Jesse Jackson Sr. and Grace Ji-Sun Kim: Partnering in the global struggle for liberation

Jesse Jackson and Grace Ji-Sun Kim speak at an event.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and Grace Ji-Sun Kim speak in South Korea in July 2018. Photo courtesy of Grace Ji-Sun Kim

The esteemed civil rights figure and Asian American theologian speak on how their interests in justice have led to frequent collaboration and a new book.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim remembers her mother watching the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s campaign speeches in the 1980s.

Her mother didn’t understand much English and lived in Canada, Kim said. But she tuned in to the nightly news and listened closely.

“She was intrigued that this black preacher was going to run for president,” she said.

Decades later, Kim and Jackson not only have met but have struck up a partnership that focuses on issues stretching across the globe.

Part of their collaboration includes a new book, “Keeping Hope Alive,” an anthology of Jackson’s sermons and speeches -- surprisingly, the first widely available volume of his oratory.

Kim encouraged Jackson to put the book together and wrote the introduction.

She hopes that the sermons and speeches will give insight into Jackson’s momentous impact on American Christianity and politics over his many years in the public eye.

Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi spoke with both Kim and Jackson about the book, their work together and their understanding of how struggles for justice can be similar even if centuries or continents separate them. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: How did you select the sermons in the book?

Jesse Jackson Sr.: Well, they’re not all sermons per se. But they were all situational and tied to events. Some were sermons at churches, and some were speeches at various events to commemorate Dr. [Martin Luther] King or Nelson Mandela, or at Rainbow/PUSH.

I also had to include some of the ’84 and ’88 speeches in San Francisco and Atlanta from my presidential campaigns and events. There were high moments, for example, and I had to include them. But all of them were pushing the envelope. That’s why we chose them.

We live by our faith and live under the law, and religion fights for just law. We fight things like denial of the right to vote. Some criticize religious missions that have political overtones, but how can you change a condition within people without changing what’s around them?

If you put a size 10 foot in a size 8 shoe, your problem is not your foot; it’s the shoe. It’s the crushing walls around you and the low ceilings that cripple you. You need to expand the walls and raise the roof.

All these sermons are situational and trying to change something in the world. If all you think of sermons is Sunday morning -- three points, an introduction and a conclusion -- then you’re missing out on a lot. If I’m trying to get Bashar al-Assad out of Syria or get Mandela freed in South Africa, those are situational messages.

That’s actually one reason why I was reluctant to do this book, because they were so situational. But Grace Kim and others saw something else in them of value.

F&L: And Dr. Kim, what do you think they reveal about the Rev. Jackson?

Grace Ji-Sun Kim: They reveal a lot. They are a part of a living legacy. He preaches almost every week, and he’s been doing that for most of his work in the last 30 years or so. We can’t include all the sermons. We’ve just got a sample.

As I wrote in the introduction, when he’s speaking, a lot of his speeches are just a way of him preaching too. So I guess for Rev. Jackson, the world is the pulpit, so it doesn’t have to be in a church setting.

Even his speeches -- it feels like there is some theological message in them, so it’s really hard to differentiate his speeches from the sermons. We’re hoping that students and then also people in the church and outside the church, when they read it, will get a glimpse of how Rev. Jackson has understood what it means to be faithful and how you work for justice in society.

F&L: How did you two originally meet?

JJ: In Qatar, at a religious event, a Christian religious event in a Muslim country. I was speaking on how to dialogue between faiths and putting forth our view of theology and the world.

GK: It was interfaith -- Christians, Muslims and Jews -- and Rev. Jackson was the Christian leader there. It was a big, international event. That’s where we met.

F&L: How did you decide to start working together?

JJ: We had similar interests. Grace is a Korean American woman theologian, and she mentioned globalization as an interest, which is also an interest of mine. We found that theologically our roads came together. We believe that there’s redemption in the cross. You don’t just inherit the kingdom; you have to be able to work for it to happen too. We share a lot of values to that extent.

GK: For this book, I did some digging, and then once I realized that these sermons hadn’t been published, I thought, “This is a big void, and it needs to be done.” So that’s how this project began, and I’m just so excited that it’s going to be out soon.

F&L: Can you talk about your work in Korea together?

JJ: Well, I went to South Korea many years before I met Grace. I went with a group of women called “comfort women” when they were under Japanese occupation. [The Japanese soldiers] exploited these women during the war. That was a source of shame for Korean people, and I went to the demilitarized zone, which would become the peace zone. Also, the Koreans who were in Japan that [had to] have an extra identification -- we went to Japan to work on that. They eventually ended that rule that identified Koreans in that way.

We did a lot of work in Korea. Kim [Dae-jung], who became the leader of South Korea, was under house arrest, so we put focus on his situation. Our interest in Korea was another reason why Grace and I created a partnership, because of shared concerns.

GK: He’s always had this interest, the global interest. Koreans in Japan had to carry papers because of colonialism, and Rev. Jackson was instrumental in getting rid of that.

Then when Kenneth Bae was a prisoner in North Korea, that family reached out, and we wanted to help. Rev. Jackson was very keen on helping, so he did more work on building peace between North and South, and that led to the peace group last year, which Rev. Jackson led. I think we were there for eight days.

We met with some of the political leaders, the speaker of the house, some religious leaders and journalists. We went to the DMZ. There are religious leaders who have prayer vigils, so Rev. Jackson led one of those prayer vigils at the border.

We met with the Korean National Council of Churches too, so both religious and political leaders trying to push for peace in Korea. You see a lot of people who want peace in a certain way, but then others are afraid because they don’t want a joined Korea, because some feel North Korea will bring the economy down. There’s a lot of tension. But families are divided, so Rev. Jackson emphasized that we need to reunite the families.

JJ: And separation is happening on our border today. Trump has these babies in cages on the border. Jesus himself was a border baby born under death warrant. Jesus left and went to Egypt as an immigrant and became a refugee, so don’t reject border babies and holler about religion.

One of the problems that we have is that we project Jesus as powerful and rich; we miss the poverty dimension of his life. He was born poor, under occupation, under a death warrant, and he escaped to Egypt to save his life. He came with a mission to tend to the poor, set the captives free, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

F&L: What are some things that you have learned from each other during your efforts to collaborate and partner?

GK: For me, I can’t even put into words how much I learned. I never shared this with you, Rev., so it might be the first time [you’ve heard it].

I was born in Korea and then immigrated [to Canada] in 1975. My mother, until she died, couldn’t speak English very well, but at nighttime back then, everybody had a TV. She would turn on the news, and so when Rev. Jackson was running [for president], she would watch -- which is weird, because she couldn’t understand English very well and lived in Canada. But she was still intrigued.

There’s always this tension between Asian Americans and the black community in the U.S., and I think the more we can work with one another and show that visibility, then the less tension. Or the tension will disappear.

I think the work of Rev. Jackson and how he works -- it is called Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, so working with not just the black community but all communities, Asian Americans included.

JJ: Well, I learned that our languages may be different, but our message and struggle are the same. I was particularly sensitive to “comfort women” in Korea and their oppression, because of the experience of African American women under slavery. None of the blacks coming off the ship looked like us, because there’s been three centuries of rape without recourse, so in some sense, the Japanese occupation of Korea is similar. It’s a shorter period of time, but the principle is the same.

Or the current struggle on our border is similar to what I saw in South Africa in ’79. I got in by chance and got to visit churches under apartheid. I got there, and to my surprise, cameras were everywhere.

“Why are you here?” they said.

I said, “I’m here visiting friends.”

“Why are you really here?”

“What do you think?” I said. “I’m advocating for human rights.”

In this world, there are no more foreigners. We’re all neighbors. I believe that in my soul.