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On the last day of Kwanzaa, the focus is on Imani, or faith


Today marks the last day of Kwanzaa, a seven-day holiday created over 50 years ago to honor Black community and culture. Each day represents one of seven core principles, including unity and self-determination. And today is all about Imani. That's the Swahili word for faith. Reverend Kimberly Quinn Johnson serves as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork in Bridgehampton, N.Y. She's been celebrating Kwanzaa for years but began including her church in the celebrations during the pandemic. She joins us now from Long Island. Welcome. Blessed Kwanzaa.

KIMBERLY QUINN JOHNSON: Thank you. Blessed Kwanzaa. Happy Kwanzaa.

GURA: I want to ask you first just when you decided to include your congregants in the celebrations. Why did you decide to do it during the pandemic?

JOHNSON: There were a few reasons why I started sharing it with my congregation. First is with the killing of George Floyd and the sort of increased attention on the movement for Black lives and interest in Black culture, I wanted to take advantage of a moment. And also because of COVID, I saw a greater need for community, people really hungering for ways to create community, ways to be in community.

GURA: The last day of Kwanzaa always lands on the first of the new year. That seems significant, starting a new year with faith.

JOHNSON: So it does feel significant for me. Kwanzaa - you know, it's not a religious holiday. It's a cultural holiday. But there is room there for us to think about our faith, whatever our spiritual grounding is as we go into the next year, how our faith will sustain us.

GURA: We've been talking about faith. And I mentioned unity and self-determination. What are some of the other principles of Kwanzaa?

JOHNSON: Collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and then faith.

GURA: Kwanzaa was created by a Black African studies professor for Black people. I wonder, how can everyone draw inspiration from this holiday?

JOHNSON: So I think on one hand, to pull from the universal elements, the universal teachings of Kwanza but also to stay grounded in this idea that it is a celebration and a learning of African heritage and African culture. So for example, when I ask my congregation, which is mostly white, to think about self-determination, I'm asking us to think about how we can support Black and brown communities in their self-determination. When we think about cooperative economics and collective work, I'm asking people to think about how we can be in relationship with Black communities around this ethics of cooperative economics. That is not charity but is how we are sharing our resources.

GURA: I'll ask you lastly - the past couple of years have been tough for so many people. You've had to go all-virtual again. And I wonder, how can people keep faith specifically alive in a time of loss and grief? What have your conversations been like with congregants about that?

JOHNSON: So when I think about how we are surviving this pandemic and how we are, in lots of ways, small and large, actually thriving in this moment, part of how we do that is in community. And so how are we grounding and connecting to what matters to us so that we are moving forward in a way that's creative - right? - that we are generating life and joy and art? Not despite grief, right? Grief is a real reality of our lives. And even so, there is opportunity for joy and connection in the face of our grief.

GURA: Reverend Kimberly Quinn Johnson of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork. Reverend, thank you very much. Happy New Year.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Happy New Year.


David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.