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Apr 19, 2016

Working Towards Racial Reconciliation in Jasper, Texas

When things came to a head in Jasper, Texas, Hill Kemp and his Peace Beyond Understanding (PBU) non-profit sprang into action. There was a rash of arson fires on Black properties in Jasper – a residence, a church and then a beauty shop. Kemp, a white male raised in the Presbyterian Church, learned that three families – the owner and two beauticians – depended for their livelihood on that beauty shop. As a tax exempt religious organization, PBU was able to raise more than $10,000 to help re-build the beauty shop.


On March 13, 2016, PBU and First Presbyterian Church in Jasper hosted the Rev. Les Spears and members of Trinity, Jasper, along with Ayesha Mutope- Johnson, chair of the Multi-Cultural Network of Province VII. Guests were treated to a potluck dinner as they shared stories about racial injustice.


“This is what PBU is all about”, said Kemp, “we are seeking to make Jasper a loving and inclusive community, one relationship at a time.” Mindful of the negative image fostered by the James Byrd murder in Jasper in 1998, PBU seeks to create a safe space for authentic relationships that reach across racial lines.


PBU’s chief initiative is Friend to Friend, which calls people to develop deeper relationships with their neighbors of different races by inviting them out for a cup of coffee, lunch, or just to talk, on a one-to-one basis. Kemp cites research that shows that most people have few deep and meaningful relationships with those of other races or cultures. “Friend to Friend challenges us to step outside of our usual circles and bridge the racial divide in our community,” Kemp said.


Kemp’s life tells a great story of how he came to form PBU and work towards peace in the small town of 7,700 people. He was raised in a family, and wider community, where racial prejudice was the norm. It was all he knew.


However, when he went to college, he had an epiphany and realized that racial prejudice was a form of sin that he couldn’t continue to abide. This awakening changed his life. Today he still worships as a Presbyterian, but he is a new kind of Christian. And he spreads his philosophy of peace and justice wherever he goes. “Peace is not just the absence of conflict, he says, “we need to do more to bring people together,” Kemp said.


When asked how the people of Jasper respond to his efforts he says: “At first they weren’t that sure about our motives, but people are warming up and are more willing to make friends and build relationships across racial lines. Through telling our stories, listening to each other, and educating ourselves about the history they don’t teach in school, we will bring peace and justice to our community, starting right here in Jasper,” Kemp said.