CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Jasir Bey knows what it’s like to be poor, left out, mistreated.
His experience is what gives him passion to help others rise above circumstances and systems that not only keep black people down but push them down further.
“I know other people have the same walk and the same story I have,” he says. “I think that I might have gone through those things so I can help others go through their own process.”
Bey, age 44, leads a mission called “One Nation” at Eastdale Village Community United Methodist Church. For the last five years, Bey has worked with people inside and outside the church to educate teenagers and adults and then engage them in community work.
“Because of the poverty that happened around them – if you can educate them and get them to visualize something outside of that, then they have a greater opportunity to be successful,” Bey said. “When you’re trying to change your community, hopefully if you can reach one, they can teach another.”
The One Nation group started with two and now involves between 20 and 30 participants. Bey’s mission is supported by a congregation and pastor who are longtime leaders in fighting for social justice in Chattanooga.
Just last week, the Rev. Charlotte Williams, Eastdale Village pastor, stood on the steps of city hall with other clergy to speak against budget decisions they said failed to reflect voices and concerns of “black and brown bodies.”
Racism will not be stopped, says Bey, until people stand together to hold their government accountable.
“We think we want the government to fix this, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re the ones who caused it,” he said. “So you can’t expect someone who caused the situation to fix it. We have to collectively as the people get more involved and get more aware and conscious of what our government is doing. And some of it isn’t going to be easy to change.”
Police brutality is “just the tip of the iceberg” of the ways black citizens are mistreated or not treated equally in the judicial system and beyond, Bey said. “They don’t even understand what’s going on behind the scenes. Unfortunately, I was put in positions where I do know.”
Bey was “given up at birth” and spent his childhood in foster homes and group homes. “I grew up in poverty not knowing who my real family was,” he said. “I made a lot of bad choices because I didn’t have proper guidance. I was just basically in survival mode pretty much.”
He was incarcerated and “had to go through things that were inhumane, from the people who were supposed to be there to reform you. It was never meant to be a reform. It was meant to be a revolving door,” he said.
As Bey grew older, he felt a passion to want to change himself and help others change.
“People can change. People can grow," he said. "But how can you change if you’re in the place that you’re in? They’ve got their foot on your neck and they’re holding you down and mistreating you.”
When he became a part of Eastdale Village Community Church, Bey started One Nation. Small groups meet in the church to learn life skills, such as how to manage their money when they work temporary jobs. Then they look for opportunities to serve their community.
The One Nation group helped neighbors clean up after the April 2020 tornadoes. Other projects have included cleaning up historic Pleasant Gardens Cemetery, which includes the graves of Lula Kennedy, Chattanooga’s first black music teacher, and Ed Johnson, the black man who was falsely accused of raping a white woman and lynched on the Walnut Street Bridge.
“They’re trying to restore dignity into the community and bring churched and unchurched people together to do the work and identify with one another,” Williams said of the One Nation mission. “They see people in distress ... and are trying to break down the stereotype of the African-American man.”
The COVID-19 pandemic caused Bey to be laid off from his job at a manufacturer of counterweights. His church building is also not available for the One Nation group to meet, since Holston Conference closed buildings to the public in March.
However, Bey, who has five biological children of his own, has not stopped reaching out to the children of all ages in his community that he believes in. He says many of the people who claim to want change are actually using the “Black Lives Matter” cause to further their own agendas.
He wants to see people get up and actually do something, which will take a long-term commitment.
“Because you can sit back and relax and think things are happening in a good way, and it’s not,” he said. “Your kid or child or someone you love could fall victim to that same system. You have to do something to change it.”
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
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