Written by Daniel Hazard
A grateful church offers praise for a prominent, fearless leader
If you ask the Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson what is the greatest stumbling block that 21st-century Christians face, she'll give you an answer without a moment's hesitation.
"Fear," Jackson says. "It's what Jesus' disciples have always had to overcome.
"Over and over, what is the message of Jesus? Don't be afraid of each other. Don't be afraid of the powers and principalities," she teaches.
Long before she became executive minister of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries (JWM) in 1999, Jackson was a leader in the anti-fear movement.
In the 1990s, Jackson immersed herself in the anti-fear work of the UCC's former Commission for Racial Justice, an organization she was leading when it agreed to merge with other UCC entities to form JWM.
Before that, she was an assistant to the UCC's then-president, the Rev. Paul H. Sherry, who describes Jackson as someone who always has had "a deep commitment to meeting the needs of people and the ability to translate that commitment into effective action."
In the 1980s, she was a leader in Bishop Desmund Tutu's anti-fear campaign against Apartheid. She directed Tutu's Refugee Scholarship Fund and raised more than $1 million to bring South African and Namibian refugees to the United States to attend college. She's also worked as a communications specialist, including stints in the offices of then-New York Gov. Hugh Carey and with the National Urban League.
A graduate of Pennsylvania's Wilson College and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, Jackson received her Master of Divinity degree from New York's Union Theological Seminary in 1991.
As a lifelong member of the UCC who became one of its significant leaders, Jackson has been impressed by the courage and commitment she's witnessed along the way.
"I'm amazed by the people I've met — incredible people who will work long, long hours — some at great personal cost — because they love this church and believe this church is called to do [justice] work."
Not nearly retired
Jackson, who decided not to seek reelection as JWM's executive minister, will step down from her post at the end of September. She'll be succeeded by Linda Jaramillo, a lay leader and justice advocate, who was elected at General Synod 25.
Be warned, however, it is best not to use the word "retirement" when discussing Jackson's departure from the UCC's national setting.
"I'm not retiring!" she says emphatically, even though she's still "waiting for God to tell me the plan."
"But what I do know is that I've got at least another 10 years or so to do the work," says Jackson, who is 56. "It's interesting to live in the in-between time."
She's closing no doors, she says, even confirming that she would enjoy serving as a parish pastor, if the right opportunity came along. But, in the meantime, she's busy preparing for a personal move from Ohio to Florida. "I love Cleveland," she says, "but I won't miss the snow."
Jackson's husband, Franklin Jackson, a retired educator, has long enjoyed the warmer weather for boating, his avocation.
Starting in October, she says she will spend three or four months doing some writing, and then, in February, she will have a prominent role at the World Council of Churches' international assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Two years ago, she was elected the WCC's North American President.
"Don't ever say what you're never going to do," Jackson says, looking back on her career path. "That I would work for the church, there is no way that I would have ever imagined it. And not in my wildest dreams that I would be an officer of the UCC and a president of the World Council of Churches."
It's about 'the movement'
Over the years, Jackson has become one of the most recognizable, respected and articulate leaders in the global church. During that time, she's seen significant shifts in the church's role around the world — and at home.
"How we see our work in the [UCC's] national setting has evolved," Jackson says. "It's much more about being in conversation and in dialogue about how to do justice work. In the past, people looked at us as the ones who had all the answers and all money, and we're not. Instead, we're the ones who provide technical assistance and, in many instances, we help people to understand that mission happens in many ways and in many places. A lot of time, our work is about networking."
What many UCC members don't ever see or understand, however, is what Jackson calls "the importance of the UCC beyond the UCC."
For a relatively small church, Jackson emphasizes, the UCC's impact for justice has been historically significant and is ongoing. The UCC often has played a behind-the-scenes role in creating, supporting and sustaining many of the nation's most pivotal movements and moments for social change.
"A lot of people have no clue how the UCC has been instrumental in supporting or starting other organizations — and that's fine," she says, "because it's not just about us, it's about being part of a movement."
And the importance of being "part of a movement" is something she hopes the UCC — especially Justice and Witness Ministries — will never forget. "I hope we never just become another institution," she says.
Although it's important for local churches to be engaged in justice work, it's also vital that there be outlets for passionate Christians to come together to work for change, she says.
"If you look at the American Missionary Association, they were a group of abolitionists who couldn't do this work in [their local] church so they formed something alongside the church," she says. "I hope we'll never lose that sense of being part of a movement."
'A sacred commitment'
Looking back, Jackson says she's especially proud of the groundbreaking work that the UCC undertook through CRJ's research and advocacy on "environmental racism," a term coined by UCC people. "I'm proud to have played a part in that," she says.
And she's proud that, for 11 years (without missing a week), she has continued writing a weekly justice column — "Witness for Justice" — that originated in the 1970s as the "Civil Rights Journal" written by the late Rev. Charles E. Cobb and continued by Jackson's CRJ predecessor, the Rev. Benjamin L. Chavis. The column appears consistently in dozens of African-American community newspapers.
"Once I made that commitment to the newspaper, I took it on as a sacred commitment," she says. "And every week, it's been real clear what I was going to write about."
Jackson is encouraged by the church's progress toward becoming a truly "multiracial, multicultural, open-and-affirming, accessible-to-all church," and in the past couple of years, she's seen the church uplifted by the Stillspeaking Initiative.
"All kinds of congregations are enthusiastic about it," she says. "For me that's a sign that people want a church like this."
There have been hard moments too, she notes, especially the $1 million in budget cuts that JWM endured over a five-year period, a fiscal reality that necessitated difficult staff cuts.
On the whole, Jackson says, she remains hopeful about the future of the UCC. And she's prayerful that its justice roots will remain firmly planted.
"Would I like to see the UCC at two million members?" she says. "Absolutely. But that's not for me to measure as a sign of success.
"We're not a church that's been fearful to talk about difficult issues, and for some people that's very hard. But I don't think that God calls us to do the easy stuff," she says.
On July 2, during a General Synod tribute to Jackson's ministry, the Rev. John H. Thomas, general minister and president, described Jackson as a "faithful waterer of the seeds of justice."
"Through the years, you have watered the seeds of justice planted by your forbearers," Thomas said. "...You have given us the faith of watering the plants and the confidence that God will give the growth and for that we give thanks for you."
The Rev. J. Bennett Guess served as Jackson's communications director before being named editor of United Church News.