Hitting a Nerve

Pastor Alex Gee did not set out to disturb the peace, but his hunger for justice launched an unexpected movement for change in Madison, Wisconsin.

An interview by Companion editor Edward Gilbreath

Alex Gee had just finished speaking about mass incarceration at a Rotary luncheon. Talking about the disproportionate number of young black men being incarcerated in his home state of Wisconsin takes a toll on Gee, pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church in Madison. He was feeling weary.

A woman from the audience approached him, saying she appreciated his presentation. Then she added, “I must tell you, I am so glad you are not some angry black man!”

Gee was caught off-guard. His listener had just heard him outline a litany of racial disparities in their community. “I am an angry black man!” he responded.

That experience set off a series of events that included a cover story in Madison’s newspaper The Cap Times, which provoked a widespread news media and social media reaction, as well as a town hall meeting attended by nearly 600 people in mid-February. (To read a Covenant Newswire story on this town hall meeting, click here.)

Recently Companion editor Edward Gilbreath sat down with Gee to talk about what he did and why — and what he wants to do next.

Can you tell us about the origin of the Cap Times article and what led you to write it?
I’ve been watching how Madison has been changing. I love the community. I’ve grown up there. I’ve been there for forty-five years. But as the minority population, particularly the black population, doubled between 1980 and 1990, the number of black professionals in the DA’s office or social workers or administrators has not seen the same kind of growth. So I see disparity. I see more black kids go into mental health hospitals, corrections, juvenile jail. I’ve been watching the change, the shift in attitudes in Madison, and the achievement gap growing between blacks and whites.

A couple years ago, I was interrogated by the police in my own church parking lot. As they were questioning me, my associate pastor, who is white, came over to find out what was going on. The officers did not ask for his ID. They did not ask his name. But I stood there, working to convince them that the name on my ID matched the name on the church sign. I mentioned the names of several Madison police officers who attend my church until eventually they apologized and left.

We had a break-in at church a few months ago. I arrived on Saturday night for a meeting and discovered an intruder in our building. When I called 911, I had a flashback of that previous encounter with the police in the same parking lot. Immediately I began to describe myself to the dispatcher — my age, ethnicity, the clothes I was wearing, the make and model of my car. I didn’t want the police coming up to my car saying, “Excuse me, sir, what are you doing here?” I wanted them to rush right into the church and stop the guy because I could hear him throwing stuff around downstairs.

The cumulative effect of those events piled up when that woman spoke to me after the Rotary talk. I called a friend and said, “I want to write a story. I want to talk about my experience.” And that’s how this all came about.

Recount for us the process then, once it was published. What was the reaction?
Before I wrote the article I met with the editor of the paper. He was tracking with me as I spoke, but he wasn’t really looking at me or making eye contact. But when I got to the part about calling 911 and describing myself — he looked up at me and said, “I never describe myself when I call the police.” Then he said, “I want you to write me 3,000 words. I’m going to put it on the front cover of the paper. I want you to tell your story. A year from now people are going to be talking about this story.”

It got him. Because I wasn’t saying, “People follow me around when I’m in the store,” Or, “People look at me funny.” It became clear to him, “This guy’s a fellow citizen and he actually thinks about what he’s wearing and who he is before he calls 911. And no one should have to do that.”

But I dragged my feet. I thought, “What did I do?” I stalled. Finally I sat down and wrote it and I sent it in.

It felt like a catharsis, like I was getting something off my chest. I wanted to call Madison on the carpet. We celebrate that we’re so liberal and we’re so accepting, so we don’t feel like we have to change anything. It’s like Christians who say, “Oh, God knows my heart.” That’s in essence what Madison says: “Oh, other cultures know my heart.” But in its arrogance this community becomes impenetrable for people of color who are trying to come in.

The black unemployment rate in Madison is higher than the national average. Wisconsin has the highest mass incarceration rate of African American males in the country and some of the highest infant mortality rates. Fifteen percent of black males ages eighteen to twenty-two, even those who are not in prison, have some connection with the criminal justice system. We have the widest reading academic achievement gap between blacks and whites in third grade and eighth grade.

We like to celebrate that Money magazine said that we are the most livable city of 200,000 people and less. We boast of our four lakes and great university campus. And all of that’s true.

But that’s not true for everyone in our community. I wanted to tell my story to people who think the complainers are really the outsiders from Chicago. When Madison says people are from Chicago, that’s code for poor black people coming to Wisconsin looking for welfare benefits and bringing crime. When people say “from Chicago” they assume all the trouble is from the outsiders. But we have kids who were born in Madison who are not doing well.

You say all this as someone who actually loves Madison. You’re very committed to the city, you’re not someone who criticizes as an outsider.
Well, Madison wouldn’t tolerate it. They wouldn’t tolerate criticism from an outsider.

So the article was published —
— in Madison’s progressive newspaper. And they let me call a lot of people on the carpet. They let me talk about profiling and the department of corrections. They just gave me room to let it rip.

What were your feelings as it was published? Was there a sense of, “What have I done?” Or, “Should I have said that?”
The night before it came out a colleague called me to say someone from the mayor’s office had contacted him. He said to me, “Supposedly, Alex, you wrote some letter criticizing the mayor’s leadership.” Well, I hadn’t. But that’s the wind the mayor’s office caught. And I thought, “Uh oh. Am I in trouble?”

So the next morning I went to the store to get the paper — I was so nervous. When my wife woke up, she said, “Where is it?” I was ironing, and I said, “Um, it’s right there on the bed.” I said, “I’m too nervous to read it.” Have you ever written something that you wish you never wrote?

Then people started blowing up my Facebook page, and I started getting calls and letters and emails and texts. It just kept coming, and people were commenting and posting it on their walls. I got calls from two radio stations that wanted to interview me on the phone. Others wanted me in the studio. One of the TV stations wanted me to do a segment. The newspaper told me it was the most-read story of the week. They followed it up that Monday with another report.

That was the week after Christmas. They called me to say this was the eleventh most read story of the entire year. So out of all the stories about Governor Scott Walker, about Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, this was the eleventh most read story in the Cap Times. And the article came out on December 18, so it had only been out for two weeks.

I’ve been in touch with elected officials, our U.S. senator’s office. I’ve heard from our county executive. I’ve gotten calls from other nonprofits, asking, “What can we do to help? We’re so glad you wrote that.”

What were they saying? What resonated that made them respond?
Many of the people who reached out to me were older white people. I think it was their way of saying, “We know we’re not finished. But everyone started singing ‘Kumbaya’ and pushed us to the back of the crowd. We fought for more than this. And we’re upset that we haven’t gone any further.” That’s what I really sensed.

One woman was eighty-nine. She showed up at the church because she wanted to see where the facility was. She wants to read to kids when we expand our after-school reading program.

Another gentleman came to my office. He said, “Reverend Gee, I don’t want to bother you. But I Googled you, I just wanted to see you. I was the principal of the first federally enforced, desegregated school in St. Louis. I want to know what I can do to help.” This guy opened St. Louis! We don’t know what side of the fence he was on. But he was forced by federal law to desegregate in St. Louis.

There’s a white gentleman who’s in a nursing home who read the article. He told his nurse that he was pastor of a Presbyterian church in Birmingham when the bombing happened with those little girls in 1963, and he’d like to meet that young man who wrote the article.

I have a neighbor who’s eighty-one. He’s a Jewish gentleman, and he said, “I was part of the NAACP in the late sixties in upstate New York when King was assassinated.”

So I feel like the older guard is saying, “We fought for more than what we have, and we’re not finished. We want to let you know we appreciate you saying that because these people have gotten lazy. It’s not finished. So what can we do? How can we help?”

The article was very honest. It was angry but it wasn’t dismissive. I didn’t say, “That’s why I’m out of here.” I made it very clear and I hoped to endear myself to the audience. I was your paper boy. I was a Cub Scout. I went to college. I did all the things Madison wants its boys to do. I shouldn’t be treated like this.

I think what normally is off the radar got on the radar. Readers had to look at my story and admit it had to be race. What else could it be? I think they were responding, “This man’s a minister. He was in his own church parking lot. We’ve been pretending like it’s got to be something else — but what else could it be?”

But also there was a sense of inviting others in. We need to talk together, we’ve got to work through this. I know we can do this. I think people really feel invited. The principal from St. Louis said, “Let me tell you what got me. You said, ‘Let’s do something together.’ You invited me in. You invited us in.”

I received an email from a sixty-seven-year-old gentleman with a DMin, who surrendered his ministerial credentials — I don’t know what that means or why — he said he was trying to find a way to get connected. Something in my article stirred him. Could he meet with me to get some direction of what he should be doing? This is a sixty-seven-year-old guy and he wants direction from me!

In one of our earlier conversations you mentioned a woman who contacted you.
Yes, a Jewish woman, who told me she’s non-religious and she listened to my sermon online. She said, “Alex, I have not done anything religious in twenty years and you got me wanting to go to church.”

I got an email from another woman who said, “I’m non-religious. I’m a married lesbian and we’ve adopted an African American son. Would we be welcome in your community?”

People have been hearing this call, this sense of hope, this passion.

Maybe it’s a false dichotomy, but one of the issues historically is the idea that some churches are more about preaching the Bible and evangelism, and then there are churches that are more involved in social matters, progressive social justice — and never shall the twain meet. But your article seems to be showing the reality of the evangelistic power of justice.
We never quite had that social gospel versus biblical preaching gospel split in the black churches. We’ve had other issues. But we didn’t suffer that split the way mainline and the evangelical churches did. Because if you’re more mainline like Black Methodist and Lutheran, you had to still take care of your poor. And if you’re Pentecostal, you have to still take care of your poor. So we divided on theology and worship style and service length. Black churches by and large are not divided on how we treat the poor, how we get involved in our communities. We just assume that’s what we have to do because it’s not been done for us in the broader community historically.

But if evangelism is getting people inside your doors so they can hear a different message, then that’s happening. I talked in a sermon about how I don’t want to just build communities, I want to bring faith back to the African American community, I want to see black people reconnect with Jesus.

I told the Jewish woman who came to see me, “When I say Jesus, I’m not trying to push a historical figure down someone’s throat. I’m talking about God’s redemption, God’s salvation.”
To watch a series of short videos on racial profiling from the personal experience of Covenanters, click here.

She said, “Can I say something to you, Alex?” She’s from New York, and she said, “I don’t want you to ever apologize about talking about Jesus again. That’s how your community rolls, that’s important. That’s the last time I want you to justify that.”

I want people to come. I want them to hear the gospel. A Universalist came and said to me, “I haven’t taken communion in twenty years, but the way you introduced it and talked about Jesus and God’s love, I could do it.”

One of the things I’m saying is that we need the church back at the center of our community. We lost that, and we want that back. And we don’t want to partner with organizations that don’t let us do that. We’re not talking about proselytizing, and it’s not like we’re not going to give you a job if you don’t pray or receive Jesus. But if we’re funded and I can’t self-disclose, then we don’t want that kind of funding. We’ve got to have faith — that’s a big part of what we’ve lost in the black community.

Where is this movement going now? It seems like every day something new is happening. Overall, what have you learned and what are your next steps?
First of all, I’m learning every day. I’ve learned that God doesn’t call you into stuff that you think you’re good at. This isn’t the kind of work I thought I’d be doing in ministry. But God has taught me that people really respect leadership—even if it’s Christian. I know that sounds strange. People are writing me asking, “What’s next? What’s next?” I’m meeting with council members. They’re saying, “What’s next? What do you want to do?” They are everything from agnostic to non-Christian and they’re listening. Because things are messed up. The mayor’s not standing up and saying, “Hey, this is what we’re going to do.” The county executive has a good heart, but he hasn’t come up and said, “Here’s the plan.” Because the county executive is like, “You know I don’t control the prisons.” But the prisons are saying, “It starts with the arrests, and the arraignment, and the DA and the courts and the judges.” But they’re not at the table. So everyone’s sort of pointing elsewhere.

I want to do a couple of things. I think we have four categories of people: there are those who are unaware, then we have the learners, the minglers, and the doers. So let’s do a series of educational forums — ultimately I want to mobilize people. I want to mobilize them to volunteerism, I want to mobilize them to write our elected officials, I want to mobilize them to show up for meetings and rallies. But they need to be aware of the issues. So I want to have forums where there’s a lecture, and you break out in small tables for conversation. Those will be facilitated by a person of color so that whites can talk about their feelings and their fears with a person of color. And it won’t be used against them.

We will continue to collect names and contact information. Then we can let people know there’s going to be a meeting or a rally, or we need you to help us write your superintendent to demand goals or a plan. I want to gather people. I want to educate and inspire people so they can be mobilized.

The second phase is, I want to evaluate African American–led nonprofits. If we’re going to address this huge issue, we’ve got to build capacity in organizations. The government cannot fix this.

It also means teaching churches how to run nonprofits. How do you get funding to do a reading program? I want to show them. So I want to assess capacity and build capacity in black-led organizations. Then I want to put a price tag on that capacitybuilding, so we can come back to the city in about three months and say, “We need to raise $700,000 every year for the next five years—or whatever the amount is — to build up these eight organizations. We’re going to serve 1,500 people a year, and we’re working to reduce recidivism and reduce incarceration. We’re going to close the achievement gap, with thirty-five reading clubs over the city.

The other thing I want to do is to call for a study of white philanthropic organizations on their giving to black community issues. Because they’re always studying nonprofits, and no one ever holds them accountable — not from my position. I want to hold them accountable. I want to call this out in the public, so their board members say, “Well, we have to do it.”

I want to organize a conference in the fall where we invite the governor, a couple of senators, county executive, mayor, superintendent, key pastors, key nonprofit directors who are black—and for us all to come together and present our plans. What are we going to do to address this issue? At that gathering or summit we will say, for the next three years we’re going to check in, we’re going to have a whole audience of people, we’re going to have a panel, we’re going to talk about what we’re doing, how we’re marshaling money.

We cannot put this problem on the black church — we don’t have the money. We can’t put this problem on black nonprofits — we don’t have the money. You’re not going to put it on philanthropic organizations because they’re not going to give us the money.

So we’re going to work to mobilize people so that we at least develop a multi-disciplinary team to put together a comprehensive plan to begin to reduce this. Otherwise, the black community as we know it won’t continue to exist in Madison.

Now that’s huge, and my head almost burst from saying it, but that’s what I think the Lord has put on my heart.

As you detail all of these ideas and goals, are you speaking as a pastor? Are you speaking as a nonprofit leader? As a civil rights activist? How do you envision your role now as all of this is unfolding?
I think my answer is all of the above. I want to model for pastors how to be social entrepreneurs and activists. Because we haven’t seen that. We’ve seen the activists — but we don’t really see their churches, we don’t see them preach. When you have a church that’s multi-ethnic, which has been there for thirty years, and you’re saying this stuff, that gives you lots of credibility. The organizations I’m challenging — they don’t fund me, so they can’t silence me. When I was interviewed by Cap Times, I looked straight in the camera and said, “United Way does not speak for my community.” Then last week United Way called me with a “great opportunity” — they want me to join their board.

But when you’re unattached you can be a prophetic voice. I’m all of those — I’m a pastor, I’m a nonprofit guy. I’m convening churches because I have those cross-cultural skills, but at the same time I’m developing an urban impact center, where I can sit down with young white pastors and talk about how they can prepare to lead a cross-cultural congregation. Or we can talk with African American pastors about how to organize in their city. I don’t want to be the guy who’s doing this while people sit back like I was and think, “Gosh, I wish I knew how to do that.” I want to actually change things together.

So is one of the takeaways for pastors who might be reading this that they need to identify these issues in their communities and do the same thing?
No. If someone had told me to do this in my city, I would have responded negatively. What they need to do is find out why God has them in their city. One of the things I said in my article is, why hasn’t the governor called a state of emergency? We are 4.8 percent of the state population, and 48 percent of the prison population. If the system is not wrong, the implication is that we are genetically inferior and ignorant — or criminal. That can’t be the case. Sentencing is different for powder cocaine and crack according to Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. We have to address the system — no one’s sounding the alarm, no one’s ringing the bell, no one’s saying this is bad.

What I would say to other pastors is, exegete your community. Ask God why you’re there. I have a good mentor, Ray Bakke, and he taught me that I need to be a chaplain of my community. What’s happening with redlining, with banks? What’s happening with housing? What’s happening with these areas? Wisconsin is on the map for mass incarceration, achievement gap, low birth rates, mortality rates. I can’t build ministry and not address those realities.

A white gentleman wrote me and said, “How do you decide? How do you decide which issues to address? There’s euthanasia, there’s abortion, there’s a whole lot of issues.” Yes, those are all important. However, Wisconsin’s not making national news on those issues. Black babies die five times more than their white counterparts. We’re fiftieth — we are dead last in the country on incarceration rates of young black males per capita.

I’m not just doing this because I’m black and I’m male. Perhaps I’m black and male so I can identify with the issues in my community. I also want to help our Latino community. I’m building a black and brown coalition because the blacks and the Latinos have never connected, and I want to connect so we can help each other.

There’s a vibrancy in our community, in my heart, in my life. There’s a sense of purpose. Young men are getting excited that we want to build them up. We’re doing a soccer field where black, Latino, white, and Asian kids can play together. When people see us chipping away at social ills, it makes them feel like they’re part of the solution, rather than just praying for Jesus to come back.

One of my leaders showed her friend the article and said, “What do you think about this? What do you think about race disparity?” They’re both white women, and her friend said, “We just need Jesus to come back.” I think that’s what a lot of Christians think. What else can we do but to say, “Even so come Lord Jesus”?

But we see this as an opportunity to show the love and compassion of the Lord. I feel so honored that God would trust us on this issue. I want the community to take care of itself. I want to empower parents and kids. I want businesses to help us create jobs and create housing. I think there are business communities that would love to see that because they don’t want the government to do it. And they want to see people they can trust, who aren’t opportunists, engaging the issue.

Some people ask, what’s different now? We’ve talked about these issues before. What’s different now?
I know people are skeptical. I feel that. Let me tell you what’s different now. You. And me. We’re here together. We’ve had these talks, we’ve had these gatherings. But not like this — in this setting and with the mandates and agendas we’re setting. I want to believe in a beautiful Madison.

Did it ever occur to you that this article was published just a little over fifty years after Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”?
You know what? A gentleman wrote on my Facebook page and mentioned that. And I have a friend who’s a politician who said, “You need to read some of King’s later speeches.” When I read “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” after I wrote the article, so much of it resonated with my heart. I think this is all converging for a very, very important reason. I feel like God is just lining everything up. And I never thought this would be my work — or part of my work. But it feels like a call. There are moments of angst, but I feel a tremendous peace.

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