Interview by Mickey ScottBey Jones
After reading this powerful poem by friend and brother in the struggle Shawn Casselberry, I got him on the phone for an interview. Here’s a little of what we talked about. Shawn lives with and serves his Chicago neighborhood with his brilliant, creative wife, Jen, and their big, always-excited dog. See his bio after the interview.
Micky: Shawn, is this poem a form of #protestimony for you?
Shawn Casselberry: Yes. There are a lot of layers to it. I’m trying to get at the idea of moving forward—but so many people want to rush and look at the hope and promise of future shalom. Yet, we have to address this white denial of history. We don’t like to be reminded of the past and how it is related to the now. I wanted to connect the narrative, to wrestle with and connect the history to how we see ourselves now. There is a disconnect with how we see ourselves and what our documents say. We say we are a land of liberty, but we incarcerate more than any other; we say we are a country founded on liberty, but it is a country built on slavery and genocide. We have to wrestle with those realities. It’s a shame that just talking about history is considered a protest. Just telling the truth is a protest now. Because that’s the climate—that’s what I’m wrestling with in this piece.
Micky: How would you want this poem to inspire people?
Shawn: I allude to Jacob as a founding father of our faith—Jacob was a deceiver and manipulator who takes power by deception as his divine birthright. But he was redeemed through wrestling with God and with truth. Our [American] redemption is in wrestling with the truth and with God—seeing the truth instead of just saying I want to be comfortable; I don’t want the truth.
I want to give testimony to the truth—wrestle with each other, with the truth—and face what is actually true. We need the prophetic voice of African American people, and we need to listen to the protest and voice of African American history and listen to the teaching of those prophetic voices. This is part of this beauty we see in Black History Month celebrations—honoring the history of the prophetic voice and remembering that we still need to listen to it now. Today Black Lives Matter functions as a prophetic voice, and we try to silence it like in the Scripture. In this case, the white community is like the mob, the ones silencing the prophets or saying we are for all the things they stand for (equity, justice, love, etc.) but standing in the way of God’s prophetic movement. I’m hoping that people will move, that I will move myself and others to action, to move with God and with the prophetic voices instead of against them.
Micky: What about people who ask about where your theology comes from?
Shawn: I look to the Scripture and find many stories for inspiration. The story of Cain challenges us to think about accountability and how we are treating our siblings. Am I my brother’s keeper? What does that mean? It is a biblical concept that we are our brother’s keeper. If not, we are acting in the spirit of Cain. We are not looking after each other.
Then there are the prophets—for example, Amos. The prophets named injustice. We love to quote Micah 8 and talk about love and justice in generalities, but we don’t like to name what it is going to look like to do that. We seem to love generalities, but Amos and other prophets named the actual specific issues of the time. Like in Amos 5, where we see what God actually wants—a justice for all of society, rolling down….
Jesus named the enemy’s tactics—those things that kill, steal and destroy—and if we are really rolling with Jesus, we have to confront those forces. I believe the truth will set us free but we will not be free as people until we speak the truth. We will not be free while the people I love are not free: people incarcerated harshly and unjustly in prisons, people trapped in poverty, people dying from racialized violence. We are not free, white folks, rich folks—those in denial—we are not free, either, unless the truth sets us free.
Micky: What does it mean to celebrate/wrestle with Black History Month as a white man?
Shawn: Cornel West said Black History Month is not just for Black folks because it’s American history. To recognize Black History is to recognize some of America’s [most important] history. The seeds of liberation for me as a white person are intertwined with that history, with that acknowledgement of Black history throughout time. My liberation is connected with Black liberation. White folks have perpetrated oppression, yes, and mutual liberation is how both the oppressed and oppressor get free.
Micky: Have you always thought this way, or have you had a shift?
Shawn: Moving into a community that is majority African American was a definite shift. I would say I appreciated [Black History Month] before, but moving into the neighborhood took things to another level. I want dignity for my brothers and sisters. I want their whole history explored, lamented, celebrated and told. I love my neighbors. I want to stand with them when their history is being sanitized or taken out of textbooks. They are my family, and I want to be part of the celebration—not take it over but be there in the best way I can. I want to be there in the lament and wrestling with the past, too. Like Paul says, when one of us suffers, we all suffer, so when one of us protests, we all protest. It affects us all and offers redemption to us all.
Shawn Casselberry is a passionate advocate for God’s justice, author of God is in the City: Encounters of Grace and Transformation, and Executive Director for Mission Year, a leading national Christian ministry that invites 18- to 29-year-olds to pursue a lifestyle of loving God and loving people in the city. Shawn has a passion for mentoring young adults and mobilizing the church around issues of racial and economic justice. As an ordained minister, Shawn speaks across the country at colleges, churches, and conferences calling people to love God and love their neighbors. Shawn has been married to Jen for 15 years and lives in the North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. You can follow Shawn on Twitter: @Scasselberry.