they are closing recreation centers and haven’t built a new school in 30 years”. I had hosted “Justice Sundays” on poverty and mass incarceration in the past. We decided to host Youth Justice Sunday on October 31st and had 25 churches and organizations endorse it, along with Rev. Frank Reid.  It was a two-hour program and march to the proposed youth jail site.

We used our website and social media to bring awareness to the issue. Our allies created YouTube videos and Facebook pages. Many of our churches were unaware that the Governor was preparing to build a youth jail. [And our organizing and publicizing] gave us enough coverage to leverage the story and then other media outlets began to pick it up. That’s why we did Youth Justice Sunday and that’s the importance of an information ministry and telling your own story.

UF: How would you define information ministry?

JW: The Bible says my people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge. An information is about Informing, equipping and empowering the church to do the work God has called us to do. Once we are informed we must put our faith into action.

UF: Any closing words of wisdom?

JW: I just want folks to get involved and to understand power of the church when we work together. In traveling I discovered that the many of the oppress peoples of the world draw on the civil rights movement and the legacy of the black church in America.  It’s important to know that we have the power to transform the Congo, transform cities like Chicago and Baltimore, and transform the world.

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For more information on the Breaking the Silence campaign, visit Kineticslive.com/break-the-silence/

About the author, Andrew Wilkes

Andrew Wilkes is the editor of UrbanFaith. He serves as an affiliate minister at the Greater Allen Cathedral of New York and works at Habitat for Humanity – New York City as the Faith and Community Relations associate. An alum of Princeton Theological Seminary and Hampton University, his writing has been featured in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and Sojourners Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewjwilkes.