Pastor Josh Williams (Elm City Vineyard) on lament, justice, joy, and protest.
Matthew Croasmun interviews Pastor Josh Williams (Elm City Vineyard, New Haven, CT) about being a black pastor of a multi-ethnic church in New Haven. In this conversation, Williams provides a window into the incarnational theology that truly makes a difference in the world; he reflects on how increased attention to police-involved violence against black life has impacted his life and vocation; he focuses on lament as the first step toward action and justice, but talks about joy and spiritual discipline in the act of protest, and finally, reflects on the fundamentally challenging question everyone is wrestling with right now: What does it mean to love our whole city?
- Josh Williams, Elm City Vineyard Church
- A pastor’s perspective on increased national attention to police-involved shootings since 2014.
- Leading community through following Jesus in the face of racial violence
- The difficulties of multi-ethnic community in these times.
- The assumption that police are good and trying to do right.
- An expectation that the nation is just.
- A practice of lament
- The “Night of Joy”
- Joy is critical because his existence as a black person in American is a protest.
- Bittersweet joy versus vibrant joy
- Joy helps us remember the truth of the fight.
- Living for the sake of the Black and Brown community in New Haven.
- Christian responsibility to the ethics of justice.
- Hopes for the work of understanding from the police.
- Hopes and demands.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
Josh Williams: Joy is critical to this because as a black person in America, my existence is a protest. My existence is a fight whether I want it to be or not. It just simply is because of the color of my skin, because of the history of this nation. If we're going to be in a struggle, then we need joy. We absolutely do because joy is something that helps us remember our humanity, and not just be caught up in a fight against people taking it away or a fight for our lives or for our humanity while we lose who we are in the process.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity.
Matt Croasmun: I'm Matt Croasmun with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. In the early hours of the morning of April 16th, 2019 in new Haven, Connecticut, two police officers fired 16 shots at Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon, an unarmed black couple in their car.
Newscaster: In new Haven, Connecticut, a police shooting has led to nearly a week of protests. Body cam video released today...
Matt Croasmun: Stephanie Washington was hospitalized with multiple serious injuries, including a gunshot wound. One of our core intellectual convictions at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture is that there is no view from nowhere. We all stand somewhere, do our thinking and living from somewhere. Christian theology is always incarnational theology. And so while occasioned by the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, as a nation, we're wrestling with the history of race in America and its impact on policing. We wanted to take this episode to dig into what God is doing here in our community, in New Haven.
To that end, I sat down for a conversation with Josh Williams, Lead Pastor of the Elm City Vineyard Church in downtown New Haven and an alum of both Yale College and Yale Divinity School. To be clear, the Elm City Vineyard is my church. Josh is my pastor, a friend and colleague. It's been an honor to learn from him over the years, and it was great to invite him to reflect on what God's been doing in our church, our city, our nation, and our world.
In our conversation, Josh offers his perspective as a black pastor leading a multi-ethnic church in New Haven and in so doing, gives us a window into the kind of incarnational theology that we think truly makes a difference in the world. We talk about how increased attention to police involved violence against black life has impacted his life and vocation. He suggests the process of lament, mourning and grief is really just the first step toward action and justice. In the midst of social action, he talks about different registers of joy that as a discipline themselves, sustained protests and other works of justice. Finally, he speaks to the fundamentally challenging question everyone is wrestling with right now: what does it mean to love our whole city, even love our enemies?
Josh, it's great to have you here.
Josh Williams: It is great to be here with you. Thanks so much for inviting me.
Matt Croasmun: We were just talking the other day about the ways that your history as the lead pastor of the Elm City Vineyard has been accompanied in many ways by increased national attention on police-involved shootings since 2014. I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit of that story and maybe reflect a bit on the ways that's impacted the life of our church and your understanding of your own vocation.
Josh Williams: Yeah. So I became the lead pastor early in the summer of 2014, but it was announced on August 10th, the day before Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson. And that fall, if you remember, was a string of both events and then also what became known as non-indictments, times where justice was about to be served in a particular kind of way. And there was frustration among many communities that it wasn't.
And that took you from something like August, 2014, all the way into 2015 when the killing of Freddie Gray happened in Baltimore. And so for the first several months of my time being a lead pastor, I led a community through what it meant to be Jesus followers in a nation that was being rocked with, since the beginning, racial violence, but was interpreting that in a new way as a black pastor of a multi-ethnic church.
And so that's some of the context for my own lead pastoring beginning, but it hasn't stopped. There've been, unfortunately, more police killings. And there've been more times where something that I thought was just going to be a regular Holy Week, like last year in the case of Paul and Stephanie and the shooting that happened with them, all of a sudden changed meaning to the point where this Pentecost, we had another sort of revision of a celebration, a Christian holiday, a day of remembrance, but all of a sudden it meant that we were remembering something quite different. And so I've had to realize since 2014. This has really impacted the life of our church and in the way that we've looked at the stories of Scripture and also looked at the lives of people in our nation at first, and then, more and more in our city, as we focused on Paul and Stephanie last year, and then as that opened our eyes to other kinds of police violence that were happening in our state.
Matt Croasmun: Ours is a multi-ethnic church, which is a particular sort of context in which to be doing church and living through these sorts of times. What have you learned? What have you seen us learned together as a church community, as we've tried to be the church in these sorts of times and being responsive to what's happening, in our city and in our nation?
Josh Williams: I think being a multi-ethnic church is a difficult thing to be in times like these. I say that first because people of color and especially black folk, as they're in these church spaces, I think they wonder: is this the space for me? Is this a space where my life will be affirmed? Is this a space where I can cry in an unhindered kind of way? Is this a space where I can be myself and not have to become a teacher to someone else in the same moment that I'm grieving? That's been a challenge to walk that through and to have people be allowed to just be who they are without being a teacher or even a leader, or someone that is feeling responsible for providing something for others.
At the same time, I've seen this be a challenge for white leaders that have had this issue be at their home church In a different sort of way. Having a black pastor, having a black community at their church, there's no hiding. There's no saying maybe we can just skip this in our announcements, but people have had to confront it and feel the familial pain that black folk feel all the time when these names—they might not be our cousin's name; they might not be our uncles names, but they become a kind of kindred-like family very soon.
And so white folk have been on the journey of that. I can remember a conversation I had early on. This was after Mike Brown was killed. And there was a lot of questions about who started the fight, who started the scuffle. And if you guys are familiar with this, this is usually how it goes. There's this adjudication of: was this person a good person? Was this a justified killing? And oftentimes the conversations can start on those grounds. And this person started that conversation with me, a white person in our congregation. And I decided to meet with him. A lot of my black friends, even black colleagues were like, "This is why I would never want to do your job, Josh, and be the pastor of a multiethnic church."
And the same day we're going to meet was the day that the video of Eric Garner came out. And so when I sat down to meet with this person, I said, "Hey, before we talk, do you mind watching this video?" And he watched it and was stunned because for him, the clarity that he wanted to see or was really trying to find in Mike Brown and that incident in Ferguson was just on display in New York with Eric Garner. And I said, "Hey, the reason why I preached the sermon I did and brought this up to our congregation with Mike Brown is because for me, and for many people who look like me, It's not that everything is always crystal clear, but it's that the overall point that black lives matter, but not when people might be afraid of them, or not when people see them in a dark alleyway, or not when people are wondering, "could this person possibly do any kind of harm to me," then they stopped mattering.
He saw on full display what it looked like to take a life. That was a challenging moment for me and for him. But I can tell you in 2020, the same person is now one of the people saying: "Here's my journey. Here's why we need to care. Here's what we can do." And he's had a journey of repentance. It's actually what the sermon that Sunday that frustrated him was about. What does it mean to turn and to say, "Hey, I'm just not going to have enough if I keep doing what I was doing; it's not gonna work for me, but instead I can go down a different path, which might mean—it probably will mean—that my actions will have to be different."
And again, I can say six years later, there's an incredible difference in this person. And it's not "I figured it out," but it's "I've been undone before and so I'm willing to continue being undone myself and lead people in a journey of undoing that looks like taking off a kind of hat of a judge and a seat of a judge, and instead walking with, people that have been experiencing different kinds of racialized pain and violence for a long time."
Matt Croasmun: That's such a powerful story. And I think so much of it does turn on that question that so many white folk often start with, which is the "wait, I just want to know the details." Can you just highlight again that piece of the problem and how it's different for white people than it is for black people?
Josh Williams: Yes. So I think, and obviously this is broad strokes, but when white folk look at police violence, oftentimes there's an assumption of police are good people, and police need to do a certain kind of job. And so if there's a situation where there's been violence or brutality, there must be some reason why police did this. It must be because there was a threat to that community, and the police was trying to address that threat. It must be because there was maybe violence towards the police and we all know, self-defense, and even stand-your-ground laws.
And so we've got to assume that. Something went wrong with that for such a grave injustice to happen—or a such a great act of killing, I should say. That's the thinking. It starts with a "this doesn't happen though, so how could it." And oftentimes this is where we get colorful biographical details about certain people's lives. It turns out they smoked marijuana three years ago. There was a time, six years ago, where an incident that was reported by a local gas station, or did you know that their family member that they were involved in gang activity.
We get all these biographies and not just biographies, we often get certain kinds of pictures. There was once a time where my friends and I were part of a mini social network movement where people said, "Which picture are you going to use?" And it was a picture of us as black folks smiling, being happy, being joyous, or the picture where we look hood or where we look angry, or we look hard in a way because we noticed that when people were getting killed—it's not really the mugshots, but especially effectively became the mugshots—they looked a certain way. And so we began to realize, respectability won't save us; respectability politics won't save us. In the black Yale community, obviously being an alum or what we say is our Yale sweatshirts, our Yale hoodies won't save us. At the end of the day, we're still black folk and some people will use a different word to express that. At the end of the day, we're still whatever worst fear someone wants our black bodies to be.
And so, in terms of black folk, how they see this is often: "So this happened; okay, what's the history of this cop? Does this cop have complaints against them?" Pretty easy thing to find out. But it's what might be the history of this cop. And it's interesting in the case of Ahmaud, in the case of George, what's coming up is these police officers had a history with them. They had seen them before. They had been to a nightclub together. They had been in some kind of altercation before. And it seems like part of this aggression and brutality and violence might've been a personal score. We don't know that, but these weren't strangers. And black folk come to these conversations often with an assumption that this isn't just strangers. At the most personal, it's actually individual or it's families and at the most distant but still intimate, it's that this person has had a kind of interaction with black folk that has shaped their policing.
In the case of people say, "It's not police, but citizens doing this." It's shaped their way of using authority that there's an intimacy in the violence that otherwise—maybe by other people it wouldn't be seen, but black folk can just read that somewhat intuitively. It takes a kind of person to stand on someone's neck, to kneel on their neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. And so let's investigate that either first or along side anything else that, someone might've done. These things can happen at the same time for black folks and often do, knowing just how much for many black people, the case of violence in their community is a real thing. So it's not that they're naive to that, but they're carefully considering, "yes, the police could be one that could do violence, that could be one that commits brutality. That's not off the table or a radical thought because of the history."
Matt Croasmun: Yeah, for white people, these are tragic exceptions to some sort of expectation that our nation is just, our world is just, whereas for black folk, for black folk in my religious community, they're not surprised. And part of learning what it means to be brothers and sisters together, what it means to be an ally is learning the history well enough to not be—tragically, to not be surprised.
One of the ways that you led our community into developing some of this sort of solidarity actually at first was leading us collectively into this practice of lament. And you said to me recently that you thought that you're almost disappointed that you had the sense that what God wanted you to do is lead our community into lament at one point. I wonder if you could reflect a little bit what was that experience like. Why did you lead us into this practice of lament? What do you think it builds in our community? And do you think we're in a sort of different moment as a church and maybe even as a nation now?
Josh Williams: Part of what's helpful for me here is context. In 2014, it was the first time I had seen and experienced a police killing while being lead pastor. But since my adolescents, that's how long I've been experiencing these kinds of police killings: Amadou Diallo, hearing the story from my parents about his brutal rape and then being killed; and then Sean Bell, when I was in college, the day before, his wedding at his bachelor party, shot by the police so many times, and being with black men and some of my closest friends and just wondering could this happen to us at the time were so many of us were profiled by Yale's police and regularly we're asked to show our IDs for students for students.
So when I came to 2014 and was leading and serving a community, part of what happened when this occurred was, "Wait, what are we going to do?" I've been an activist in college. I've been someone that has led different justice efforts. Now all of a sudden I have a primary shepherding role and a primary communication role and influencing a sizable community. Asking God, "What would you have me do?" And at the same time, I realized something. And I think that realization came watching a movie called Fruitvale Station, which is a story of Oscar Grant who was also killed by the police, a BART officer, out in the Bay area. And the film is beautiful. Absolutely wonderful. And part of its beauty is it showcases this man's last 48 hours or so.
And you see the humanity of which he carries himself, the complications that he has. And at the end of the film, spoiler alert but you should know it already, he gets killed. And there're a few scenes afterwards of his family, and some things wrap up the movie, but then all of a sudden it flips to real life and you see his real life daughter and you see his mother; you see his partner. And it becomes real in a different kind of way even though the movie already helped that.
And as I was watching this film in New Haven with just maybe a handful of other people, no more than 10, and we all stayed after the movie was done. We stayed for the credits. We let them linger. Then all of a sudden it was black, pitch black, and we all stayed. I remember whispering to my wife and sharing, "I think this is where we mourn." I think this is where we grieve, but we didn't have language for it. We didn't have a practice for it. I think I realized then, in my heart, maybe through the work of the Holy Spirit, this is what I need to lead the community in, the community for which God's given me responsibility.
The primary responsibility is first to lament, so we recognize that these black lives that are lost are valuable far before they're hashtags, that we can't just say black lives matter as a funeral chant. We have to lament, so we value black lives separately. I felt like if I had moved into a place of justice, we would be doing it out of a kind of heart for a fight or to prove someone wrong or to get something done, but not to do that in honor of these families that have slain people now in their lineage, not in the honor of these souls that have been taken.
And that was a hard burden for me to bear because I didn't think that being a lead pastor in a multi-ethnic church would look like starting with lament, starting with sadness or with grief. But in that moment of watching that film, I don't know if it was anything that proceeded that, but certainly that moment afterwards, I realized, "No, for us to really do a fight for life, at the end of the day, we have to respect that life in the first place, and we do so by grieving and by lamenting and doing it corporately.
I'll speak for our church, but I think it goes a little bit beyond. I think that it's no longer the time for simply black people to lament or to lead multiethnic or corporate spaces like a city or a movement to lamentt. I still think that can happen, but I think the time for black folk or people of color leading that way, it's a little bit near the expiration date. And I say that, again, not because it won't ever happen, but because I think white folk need to be some of the ones leading their own communities into lament and lamentation.
And also with the blessing of kind of a multi-ethnic team, where they need to say:w "Hey, I'm going to take up the burden of finding a way for lamentt to happen. I love you to speak into that process. I would love for you to help guide it, to give me thoughts and encouragement, but I actually want to take up the brunt of this." And I think it might be the time for leaders of color and again, specifically black leaders, and especially ones who have been on a journey of lament to say, "Actually, we're not just going to be publicly sad, but we're going to publicly fight for justice," and do that in a way that is, in the words of Jesus, seeking first the kingdom. I say that because I feel like we sense in this moment something is different. There's a different kind of awareness. and I think we've got to keep lament as something in our tool belt, but I think stopping there would be a mistake. And I think having black folks continue to lament black lives would also be a mistake. I think there's got to be more that happens here. So I think that's where we are at this particular juncture.
Matt Croasmun: Along the way, in addition to leading our community into times of lament, you've also, implemented an annual remembrance around Martin Luther King Day weekend, which really become us for feast day for our church. You've implemented this Night of Joy. And I wonder whether if you want to say a little bit about the way that you see joy. We saw it at the protest at the demonstration last weekend, led by the youth in our city. They said, "alright, now it's time for black joy." And then they had a sense that not just joy, but a particular sort of joy was actually going to be itself sort of part of the fight or part of the witness, at least, to what we were all there to demonstrate and on behalf of. S o how do you see the role of joy in moments like this?
Josh Williams: Joy is critical to this because as a black person in America, my existence is a protest. My existence is a fight whether I want it to be or not, it just simply is because of the color of my skin, because of the history of this nation. So when I step into joy, I release some of that. I think it just changes really the resistance, but I released some of that. And what I get in return is a kind of joy and festivity and fun and love that is still protests because I'm still black, but it leans not into the story of death but into the story of life and the life we want to see.
This is what I've experienced at protests before either you're setting up or you're tearing down or you have the audacity to make it to the protests like they did last week where you say, "Yeah, my protest is dancing to the song; my protest is my laughter." And what's interesting about the Civil Rights Movement is you see some of that in the life of MLK. You see this hardy resolve, but you also see a time of laughter and singing. MLK himself would say he'd call Mahalia Jackson; he'd call and say, "Hey, can you sing the song? Can you give me the strength?"
And sometimes that joy becomes bittersweet and it's more like the blues. But other times the joy is vibrant and it's alive, and it's more like something of a funk or more like something of a gospel tune. And there's different registers for it. But I think that's so important and here we have on our calendar is something that our whole nation of celebrating—this man who is not just inspired by the principles of Jesus, but following Jesus. You're having a deeply personal relationship with God and leading a community of people into it, such that they did not just lunchtime counter protest, but they were training for months, for black folk having themselves and also white colleagues call them the N word, slap them in the face, make sure that they had enough training, so they could resist that on the day it happened. That's the kind of community MLK led from a deep place of spiritual formation.
And yet, there's this wonderful picture I love of him. This is him laughing. And in the friendships that he had, in the music he loved, in so many different ways that joy was a part of that movement. That's part of how they won. That's part of how they kept singing. And I think honestly the times are different. I can tell you just being frank and being upfront, that a lot of my black friends in and outside of the church would have some difficulty being part of, at least, an interpretation of what they see MLK doing, particularly the long suffering. But what hasn't changed is that sense that if we're going to do a long fight, if we're going to be in a struggle, then we need joy. We absolutely do because joy is something that helps us remember our humanity and not just be caught up in a fight against people taking it away or fight for our lives or for our humanity, while we lose who we are in the process.
Joy helps us remember what the fight is about in the first place. And it gives us somehow rest as we're partaking in these actions of joy and habits of joy. So that's I think why it's so important to keep doing that on a local level, at a church level, but also to find out who are people in the national scene, bringing forth the kind of joy in their activism, and to see maybe they've got some of that special stuff that makes them be a person or a part of a movement I want to follow.
Matt Croasmun: That's so great. It resonates also with things that we've heard as a center from Willie Jennings and during our study of joy, where he said there's joy work to be done, joy as protests against the sort of ways of the world. That's beautiful. This podcast's title For the Life of the World comes from this idea that we want to do theology; we want to live Christian lives not just for ourselves or for some small group, but for the sake of the world, for the sake of the life of the world. But, we know that there's that Dostoevsky line that I love in which a character confesses, the more I love humanity in general, the less I love humanity in particular. So we always want to be particular and living for the sake of the world. What have you learned about what it means to live for the sake of New Haven or more specifically to live for the sake of black and Brown community in New Haven?
Josh Williams: Yeah. this is one of the most challenging questions for me. Being a pastor of a multi-ethnic church that's grown more and more, and having people of color, not just from our university settings, but from the city. How do you have an aim of your pastoral life that isn't just for those you gather, but those you want to gather, but also those you imagine because of the mission of the Church? We would want to be in great Hispanic churches, great black churches. How do you live for them? How do you pastor for them and with them? And I think part of that means you imagine them theologically; you imagine them in your Scriptures as you read them. You imagine them not just as the other, but you start to imagine them as the disciples. You imagine them as part of the work of God. You make space for that to be something that happens in your reading.
That's been powerful to try to think. When I'm thinking about, Jesus and the disciples am I thinking about just our church, or am I thinking about a community that's been here long before I've been in New Haven that is doing God's work and might be a beat down, might be struggling, might be doing it in a place of having wanted allies and people in the fight for a while? And, our church started in 2007. So that's one aspect, you're just like theological imagining. Can I imagine folk?
But then also, what am I doing to really get proximate? it was amazing to see a young man that you, Matt, and myself and others at our church had been a part of serving a youth center, or in the early days of our church community. He's one of the speakers at the protest a week ago. That's an amazing thing to see when you're in a city for a while, you get to grow up with people. But people just in your city, are you thinking about them when you pastor? Are you open to actually pastoring them without them ever being a part of what you consider normally your life and community? And then the last thing is what kind of sacrifices are you making? What real dollars in your budget, what real hours in your time are going to other kinds of people? For people of color, it might be stretching themselves for the neighborhood they're not from, from an expression of blackness or an expression of being Latino that they just don't really know about. This is a surprise to some, but we're actually different. And so what does it mean to get closer and get proximate in that way? Or if someone's white, what does it mean to stand in solidarity, but also to give up resources, and to build other people up, especially when you're being directed by them in doing that, not just by your best thought of what could happen, but actually listening enough to know?
I think this is where maybe some money can go or some time can go or some influence can go. You can do things. We have the ability; we have the time; we have resources. How can you get proximate even with the constraint and sometimes constraint is what drives us to really beautiful, great ideas. And so I would say no matter where you are, whether you're a congregation or just a person, what are ways that you can get proximate, but then get proximate as a curious learner that is direct-able, not just someone that's going to come in and swoop in and do whatever they want.
Matt Croasmun: You've worked quite a bit with some local organizers who are leading some of these demonstrations that have been advocating for changes in the ways that our city, the university, some of the other communities around us, do their policing work. But you've also worked with the police. That's quite a challenge. I just wonder in recognizing the ways that various systems of injustice produce and reinforce conflicts, like the conflicts often between police and black communities, what does it mean to love the whole city? I know that's right in the teeth of the struggle that we're in in the moment, but this is something that, I think, Christians are wrestling with.
Josh Williams: No, I agree. And I think as Christians, there's a different kind of responsibility and different kinds of ethic that we have. We're people not just of justice, but also of mercy. And sometimes in certain circles, you can wonder where is the mercy. We're people that are not called just to love some people, but to love people in every kind of corner and that's hard. But there's something about what Christ's teachings are that do challenges us in this way.
The particular one that I had to think of that led me on my own journey is what does it mean to love your enemies. I forget if this was in me teaching at ECV or someone else teaching—probably with someone else—I just had to wrestle with, loving your enemies doesn't mean your personal enemies, people that you feel are against you or that you're against. But I had to start realizing that I think it's also people that because of the category of person you are, that they could see you as an enemy. Because of the category of person someone else is, you could conceivably see, "Oh, this is how I think someone would think a Christian is against this person or whatever." And I was like, dang it. The police are definitely that for me as I lead my church to empathize differently and to think newly and to act in a different kind of way. Part of what someone could conceivably think of is, "Oh, that person must be against the police or against police in general."
And as I examine my own heart, while I've been detained by the police, stopped in a way that I thought was unfair, definitely had a lot of friends experience what was certainly abuse and borderline brutality, and obviously have these what I call extended family stories of brutality and killing, there wasn't honestly something in my heart that was like super hardened, like I just can't get past this thing to love them. But there was incredible amounts of distance, incredible amounts of numbness, incredible amounts of just not really caring that much. And in my book that still isn't love.
And one of our congregants sent me a link for a Citizen Police Academy that was being done by Yale. And so I just realized as it entered my inbox, "Oh no, here we go." And I signed up. And I sat in these lessons about what the Yale Police Department does. And I listened to people. I learned. I didn't realize this, but I was going to be in class with people who are looking to apply for police jobs that were using this as a resume pad. I didn't conceive of that at the first point of thinking about this class, but there were aspiring police that were in the class with me. And because it was around 2014, 2015, there were definitely people that were like, "I'm watching you; what are you going to tell me? What are you going to do?" But it was so important for me to get proximate to them, to learn more about their job, to see that it has genuine difficulties, and to begin a journey of humanizing them.
To be honest, that really didn't happen a tons in the Citizen Police Academy. But what I learned about in that Academy was there was a weekly meeting called COMPStat. New Haven is one of several American cities that has an open police meeting where every week they talk about all the neighbors of our city; they talk about the different crime stats, and they talk about ways that the police were even involved in the community.
It was really at that meeting when I was hearing the banter of Yankee-Red Sox jokes, hearing everyone groan about the Patriots, seeing the ribbing between the New Haven police and New Haven fire, and seeing, honestly, the diversity, the different skin colors in the room. I realized, okay, they are people, and I knew that already, but now I'm seeing it in a different way. And I would, to be honest, also see ways that sometimes that kind of humanity was constricted a bit when there were threats, when there was a city activist that said I'm going to come to COMPStat, and then we weren't invited to come the next week because of the disruption that people felt like she provided for the meeting before. So it wasn't like seeing a crystal clear "Oh, they're perfect," but it was seeing the mess and having the police be a part of that mess. And so that began a journey of working with police to at least do some dialogue efforts, having a personal relationship, talking to various police chiefs individually. That's been good for me. It's been challenging. It's been difficult. But it's good work and it's work that I hope is putting me on the road to loving my enemies, even if I wouldn't want to call them that to their face, and it's been doing good work of leading the community where I know some would actually call the police enemies to their face, and those are the people I'm pastoring.
Including this last, moment of sending an email to my police chief now that I know somewhat well and sharing, "Here's my commitment to you; here's my hope for you as a local church pastor, including the details of the fact that, his force tear gased two of my congregants, right? That's some of our family business together to sort out. But I thought it was important that I send that email from a place of both personal relationship, but again, less that, cause we're not no good friends yet; but more, as someone that's a person in the public square as a pastor, I want you to know what I'm committed to you; I want you to know what I'm hoping for in you. And I want that to be on the table as we move forward with many more protests and demonstrations. It was good that I'm in a place where my, not just heart is in a place, but the work that we've done as a community is in a place where there is a relationship. There is a context to love. We're not just in a vacuum. That's been really important for me as I've seen it and grown in that kind of connection with the police over the years.
Matt Croasmun: What are some of those hopes that you have for the police chief, if you're comfortable sharing those?
Josh Williams: Yeah, so one of the hopes I have is a deep work of understanding and part of the understanding being people ask protesters to be nonviolent, which is maybe a podcast for a different day, or maybe what we'll talk about now. But there's always these kind of requests and maybe sometimes even demands from some people to have protestors be nonviolent. But I think there's ways when we think about escalation, which police are trained in and I don't have that training, but they do where we know showing up in riot gear is different than showing up in a uniform. We know the difference of what it means to pepper spray, especially in the context of being amidst of pandemic. And again, I don't have the expertise to know when deescalation does involve using certain kinds of force or certain kinds of aggression to keep other kinds of violence at bay—that might be the most generous way of describing why police would use strategies like that.
But having hopes that there'd be a deep work of understanding that the riot gear versus the uniform isn't a neutral one, that that matters for our city to see our police. It matters for us to know that community policing is an effort that just statistically does seem to work in terms of getting certain kinds of crime metrics down. It effectively means that some people have an occupied force in their neighborhood and other people in other communities don't. And that's going to be one of the tensions, especially when people call for things like defunding the police or abolishing the police. But some people feel like it's ending the occupation, not just losing security in our city.
And so hoping that we have a kind of generosity in understanding one another without vilifying positions, or just having a burden beyond protestors or even the community, when I think it's a shared burden. And I think our police chief really gets a lot of that. I have a lot of hope for that. And also just reminding, the police chief of ways that he shared his story publicly. He's a native of New Haven. He's been in New Haven way longer than I've been. Seeing that his, mom is a community member, who's praying for him all the time for his safety, for the safety of the force, for the safety of our community. Sometimes it is helpful to remind people where they came from or to remind them that you actually like share that a lot. So that's some details that are important, I think, for me and even for our community and for protesters to know.
I think one of the things that I said that I'll stand on is, even if we're across from. each other, literally on different sides, but somehow through our commitments to one another, we could still be on the same side, but only through our commitments to one another, Only to some deeper work. I still might be on the side of the protestors and he might still be on the side of the police, but there's work to do and seeing ourselves still as on the same side, given that we want to be great citizens and great people of the city that are working together to build a different kind of peace than the one we have, a peace that's deeper and more long lasting.
Those are some of the hopes, and I think people might accuse them of being somewhat pollyanna or sky high, but I really do think sometimes relationally things start there and then we can get down to more of the details of "so what does that look like for the fact that the Yale Police Department doesn't have clear autonomy in terms of how to report abuses or brutality." what does it mean that Hamden kind of sneaks into our borders that's part of the shooting that you referenced, Matt, in the intro? That those things need to be cleared up. I definitely have hopes for that, but sometimes I think those hopes might be more understood than we think, but it's some of those softer approaches of "can we understand deeply how we have similar concerns or can you understand deeply how we see you?"
Something that might be more important than getting that concrete list of demands. To be honest, the same list of demands that people have had at the shooting of Paul and Stephanie, more or less are the same ones that we have now. I think Yale did one of making one of the officers that shot Paul and Stephanie a desk officer, that's no longer going to carry a gun, I think, for the rest of his career. But besides that, there hasn't really been that much concrete or tangible. Sometimes I start wondering, "Is there something in the system of how we're relating that can change." And sometimes I wonder if it's not just saying the demands again, but building a kind of relationship that can move things forward or can change things. And if I'm just an optimist there, I guess you can accuse me of that. But, I hope that it's not just optimism, but relating differently as different folks in the city, different actors in the city. I really hope that can start changing things in a different way.
And I honestly would say, I think that's part of what's happening in 2020 with George Floyd. You have different kinds of actors in a city behaving differently, listening differently and joining sometimes what people used to see as a radical call of a protester. Now all of a sudden city councils are shifting to have that be where they're starting from. That's not just a difference in demands because the demands have been out there. I think it's a difference in our relating differently to a community. I think that's one of the big things that's moved the needle on this.
Matt Croasmun: Josh, thank you so much for this conversation. And thank you just for your candor and for your service and your leadership to our church over the years and the ways that I'm a better follower of Jesus for your ministry and your leadership. Thank you for being here for this conversation.
Josh Williams: Yeah, you're welcome. It's been a joy to share some stories with you guys.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured Pastor Josh Williams of the Elm City Vineyard in New Haven, Connecticut, along with Matthew Croasmun, Director of the Life Worth Living program at Yale. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. We'd be honored if you subscribe to the show. It's available wherever you can listen to podcasts and new shows drop at least every Saturday. And if you've been listening to the show for a while, we sure would appreciate a rating and review in Apple podcasts on our show page. Leaving that rating and review helps others find the show. And it gives us a good idea as to what's working and what's not. Thanks for listening.