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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

An open letter to colleagues and friends following yesterday's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day march for Peace and Justice...



Post MLK day thoughts…

First, a thank you to all my colleagues and their congregations for welcoming our 13th annual march. And for all the prayers and music that was offered. And for the specificity of the prayers. For the young people and children who participated in our event.  For the songs led by Arden. And the continuing presence of the spirit of Father Mike, even in his absence. (I kept expecting to see him at any moment…) And for the visible presence of Captain Mallon of the 24th Precinct, in uniform. His walking with us was an unexpected “win” and I’m sure a result of our hour and a half conversation last Friday.

And thanks for all the work that went in before the march, including Tony’s challenging email, the hours of conversation and planning and the hard work with the police precinct personnel. I am convinced, that at least in our precinct, we chose the right path. The beginning of a closer relationship of openness and trust that hopefully will serve us in the days ahead if we continue to nurture it. On the one hand, the police were accepting of our need to question and challenge. And they were ultimately trusting enough of our integrity to come prepared to march with us, without any pre-agreements of signs or messaging.  For all this we can give thanks.

But I want to challenge us to go deeper. Given the events of the last several months across the country and here in New York City, this year’s MLK march came at a time unlike any others over these last 13 years. Even confronting the war in Iraq did not walk us into controversial community territory. Nor did demanding food justice. But this year is different. And the recent reminder of the Selma to Montgomery march through the movie Selma is a call to us to not misrepresent who Dr. King was, the reality of that movement and what faithfulness to Dr. King’s dream calls us to today.

The complexity of the moment is revealed in the kaleidoscope of yesterday’s events. At noon yesterday, another group of interfaith colleagues met at First Corinthian and then 2nd Canaan Baptist with families of those who have lost fathers, brothers and sons. A solemn procession of mourners in funereal black would walk 4 miles to the United Nations, believing we are experiencing injustice of a national magnitude. Worthy of international attention.

In other cities there were die-ins. And around the country several gatherings like ours, including the SCLC’s!...were disrupted by younger activists feeling that the legacy of Dr. King has been coopted and tamed.  And they have a point.

This is our context:
* Last fall, when our church lifted up Ferguson, one of our African-American members, a Korean war vet, went home to get his sign, Ferguson We Stand With You. That was before Eric Garner. It has been and will continue to be true that a death of a black man anywhere in this country will be experienced as a death everywhere in this country, despite differences in any particular precinct or even city wide department.
* When officers Ramos and Liu were murdered, not on any dangerous duty, but simply on routine patrol, our officers felt under attack. Including members of my congregation, two young Latino children of immigrants, seeking to both have good jobs but also legitimately serve a city that they loved, and live out the values they had learned in church.

As tempting as it is to say, in the words of Rodney King, can’t we all just get along, or both sides feel attacked, it’s time to understand one another and move on, …No, we can’t. The family of Eric Garner still awaits justice. And the example of Latin American countries who after dirty wars just declared amnesty and moved on as opposed to South Africa where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission allowed victims to be truly heard is instructive. It’s not simply a matter of understanding. There can be no understanding without analysis of who has the power to do what to whom. Or, in the words of Dr. King,  “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice,  ...” There can be no reconciliation without reconstruction of the basic relationships.

And this too is context:
* Black people today are incarcerated at a rate higher than in apartheid South Africa and the income disparity in the US is greater than in apartheid South Africa at it’s peak.
* There are more young black men between the ages of 18-25 in prison than in college.
* If you are a black male without a high school degree, there is an 85% chance you will be incarcerated.
* At equal rates of use, 65% of drug arrests, 75% of prosecution and 85% of convictions are from the black community.
* Any one convicted of a felony loses their right to vote.
These are systemic issues, and the police, rightly or wrongly, are seen as the agents and enforcers, and most visible face of that system.
So even though, indeed, all lives matter, one can see why voices feel compelled to cry out that black lives matter…

The movie Selma reminds us that Dr. King pursued voting rights not as an end in jtself, but as the best way to respond to the lynchings and murders of blacks (and others who stood with them) because that was the only way to gain entry into the jury system that allowed murderers to go free. For that reason, he was resolute when even a supportive President told him to be patient.

Sadly, we do not yet have a single focus as clearly defined as voting rights. (And even that is no longer secure…)The specific agenda is still being defined.  We in New York City have the opportunity to be at the vanguard of that critical clarification and response.

As we marched yesterday, we sang songs of a struggle. I reflected on that and wondered if we sing in the spirit of nostalgic memory or active engagement? When we respond to What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now. Is that a liturgy of remembrance or a passionate plea?

I don’t have the answers. But I do know this…we can’t wait for another Dr. King. We must ask ourselves, as faith leaders, what would he be saying today, what would he be doing? And find the words and deeds within ourselves to be faithful…

Thanks again for a great day…and may we hold each other accountable
In peace and justice
Bob Brashear






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