Pastor Alexander Gee said he’s happy to be a community point-person, but he’ll never agree to be the voice of black Madison.
“I know sometimes the broader community wants a black leader. They want a Martin Luther King Jr. They want one spokesperson,” he said. “That voice doesn’t exist. There is no one voice, and if there is, I don’t want it to be mine. I don’t want to make people that comfortable,” he added.
But whether he accepts the label is secondary to the simple fact that when Pastor Gee speaks, people listen.
I met Pastor Gee, Fountain of Life pastor and columnist for The Madison Times, about a year ago at the state capitol. I had gone to cover a kick-off event for the 11 x 15 campaign, a faith-based effort to cut Wisconsin’s prison population in half by the year 2015.
I was surprised to see a pastor show up to advocate for offenders. Growing up, church meant itchy sweaters and countless Sunday hours staring at a disturbing statue of Jesus mounted to a cross. To me, church wasn’t about social justice. It was about doing what I was told.
Maybe that’s what drew me back to Gee recently. Gee is a constant presence in the community. When I cover stories about recidivism or restorative justice, Gee’s name inevitably surfaces.
I wanted to know how Gee reconciled the biblical concept of “turning the other cheek,” with his calls for social change and his willingness to question systems’ effectiveness.
Gee said he favors the role of a rabble rousing mediator — promoting radical change through peaceful means.
In addition to his role as a pastor, Gee is also the president and founder of Nehemiah, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary this Friday.
“For the past 19 years, Nehemiah’s really been a social service agency for African-American families. Because as the black population doubled from 80 to 90, social service providers had not. Social workers, police officers, judges — they haven’t (increased).
“So we’ve seen a disproportionate amount of African-American youth go to juvenile corrections or mental health hospitals,” he said.
Gee is skeptical that state- or city-wide programs can ever support struggling members of the black community as well as faith-based programs can. He said the Department of Corrections, for example, will house individuals for years without addressing an offender’s treatment needs.
“If you can’t fix the problem in 10, 15, 20 years, step aside and let me do my job,” he said.
The problem is bigger than disproportionately high numbers of black men in prison, he added. Last year in Madison, a months-long debate over a proposed charter school for students of color proved to be divisive conversation about race relations and the city’s achievement gap.
“I was talking with a friend this week who said he keeps reading that Madison is one of the best places in the country to live,” said Gee.
“That makes me think there are two realities here. When dropout for black and Latino boys are more than 40 percent, and yet we hear of schools like West and (Madison) Memorial, having huge numbers of national merit scholars, it makes me think there are two Madisons. Two different realities. Two different expectations,” he added.
Before we ended the interview, Gee wanted to make sure I understood one idea: Turning the other cheek is about personal violation and forgiveness, he said, it was never meant as a licence to ignore oppression.
“In fact, scripture instructs you not to turn a deaf ear. There’s a passage in Matthew 25 where a man is being evaluated by God. God said ‘you were a good servant. When I was in jail, you visited me. When I was naked, you gave me clothes, when I was hungry you gave me food, when I was sick you came by and held my hand.”
“The man said, ‘Lord, when did I do all this to you?’
“And God said, ‘when you did it to the least of them, you did it to me.’ “