Clergy continue to call for humanitarian trip to Russia for Brittney Griner’s return amid White House negotiations

When asked about whether the Biden administration would support a religious delegation to Russia if negotiations with Russia were unsuccessful, John Kirby told theGrio, “I don't want to speculate on a hypothetical here."

Advocates are continuing to call for a religious delegation trip to Russia to return WNBA star Brittney Griner to the United States, as Griner has since been found guilty and sentenced to 9 years in prison, and negotiations between the Kremlin and the White House for her return remain ongoing. 

Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign and Repairers of the Breach told theGrio that he and a group of diverse religious leaders are willing to, with the help of the U.S. government, take such a trip to Russia on a purely humanitarian basis.

Rev. William Barber speaks during a demonstration at the U.S. Supreme Court during the MoveOn and Poor People’s Build Back Better Action on November 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for MoveOn)

“We would be willing to bring together that kind of diverse coalition…get on a plane and go to Moscow and talk to whoever to say, ‘Let’s put down the swords, the separation and put down all of the schemes and games and just be human for a second and do what is right,’” said Barber. 

“We’re saying to Putin and saying to the White House, we should be looking through this as a moral issue. What has this woman done to even be in court facing [nine] years in prison?” 

Barber added, “it’s utterly ridiculous when you think about it from a moral perspective, and we just want to know that we’re willing to participate in any way that makes sense.”

The activist and preacher said that if Griner were his daughter, he “would hope that the same thing would happen.”

Rev. Al Sharpton, who first called for a Russia trip among religious leaders last month, reiterated to theGrio that he wants to take a clergy visit “on moral grounds.” 

“She needs to understand that people are with her and that she’s not forgotten,” said Sharpton. 

The famed minister and civil rights activist said he was first compelled to go on a clergy trip after speaking with and hearing the anguish of Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner.

US reverend Al Sharpton (C) speaks at a press conference in support of the release of professional basketball player Brittney Griner, on July 8, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois, who has plead guilty to drug charges in Russia. (Photo by MAX HERMAN / AFP) (Photo by MAX HERMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

“[She] told me [Brittney’s] in jail about two and a half hours outside of Moscow. Most people don’t even speak English there,” said Sharpton, who said he’s “concerned about her spiritual and mental health.”

Griner said she unknowingly possessed less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage while traveling to Russia, where she plays professional basketball during the WNBA’s off-season. The 31-year-old athlete pleaded guilty in hopes of receiving a lesser penalty.

Despite Griner’s recent sentencing, the U.S. government is continuing to work its geopolitical levers to bring Griner home from what it determined is a wrongful detainment. Last week, the State Department confirmed that it made an offer to Russia for a prisoner swap to bring back Griner and Paul Whelan, another American imprisoned by the Kremlin since 2018. However, Russia reportedly made a counteroffer that the U.S. deemed “not serious,” and so far, no agreement has been reached.

When asked by theGrio during Tuesday’s White House press briefing whether or not the Biden administration was confident in its ability to reach such a deal with Russia—which is currently locked into a geopolitical conflict with the U.S. amid Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine—John Kirby, White House coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, said that the administration is “not going to negotiate this thing in public.”

“I don’t think it’s helpful for Paul or for Brittney, for us from the podium to get into a back and forth with the Russians over what the negotiations might or might not look like going forward,” Kirby told theGrio. “We made a serious proposal, made a serious offer, and we urge the Russians to take that offer because it was done with sincerity. And we know we can back it up.”

He added, “Bottom line is we want to see Brittney and Paul come home to their families where they belong. And the president takes that responsibility seriously.”

National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby, right, answers questions with White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre (L) during the daily briefing at the White House on August 02, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

When asked about whether the Biden White House would support a religious delegation trip to Russia if negotiations with Russia were unsuccessful, Kirby told theGrio, “I don’t want to speculate on a hypothetical here. I would just tell you that we are working hard, government to government, to get Paul and Brittney home.” He added, “So much so that we did put forth a very serious proposal and I think I’m just gonna leave it there.”

Meanwhile, activists and those close to Griner are doing their part to keep the national focus on her detainment in Russia and ensure her safe return. Griner’s wife Cherelle, her agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas, teammates and the WNBA have organized and attended rallies calling for Griner’s release. 

Karen Finney, a senior Democratic strategist, has been working with Colas and advocacy groups to organize around bringing Griner home. Finney helped lead the signing of a letter from a collective of civil rights, human rights, women’s rights and LGBTQ+ organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Color of Change, National Black Justice Coalition, National Urban League, GLAAD, and several others.

Finney told theGrio that she was compelled to get involved in the efforts to return Griner to the United States because the Olympic gold medalist “represents, in her various identities, the American story so eloquently.”

Brittney Griner #15 of Team United States poses for photographs with her gold medal during the Women’s Basketball medal ceremony on day sixteen of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games at Saitama Super Arena on August 08, 2021 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Finney, who participated in college sports, said she also sees an opportunity for the universal love of sports to be an effective tool to compel Griner’s release. 

“Sports has a unique power to unify people across the globe—that’s what the Olympics is all about,” Finney told theGrio. 

Whether it’s the Olympics or the World Cup, Finney highlighted that athletes cross international borders to participate in various sports that the global community knows and loves. “Brittney’s detention threatens the sanctity of sports and the safety of athletes who travel and compete internationally,” said Finney. 

Rev. Sharpton echoed those sentiments, telling theGrio what Russia has done to Griner “will make athletes afraid to go anywhere in the world.” He added, “The world should not be so isolated that athletes feel that they’ve got to stay home, even under unfair economic conditions, because they could be used as some political chessboard as a pawn.”

Last month, Griner pleaded to President Joe Biden in a letter to do everything he could to secure her return to the U.S. “I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore,” she wrote. “I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”

In response, President Biden sent a personal letter to Griner, assuring her that the White House was doing everything to ensure her safe return. Cherelle, in a previous interview with theGrio, said the president has also extended an offer for her and Griner’s family to visit him at the White House.

Cherelle at the time urged the public to raise their voices for Brittney. “BG is the type of person that if the roles were reversed, she would use her platform to make a difference,” Cherelle shared. “She cares about everybody, and this is the time to now care about her. So continue to lift her up. Continue to make noise about her until the day that we see her back.”

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is the Managing Editor of Politics and Washington Correspondent at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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