‘A very broad power base’: CT faith leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement
Nearly 450 people were watching on their computers last Monday as Tamara Shockley, a congregant at Calvary Baptist Church in Norwalk, pressed her state lawmaker for a commitment to support police reforms.
“Representative Stafstrom, will you push for the passage of legislation that grants local civilian review boards subpoena power, and establishes either an agency to investigate police use of force or requires an independent prosecutor to prosecute those cases?” Shockley asked.
“The short answer is, yes,” began Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport. “We need to move beyond the existing investigative authority and role that we’ve vested in the past.”
Stafstrom was not the only lawmaker in the hot seat during the June 15 Zoom call with members of Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut (CONECT), a multiracial, interfaith organization that represents 29 churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples across New Haven and Fairfield counties.
In a carefully planned procession, congregants shared personal stories of police brutality, incarceration, and health inequity, then made specific requests to the 15 Connecticut legislators present, including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, and state Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven.
Throughout the event, legislators confirmed their commitment to a range of issues, including rental assistance to undocumented immigrants, police accountability, and improved COVID-19 racial impact data. And they made those commitments to faith leaders – a group that has historically pushed for reforms, like health equity and immigration rights, but is now aligned in a newly united front around racial justice reform in the state.
I will die being disappointed unless every single institution that calls themselves a congregation is involved in this work. Why do you exist as people of faith if it’s not liberating the oppressed?”
In the wake of public outcry over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, the state’s interdenominational clergy are deliberately and publicly turning a close focus to issues of race and police brutality, arguing that their faiths demand they take action. At the same time, however, the movement struggles to contend with some inherent challenges — a schism between conservative and progressive religious organizations, fewer young people in the pews, and a perception among some social justice advocates that faith-based activism is out of sync with broader, community-based efforts.
Although faith leaders acknowledge these challenges, they say they aren’t new, and the work remains vital.
“Faith work and justice work walk hand in hand,” the Rev. John Selders, leader of the social justice coalition Moral Monday CT, told the CT Mirror. “Our faith traditions are built in and around each other.”
Historically diverse faith voices rising
On June 12, more than 100 clergy participated in a rally organized by the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance (GHIAA). Holding signs bearing slogans like “My Faith Fuels My Resistance” while chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace,” the participants marched to city hall. There, the clergy, representing 38 faith communities across faith traditions, met with Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin and other officials and made demands, such as an overhaul of the civilian police review board to give it meaningful authority.
Cori Mackey, the executive director of GHIAA’s umbrella organization, the Center for Leadership and Justice, said that because each faith leader engages an entire congregation in their work, their action represents “a very broad power base.”
“I will die being disappointed unless every single institution that calls themselves a congregation is involved in this work,” she said. “Why do you exist as people of faith if it’s not liberating the oppressed?”
The members of Moral Monday CT are on board. On June 8, 20 faith leaders announced that they would fast from sunup to sundown every day until the governor schedules a special legislative session to address issues of police brutality and racial injustice. Every day since then, faith leaders have gathered in front of the Capitol to fast together and pray publicly.
Selders, the Moral Monday CT leader, said that not only does faith urge politics—citing Jesus’ own political actions, like overturning the tables of greedy hawkers at a temple—but also that an interfaith alliance is intuitive.
Mackey agreed. “What’s central to all of them in their most fundamental teachings is a commitment to social justice,” she said.
Rev. Anthony Bennett, lead pastor at Mount Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport and co-founder and co-chair of CONECT, echoed the importance of interfaith work—which, for him, is grounded in his Afrocentric perspective.
“To be white as a country has been to exclude—white is the absence of color, whereas black is the absorption of all primary colors,” he said. “So there’s a way in which to be Afrocentric is to be inclusive of other faiths.”
Since helping to found CONECT, Bennett has guided it through a series of focused social justice efforts. Recently, leaders advocated for the passage of a Clean Slate Bill that would erase misdemeanors from people’s criminal records after roughly seven crime-free years. In the past, it also has advocated for undocumented immigrants’ rights and police reform. Now, it’s joining GHIAA and Moral Monday CT in focusing on pushing legislators for racial justice.
Abdul Rehman Malik, a researcher and lecturer in Islamic Studies at Yale Divinity School and director of the Social Justice Leadership Lab at Dwight Hall at Yale, has worked on interfaith alliance-building and social movements in the UK, Indonesia, and the U.S. He said that “religion, and faith, and faithfulness have been at the very heart of activating social justice” in the U.S., as well as Canada and the UK.
During the Civil Rights Movement, key leaders like Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker were deeply influenced by faith, whether Islam or Christianity. Radical Black traditions like the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army “grew up out of the work of Malcolm and the nation of Islam,” he said.
In the current moment, he said, “Once again, we see faith voices rising.” And those voices are historically diverse.
‘A necessary part of the social justice struggle’
Bennett said that his activism at Mount Aery and with CONECT amounts simply to “living out my Christian faith,” citing the Bible passage Luke 4:16. “‘Preach the gospel to the poor’—that’s dealing with economics,” he said. “To ‘heal the brokenhearted’—that deals with healthcare. To ‘set the captives free’—that deals with criminal justice. All those things are right in the Scripture.”
He said that faith and social activism form a “synergistic thread.” “It’s not that you have social justice work here, and Christian faith over in the corner,” he said. “For us, it’s synergistic.”
Bennett attended a Black Baptist church in Los Angeles as a child and committed to the calling he felt to be a preacher at age 17, but he was troubled by the sense that there was no path for devoted Christians to be involved in social justice work outside holding public office. After seminary, he began working for a congregation in East Brooklyn, N.Y., that was involved in broad-based organizing for affordable housing. There, he said, he learned how churches can facilitate and organize activism, bridging personal faith and societal change.
When he took over at Mount Aery, which currently has 2,000 enrolled and 700 active members, he sought to continue its “rich history of social consciousness.” Besides its HIV/AIDS prevention programs, started in the mid-1980s, and advocating for education reform with the Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition, the 97-year-old church has engaged particularly deeply with racial justice. He said that the congregation was conscious and involved in Civil Rights advocacy in the 1950s and 60s. It organized Black Lives Matter protests in 2016, and it hosted a rally on June 5 that attracted hundreds of participants. It helps push legislative changes as a member congregation of CONECT.
Malik said that it’s important not to underestimate the power of the temple, the mosque, and the church as “organizing spaces.”
The vast majority of white evangelical Christians, even mainline Christians, don’t know how to speak about this. It’s gone very silent.”
“Religion not only provides a framework and an understanding for social justice, but also the institutions through which we can organize for social justice,” he said. In Connecticut, religious activism has ranged from churches housing immigrants facing deportation to CONECT’s role in Clean Slate legislation.
Malik pointed out the tendency for social justice advocates to overlook the strong progressive movement of faith communities “because we look to the conservative side of the fence and see a particular type of religiosity supporting racist and misogynistic institutions of power.” Instead, he said, it’s important to recognize that “religious leadership and religious communities, and the way that they organize are not just powerful allies but a necessary part of the social justice struggle.”
At the same time, Bennett called out many churches’ “absolute silence” on issues of racial justice in the past few weeks. He attributed this to “fear, and complicity in a system of privilege.” He said that while debates go on in white Christian circles about how to interpret the Bible, and whether the Bible condones or calls for political action on racial injustice, the conditions for those conversations hinge on being “white and privileged and having all your political and social needs met.” Meanwhile, “black and brown lives have borne the brunt of people’s interpretation,” he said.
“The vast majority of white evangelical Christians, even mainline Christians, don’t know how to speak about this,” Bennet said. “It’s gone very silent.”
All faiths – and all ages
Silence isn’t the only issue with faith-based activism, said New Haven community organizer Kerry Ellington. Ellington, who helped found grassroots organizing group People Against Police Brutality, said that faith leaders who engage in social justice work tend to “do their own thing” rather than directly join forces with grassroots organizers.
Then, she said, they leverage their institutional power only for small-scale reforms, like civilian review boards, not for the sweeping abolition measures she and other organizers fight for. That is, faith-based activism doesn’t go far enough.
“Either they’re silent, or they undercut and undermine what we are saying,” she said.
She also pointed to faith leaders’ failure to participate in small, persistent acts of resistance—for example, she said, faith leaders haven’t shown up for the Justice for Jayson’s occupation of the Bridgeport Police Department that has lasted since Saturday, June 13.
“They are not calling political power to task in a way that amplifies community demands,” she said.
Mackey acknowledged the need for two-way conversation between broad-based faith organizers and grassroots organizers, which have different focuses. “Broad-based organizing has an emphasis on building power for long-term engagement on a variety of issues,” she said. “It can’t be responsive at a moment’s notice to everything that the activist community is responding to.”
“Both are necessary, and when done right, they’re mutually beneficial,” she added.
Bennett agreed that the different types of organizations move towards a common purpose, “even if we have different ways of meeting that purpose.” Furthermore, he emphasized that faith congregations are a part of their communities, not a separate entity, and their activism from their perspective is an important part of the ecosystem of pushing for change in the community.
When the church engages with racial justice issues, we do that out of a core commitment that we’re all created in the image of God. For us, this isn’t just political activism. This is worship of God, to proclaim that because of imago dei [the image of God], Black lives matter.”
“No one group can claim the right to speak totally on behalf of every person in the community,” he said.
Bennett pointed out that younger generations “did not necessarily grow up in the church, or their institution did not have what they thought were adequate responses to social justice concerns.” As a result, he said, they’ve turned to the organic, grassroots organizing that has been at the forefront of the current protests against racial injustice.
“The cutting edge of the movement is not necessarily being led by faith leaders,” he said.
Still, he said, it’s important that “we understand the value of each other. The younger people will realize that the older people didn’t have everything wrong, and the older people will realize that the younger people have an energy and perspective that the older people need to hear.”
Some congregations do join grassroots protests. Members of New Haven church Elm City Vineyard, which is unaffiliated with any interfaith alliance, participated in the May 31 protests in New Haven that blocked I-95—two members were tear-gassed, lead pastor Josh Williams said. At the June 5 protests, the church set up a station to offer water, phone charging, and prayer to protestors in what Williams called “small acts of Kingdom-mindedness.”
“When the church engages with racial justice issues, we do that out of a core commitment that we’re all created in the image of God,” he said. “For us, this isn’t just political activism. This is worship of God, to proclaim that because of imago dei [the image of God], Black lives matter.”
The work starts at home
Meanwhile, interfaith alliances attempt to balance the political power of their broad platforms with critical internal dialogue. Therese LeFever, co-chair of CONECT alongside Bennett, said that fighting racism requires not only external organizing for legislative action, but also internal change.
While nearly all CONECT leaders like Bennett and their congregations are participating in the current protests in some form, and have been involved with protests in the past, she said “the much harder piece is doing difficult internal action,” ensuring congregations examine their own complicities and work towards anti-racism in the ways leaders are pushing for publicly.
“The challenge becomes, how do we go back to our congregations and initiate a real movement for deeper discussion?” she said. “Not just a 15-30 minute breakout session, but a real, ongoing conversation on what each of our participation in this is, and has been.”
Racism, said LeFever, requires more sustained and comprehensive work than any other issue.
“We’re talking about the way America was founded,” LeFever said. “We’re talking about hundreds of years of systematic oppression. It’s a different conversation.”
It’s one that has been on Williams’ mind since he began leading Elm City Vineyard’s multiethnic congregation as a Black man in 2014. He quickly began negotiating the “costly” nature of his role.
How do we go back to our congregations and initiate a real movement for deeper discussion? Not just a 15-30 minute breakout session, but a real, ongoing conversation on what each of our participation in this is, and has been.”
“I know how [police bias] works because I’ve experienced it myself,” he said. “But then I have to translate that for people who might start from a place of suspicion.”
He said that one of the congregants was “taken aback” by how strongly he was preaching about the killing of Michael Brown in August 2014, and asked to meet to talk about it. Then, videos of Eric Garner being choked to death by a police officer in July came out, and he asked the congregant to watch the video before their conversation. The man “saw the overall point—that Black lives are vulnerable to police violence,” he said. Today, that congregant is actively involved in the Black Lives Matter protests, Williams said.
CONECT hosted a Zoom call on June 2 that had 300 participants across its congregations to pray and reflect together and have an open dialogue on race. LeFever said the conversation was difficult because participants had such varying backgrounds.
Some were white people who had never thought about white supremacy and their own participation in it, and some were people of color who are “just worn out, and angry, and tired, and frustrated with white person’s inability to really move on this, and talk about this in a way that is very personal and very real.”
Even though this work is difficult, she said, “Our faith anchors us.”
“As a faith-based organization, we come to the table believing in the dignity and sacredness of each person,” she said. The resulting sense of mutual trust and orientation towards a common goal, she said, leads to conversations that feel “less angry” while seeing participants “more willing to challenge each other.”
The next step, she said, is to sustain these conversations in a lasting way.
“This is a real opportunity for CONECT, and other organizations, to start doing this really necessary work in our organizations—and also in our own congregations and in our own families.”
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