A spiritual quest for racial justice: How a Huntington woman & Faith in Indiana confront inequality

By Sharon Tubbs, Fort Wayne Ink Spot, Input Fort Wayne
Sept. 2, 2020

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Some would be surprised to learn that the leader behind several recent strides for People of Color in Fort Wayne is a young five-foot-four white woman from Huntington, Indiana.

If so, multiply that emotion by 10, and you might come close to how Audrey Davis feels about her own journey from a small-town girl with no Black friends to a firestarter for racial and economic justice.

The flames ignited in 2017 when Davis helped found Faith in Indiana, then later established and led its local chapter, Faith in Allen County. The nonprofit organizes spiritual leaders around causes that build families; increase voter participation; and promote social, economic, and racial justice.

The organization gained steam locally and internationally in recent months during the Coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide protests after George Floyd’s killing while in Minneapolis police custody.

Faith in Allen County contacted local officials and insisted on accessible COVID-19 testing sites for People of Color. In April, that action helped land one of the first such sites in Southeast Fort Wayne, Davis says. Supporters then spurred the release of Jorge Oliva, a young undocumented immigrant arrested during the downtown protests. Federal agents prepared to send Oliva to Mexico until Davis’ group stepped in with petitions, calls, and a press conference covered by local media.

This summer, Faith in Allen County also helped organize a march of clergy across the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge downtown, held meetings with elected officials to discuss change, and joined other groups to insist that police start wearing body cameras and stop using chokeholds. In July, supporters hosted international activist the Rev. Naomi Tutu, of South Africa, who spoke at Promenade Park.

The work is rewarding, but unending, and at times difficult, especially for Davis. Some have said she lacks the street credibility and the melanin to lead People of Color toward justice.

“The past four months have been the hardest of my organizing life,” Davis says.

She recently announced that her season with the organization soon will end. But the lessons she learned will last a lifetime.

“It’s amazing what people can do when they begin to believe in themselves and decide they will not keep letting others write them off,” Davis says.

White privilege?

Faith in Indiana brought Davis face-to-face with white privilege—or, as she puts it, “my own racial identity, my own complicity as a white person.”

Now 37, Davis never considered herself privileged while growing up. Her single mother worked two or three part-time jobs at times to raise four children. Davis saw her divorced parents fight over child support. Her brother’s father was a drug addict. At church, she noticed a stark difference between the apartment complexes she grew up in and the ornate church buildings where they worshiped. With their stained glass and steeples, the huge structures sparked curiosity. She thought, “What is this thing called the Gospel that people keep talking about?

The answer came when she enrolled in a Catholic middle school. The more she learned of Jesus Christ’s own frail beginnings, the more she felt her life had meaning. She converted to Catholicism at school. Yet she kept yearning for more than she got during Mass. She wanted the spiritual power she felt inside the sanctuary to seep into the real world, to ease the real-life suffering of working-class families like hers.

She didn’t mingle much with People of Color. She could count the number of African Americans in her graduating class on one hand. That changed when she enlisted in the Navy and began to hear how similar some of their stories were to her own. After the military, she went to college and majored in political science and history. Several career transitions followed, including working for a conservative magazine, an inner-city youth program, a college in Rome, Italy, a transitional community for women, and as a waitress in a restaurant.

By 2016, she had moved to Fort Wayne and connected with the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. She talked to Bishop Kevin Rhoades about her growing interest in social justice, and he eventually allowed her to create the Office of Social Ministry. She took a seven-day training about organizing in communities. It changed her life.

“That’s what put me on a path to decide that we need to have an organizing chapter here in Fort Wayne,” Davis says.

An organization that combined faith and justice already operated in Indianapolis. Davis worked with that group to create one new umbrella organization, Faith in Indiana, which now has six chapters, including Allen County’s. It is funded through partner churches, national networks, other nonprofits, and individual donors. The organization’s website declares: “We are building an Indiana where everyone belongs and every family thrives.”

It’s about relationships

Relationships are the best “currency” for social change, Davis says. “If you just continue to be vulnerable with each other,” she says, “eventually, things will happen.”

In the beginning, Davis spent her time calling and sitting face-to-faith with African Americans, Latinos, and white ministers or lay leaders. She would share her heart and listen to theirs. In time, those who felt a similar calling joined the effort.

Pastor Karen Staton, of Destiny Life Center, got on board. Staton, who is African American, is now a board member for the statewide organization. She values Davis’s influence in the community.

“She has helped us as a church to develop leaders, to be confident, to really explore new fields, just doing things never done before,” Staton says. “She has taught me, particularly, how to just never give up, just keep going.”

Others agree that Davis brought a certain freshness to local activism. The Rev. Timothy Murphy, of Plymouth Congregational Church, now serves as a clergy co-chair for the group.

“Over the past nearly two years of our involvement, whether that’s been engaging with the jail reform, or responding to COVID, or police reform, or voter engagement coming up, Faith in Allen County has helped congregations and people come together to offer a vision for justice for our community and organizing to have the power to actually affect that,” says Murphy, who is white.

Membership numbers are hard to nail down, Davis says. The group now includes eight local congregations from various denominations that consistently support its efforts. That does not include individuals and other social service groups that take part in Faith in Allen County’s meetings, protest training workshops, and petition drives. For instance, supporters have established 26 different voter engagement teams to build relationships with 8,000 people before the November election.

Still, not everyone accepts Davis’ relationship currency.

Another white leader openly called her a racist during a recent meeting. Davis and some other Black supporters sat stunned, she says. The slur was based on the woman’s ideology that being white made Davis inherently racist, Davis says.

Some time ago, after Davis talked with local immigrants, someone pulled her aside and advised her not to share her own past. Her experience wasn’t rough enough to resonate, the person said.

“For sure, there were times in my own gestation,” Davis says, “when it would seem like, oh, this should’ve been a job for a Person of Color.”

Davis never forgot one immigrant leader’s encouraging advice: Let go of your “white guilt,” and tap into your “white anger.” That anger toward oppression and injustice drives her to make a difference.

‘Keep going on’

Society has bought into a big lie, Davis says, “that white people aren’t suffering from white supremacy.”

Whites suffer, too, although many often don’t know it. Just think of what could happen, she says, if the white working-class joined with the Black and brown working-class to rally for economic justice for all.

“But the lie politicians feed us is that we are each other’s worst enemy,” she says.

What keeps her going is a simple vision for faith communities: “If we could build something that could do for justice what we’ve done for charity, where people of faith would be able to impact conversations around budget, around access, around accountability in public life, then we might be able to tilt the scales to the economy working for the everyday person again.”

That mission toward justice attracted Junius B. Pressey, Jr. to get involved with Faith in Allen County. He likes the fact that Davis works alongside other groups, such as the NAACP and those affiliated with the local Black Lives Matter movement.

“Faith in Indiana is and will continue to be a strong and powerful voice in Fort Wayne and Allen County because of state and national momentum in its ability to collaborate with other faith-based organizations,” Pressey says.

If Pressey is right, the group may have a long life in Allen County, but not with Davis at the helm. She and her husband are preparing for some personal life changes that require her to step down from the long and intense call. State executives for Faith in Indiana are now considering applicants for her position as lead community organizer.

“Boy, I’m really going to miss her,” Staton says. “We’re all going to miss her. But of course, the movement is bigger than one person. We’ll just keep going on, as we always do.”

For more information about Faith in Indiana or to apply for Audrey Davis’ position, visit faithinindiana.org.

This article was originally published in Fort Wayne Ink Spot.

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