But when Donna Bollinger and Ryan Smith, the two staff members of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Office to the United Nations, wear black, they aren’t trying to fit in or be fashionable. In fact, rather than wanting to blend in with their fellow New Yorkers, they’re trying to draw attention to themselves and the WCC’s Thursdays in Black campaign.
The campaign’s most visible expression is people around the world wearing black every week on Thursdays. It’s a way of regularly reminding themselves and others about the tragedy of gender-based violence. Campaign supporters wear black clothing or a pin to show they are part of the global movement resisting attitudes and practices that permit rape and violence.
The campaign’s visibility with black brings gender-based violence out of the dark shadows. Victims of violence fear stigma and further violence, often forcing them to remain silent. The campaign encourages people to speak out against violence, to ensure that women and men, boys and girls, are safe from rape and violence in their homes, schools, work, and streets.
The office where Bollinger and Smith work sits across the street from the United Nations headquarters in the Church Center for the United Nations. The building houses various UN advocacy offices of U.S. denominations and global religions as well as several non-governmental organizations. Several of the advocacy offices there belong to WCC member churches in the U.S., including the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (together with the Lutheran World Federation), and the American Baptist Church in the U.S.A.
Bollinger and Smith’s work has helped raise the visibility of Thursdays in Black among the Church Center’s tenants and UN bodies.
Speaking on a Thursday in September in the WCC office as the UN General Assembly was in session across the street, Bollinger said gender issues are one of the two major issue areas she and Smith work in, and so Thursdays in Black is a natural fit. The campaign, with its visible and widespread support, gives her and Smith a basis to raise gender-based violence in their advocacy with intergovernmental UN bodies, civil society institutions, and other faith-based organizations.
The campaign has been adopted by other tenants in the building, and many of their staff members also wear black on Thursdays. In addition, the building’s chaplain, Rev. Dionne Boissiere, makes the campaign part of her weekly chapel service for tenants.
As Bollinger and Smith champion Thursdays in Black, one of their goals, according to Bollinger, is to have other organizations and UN sections express their support as well, “and we work with them to become commitment makers in the campaign,” she added.
Smith explained that, at times like the UN General Assembly, many high-level government leaders meet in New York City, and the WCC staff at the UN office bring a voice of faith into those meetings.
And year-round at the Church Center, “the campaign is an opportunity that allows the church community to act together every Thursday to stand up for what we’ve been doing for a long time,” said Smith.