Examples of communities that are navigating difficult racial situations can bring hope to those who are wondering where and how to begin. St. Louis is one such example. Through the efforts of the St. Louis Reconciliation Network, the organization is bringing together diverse faith communities to form a powerful collective that is, slowly but surely, building unity across the city.

In this episode you’ll discover: 

  • How the community picked up the pieces post-Ferguson.
  • How they dealt with disparities in health and education.
  • Why faith communities are a critical key to transformation.
  • How relationships factor into making progress.

Read the transcript of the podcast below.


Uniting St. Louis

Brandon Wilkes, Executive Director of St. Louis Reconciliation Network

Karin: Hi, welcome to R4R, conversations that educate and elevate. I’m Karin Conlee, and I’m the Executive Director of Race for Reconciliation. Thank you so much for joining us for this particular episode. And if you have the opportunity to join us by video, you can see that I have with me an amazing guests that I’m going to introduce you to, Brandon Wilkes. Brandon, thank you so much for coming on for this episode.

Brandon: Thank you for having me, Karin. I appreciate it.

Karin: Yes, Well, you and I have been in conversations for, I guess, probably over a year or so. If our audience is not familiar with Brandon, Brandon is the Executive Director of the St. Louis reconciliation network. Tell our audience a little bit about what you do and what your organization is trying to accomplish.

Brandon: Yes, With the St. Louis Reconciliation Network, we’re all about building unity here in St. Louis. Our vision is to harness the potential collective powers of the diverse faith communities here in St. Louis and help to unify them in building unity across the city. As, as you know, with the Ferguson incidents back in 2014, St. Louis has gotten a black eye as far as what it’s like to be here and live here, and the, the social issues that are here and we want to be a part of being a solution. So we do a lot of teaching and training with helping people understand how to build unity across relationships, across different faiths, across different ideologies. And we help have those difficult conversations about race. We also hold a few events here that help bring unity across the city. And I think over the past– let’s see, eight years now, I started in 2012 that we’ve helped to build a unity here in St. Louis.

Karin: Well, I love hearing the stories that come from you out of St. Louis and, and really the way that our world merged was we really had this vision for Race for Reconciliation to take to cities across the country where we will host 5Ks and one mile fun runs and wanting to be this voice of hope and healing. And honor, and we really have this heartbeat as an organization that we don’t want to just come into a city and do an event. There has to be sustained leadership with a heart for this, that we are really coming alongside. And lo and behold, what I did not know when we had started Race for Reconciliation is that the St Louis Reconciliation Network really is modeling that and on a city level, what we hope that our organization will be able to birth in cities across the country. And so I’m just grateful for what you are doing and what your team is doing. And, and I think it’s also great because our first event will be in Memphis, but we will look at other cities right now. There’s four or five other cities that we’re in conversations with. You’re a little bit down further down the road in building that unified front within a city, maybe just for a moment, you referenced Ferguson. Here we are now in 2020 as we record this, how best to understand the dynamics of, of race in St. Louis as you’ve seen it over these last several years.

Brandon: St. Louis is not too different than most major cities in the United States, but it does have some culture about it that makes it a little unique in that sense. St. Louis for a long period of time, it has a huge racial separation in the city, North and South. There’s a street here called Delmar, and the Delmar is runs East to West. It’s a long strip within the city and the demographics of the city, proper not including suburbs, but the city is that 95% of the African American population in city lives, North of Delmar and South only 5%. And that’s just an anomaly it’s as though the, the city itself has in the middle of the proverbial railroad tracks, you know, and that hasn’t been, that was such a normal and natural thing in the city that when we arrived in 2014, before the incident in Ferguson happened, it was kind of as though everyone black and white accepted that that’s just the way it was. And not many people talked about it. Not many people really want to think about the racial situation. They were more cordial and polite about the, the really the segregation that existed in the city. And up until Ferguson, nothing was really spoken about nothing happened. 

And then post Ferguson, everyone finally, I think, got to a point where they said, you know, this is an issue that we need to talk about because those are the separation is not just because, you know, different racial groups are separated because they want to be, but it came about due to a history of segregation in St. Louis due to red lining and black blustering and, and even government sanctioned just segregation. And as a result there’s health disparities that exist in the city economic disparities between black and white, they existed in the city and social disparities, the just education disparities as well. They existed. This divide has really caused, so there’s a lot of work to be done here, but there’s, we’ve been making steady progress. And since Ferguson, at least the conversation now is starting to happen.

Karin: Well, I love the fact that as, as people are listening to this from all across the country you know, the way that you change a country is one person at a time, one city at a time one state at a time sometimes the, it can feel so overwhelming to think like, really, how can we change a national issue? But I love the fact that that you’ve been on the ground there now, like you said, 2012 is when the st. Louis reconciliation, that network started. That you have some history and you can see some progress. How would you say if there’s somebody else listening to this and, and you in particular and the St. Louis reconciliation network work specifically within the sphere of the faith sector, if, if that’s who want to use that word and our organization Race for Reconciliation really is looking for every sector of our community and our culture to come and be a part of the solution. But faith is certainly a huge part in every city that we want, churches and synagogues and people of any faith to be some of the for leaders in the solution. Tell us a little bit Brandon, how has the network, how have you seen it be a part of the solution in St. Louis?

Brandon: Well, I believe that is, it can be a huge part of the solution. So many different people are connected to their faith communities, and it’s a, not only a Laissez Faire connection, but a critical connection in our lives. For the people who go and attend church on faithfully on a Sunday morning, it’s literally thousands upon thousands in St. Louis and throughout the United States. And then there are people who do have a little more relaxed relationship, but when times are tough or when times are, are when they need counseling or direction, they still connect back to their faith community. So there has to be a place where people think of their faith communities when they think about unity or they think about their I mean, honestly, reconciliation. So I feel like starting with the faith communities is a good way to really build inroads to the unity within St. Louis and across the United States. At least that’s my personal perspective. The, the church and other faiths included, but the church specifically has a lot of influence within people’s lives. And it’s for so many people with the moral and ethical foundation of their reality. 

So if you want to build unity across races and overcome racism or systemic racism, sometimes you have to get at the root cause and that’s people’s morals and their ethics. And we help to teach and train people of faith to, to utilize their foundation of faith as the platform to build on that unity. So I think for us, we go that direction because we think it’s critical. We know there are a lot of great organizations, they do it through counseling, they do it through work and business and things. I think all those avenues will produce fruit. Though the place we were called to start is within the faith community.

Karin: Well, I love that. I know that one of the things that you do is to help provide training for leaders within the faith community, even small groups. Tell us a little bit about what you’ve learned through that journey. What’s been effective as you’ve gone in and, and help people, whether first at the leadership level, and then second, just kind of at the grassroots, what have your reflections been?

Brandon: I think the biggest thing that we’ve learned is relationship is so important. When people have a intentional cross racial relationships, it breaks down so many walls and barriers that existed in, in the past that it really does a lot of the work of reconciliation and unity in just doing that friendships, personal friendships. And we also said, we use the term heart level friendships, not people who you just say hi and bye to, but who are the people you’re having sitting down and having meals with, going on vacation with who do you call when you have a problem who’s close, close friendships, those types of things, transform people’s perception and perspective about race. And they’ll overcome a lot of the stereotypes that people have and misconceptions that they have about people in different races and ethnicities. 

So when you have those relationships that overcomes a lie, and then the second thing is recognizing that we all start with a different lens in life. I had a friend of mine who once said that, you know, he took his daughter to a concert and his daughter was like five years old. And when they walked into the concert, they were standing around. And when they, the concert started, he had to pick his daughter up and put her on his shoulders so that he could so that she could see. And he said, right at that moment, he said, I understand that everything we see is from our own personal perspective. And it isn’t until we look from somebody else’s perspective, that we can then understand what they’re saying. When we have those intentional relationships, all of a sudden we can see things from other people’s perspectives. And when we have those relationships across a racist, we understand what a, an African American mom may think about when she worries that, you know, there’s police brutality out there. You, you understand what a, an immigrant parent may think about when they are worried that because they brought their child over illegally, then all of a sudden, they may have to return to a country that they never even know. You begin to get those perspectives. And once people get those perspectives, they care about things differently. They care about people differently, and then their perspectives around unity change.

Karin: I could not agree, affirm what you’re saying as definitely the heart of what we want to accomplish is yes, there are events for people to come, there’s ways for people to get educated, but how do we bring people into those relationships that are cross cultural and begin to build friendships with people that don’t look like ourselves. What have you learned maybe from your journey; You just gave us two great things you know, the perspective and the different lens, as well as the importance of relationships. If someone were listening to this and they’re like, you know, I want to be a part of the solution. There’s not a reconciliation network in my community. What would you say to someone have been maybe some of the things that you would say here’s a good first step for you? Here’s a way that you can make a difference in the lot in, in your community.

Brandon: Yes, I think the first step, I always say, you know, being bold and venturing out to start new relationships, whether it’s people, you know at work or in your neighborhood, and that’s scary, it’s difficult without question. And there are ways to do that well and ways to do that not well, we don’t have time to talk to all of them, but, but being fearless and making mistakes as well, it was one thing that they can do. But the second thing is really the, to gather more information, maybe outside of the sphere that you normally get information, look for perspectives that are different than your own.

 I have this concept where I tell people to just start embracing the, and what I mean by embracing the, and is embracing the idea that there can be two seemingly different truths that exist at the same time. Meaning there is a potential for a person to be for the black lives matter movement and before the police at the same time, it doesn’t always have to be opposite and oppositional. When we start with an idea of embracing the, and that two seemingly different truths can exist at the same time when we really embrace that, we overcome some of the hurdles that keep us separated. And when we do that, we’ll have the ability to take in knowledge or information from a different source and not automatically dismiss that. And when we stop dismissing other people’s opinions, but for a moment, just say, okay, what if their opinion is true, as well as my opinion being true? How can that be? And then we have to use our brains. We have to start thinking, and then we think about that and say, Oh, okay. Maybe I can see this from their perspective. And that, that begins to lay a lot of groundwork for unity. We stop dismissing people, stop dismissing ideas, but bring it into our sphere, you know, do the hard work of thinking through how is it possible that these people can be so passionate about some one thing or another, and see how that goes. And often we’ll have someone in relationship to bounce those new ideas and new thoughts off of, and come to a conclusion that eventually brings unity and builds reconciliation.

Karin: Brandon, let me ask you to maybe speak to two different audiences here. So to the, to the white person, that’s listening to this that maybe has not really been very far along in their journey of understanding the issues of racism and its impact on our culture and our communities. What would you say to, to someone right now as to why, why it’s so important for them to care, why it’s so important that they need to invest the time everybody’s busy? Why, you know, why, why invest the time?

Brandon: Oh Yes, Well, the first reason I was saying is because we are all hindered by racism and injustice in this country. The country as a whole suffers, when a significant group of people suffer are held back or inhibited, there’ve been studies about the billions of GOP not GOP– of GDP economic growth that has been hindered in United States simply because we’ve I mean, throughout the years of history segmented, whether it’s African Americans or Latinos or native Americans have kept them out of the full socioeconomic system. Recognizing that, just because, you know, let’s say African Americans, weren’t able to get jobs at certain periods of time. They still got jobs, they just got jobs underneath the table, and simply didn’t pay taxes on those things because people were paying them maybe at a less wage. 

And same thing happens for immigrants and so forth, which ultimately hurts the country as a whole, as a whole because that is not fueling into our bigger system that can help others. You know, they’re not paying taxes and so forth, but just ultimately recognizing that it hurts the country as a whole, whenever racism exists, it doesn’t advance us intellectually. It doesn’t advance as a science society and being compassionate and growing to be the people who we really aspire to be to really uphold the constitutional ideology that was set before that all men and women are created equal. And when we don’t do that, we’re not the better force. So I, I would say to your white listeners, that it’s important that, you know, we live up to the values that we believe that this country is set on so that the country can become the, the, the place that the founders started to be or would have desired it to be in their minds and their ideology. So I think that’s why it should be important. 

I think the things they can do is simply, like I said, build relationships and educate themselves about those different people from different cultures. They may be, they work with or live in their neighborhoods. I will, I will say for minorities on the other side of that, I speak for– I can’t speak for African Americans back, definitely speak from the African American perspective, that I think that we have to get to a place of understanding how there can be a large portion of the white population that simply doesn’t understand the day to day life, of an African American person. They don’t understand the microaggressions. They don’t understand this systemic racism still exists, that there can be a significant portion of people who can legitimately, and even though their heartfelt and, and understand can say, well, slavery was over, you know, over 200 years ago with India. 

How can that still be an issue today? And simply not know. And there’s, I mean, literally nothing people can be faulted about not knowing, but once we begin to share and make people aware there are other, there are other issues that there kind of a snowball effect from slavery and from Jim Crow era segregation that affects African-Americans day. Once people are made aware that then that can help. So we have to be a little more understanding and I will say slower to accuse people of being racist, just because they don’t have information. And another friend of mine who recently who said, you know, if we call out everything as racist, then the real racist it makes no– has no meaning. If everything is racism, then real racism isn’t [inaudible]. So we have to be careful not to call things that’s not racist, racist. We just have to reserve that language for the real issues out there. Not just because somebody is misinformed or what have you. And that allows, I believe that will allow the conversation to happen a little more openly and freely when people feel like, you know, I can have these conversations without being accused of being a racist.

Karin: Wow. I, I could talk with you all day. I think, I mean, it’s just encouraging, I think what you just said you know, I sometimes feel so bad walking in this space of thinking for a minority, you know, how long do we have to keep having these conversations and how long do they have to keep explaining? And when will you know, the culture as a whole care enough in the majority culture to become educated? And it does, it feels like in some ways, and one of the reasons that we started Race for Reconciliation is we wanted to provide a positive unifying voice, a place of hope that wasn’t, didn’t feel so polarizing and you know, that you were crossing seven lanes of Atlanta traffic, trying to have a conversation with someone. 

And what you just said is such a grace filled approach to whites, to minorities, and to just say, hey, this really does boil down to who we are as human beings that we need to care. Since you are specifically in the faith realm I would love to ask you, you know, in, in this whole journey that we’re on right now talk to us about the role of the church and the role of the multiethnic church. What have you seen and what would your, what’s your counsel at this point to where we are as, as a faith in this nation?

Brandon: Yes, within the church where I feel like, like I said before, the churches is a huge part of the solution. And I would even dare to say that until the church really figures this out there– we are going to be part of the problem and not part of the solution. I asked it at a church that was intentionally multiethnic, and multi-racial in Cincinnati called People’s Church for 10 years before we moved to St. Louis to plant People’s Church in St. Louis. And what I experienced there as a multiethnic church, the church is probably running in between 900 and thousand people now, when I started, it was probably between 400 and 500 people. But with our pastor wanting to lead the church to transition from a 98% homogeneous white church to a multiethnic church, and the church now is 50% Caucasian, 25% African American and 25% international with over 31 countries represented there. And when you worship in an experience that type of a vibrancy and diversity within the congregation, it’s outstanding, it’s really wonderful. 

In the Bible there’s a pastor– a passage of scripture revelation seven nine, where the apostle John has a vision of what church is like in heaven. And he describes it as there are so many different ethnic, ethnic groups and so many different languages there are, so many people gathered, just worshiping that you, you know, I couldn’t even count how many, but he was very specific in saying there are so many different nationalities they’re worshiping. And I feel like that’s the vision in heaven. And that should be the vision here on earth, that when churches congregate together and get together across nationalities, ethnicities, and races that were really doing what God would call us to do in overcoming you know, the barriers that separate us, especially by race and ethnicity. 

And when the church has been– throughout history has been a problem. I mean, so that there have been many churches; I mean, the Quakers, we were a big part of the abolition movement and were anti-slavery from the beginning and the Moravians, so we have a great church history. They always spoke out against injustice and against racism, but there is a larger part of the church that was more complicit in it. They just simply said nothing and said, you know, our job is just to preach about Jesus and preach the Bible. And they kind of didn’t recognize that throughout scripture, overcoming injustice is a huge thing, not a small thing, not a side plot, but a really big thing. And that’s been a fault of the church.

So I feel like as the church presses through our history of saying, you know, we’re not going to stand on the sidelines, we’re going to be verbal about it, we’re going to speak out for biblical justice, according to what the Bible talks about, standing up for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. And I’m specifically just using our voice, our platform and our, our, our really our influence to help overcome this. It’s going to be an impactful thing. It just, it’s going to be outstanding. I feel like it will be forced that move society and culture as a whole. We, when our faith based communities began to really grab hold of the unity aspect.

Karin: Well, I think you are a great example and a great encouragement as we think about this is a topic that’s not going to be solved overnight. It is going to be something that takes an investment of all people and that whether it be in, in the workplace or whether in the faith sector, whether in government or education it takes all of us as human beings caring. And so I’m grateful for your work, Brandon, thank you so much for joining us. And I know that you and your team are doing a great work in St. Louis. if somebody wants to reach out and get involved, what’s the best way for them to get a hold of you?

Brandon: The best way for them to reach us is that our website it’s www.stlrn.org. You can find a lot of information about our services and events that we do right there.

Karin: Great. Well, thank you so much for joining us. For anybody else that wants to also just begin this education process that we are talking about. Great resources on the St. Louis reconciliation network page. They’re also great resources at r4r.one, and let’s be a part all of us, no matter what community we live in, be a part of the solution, take care, and we’ll see you next time.