I just got off the phone with J. Alfred Smith, Sr., the senior pastor emeritus of the largest African American church in Oakland. He told me how this (Friday) morning, walking with a cane in a wooded area near his home, he saw a white woman with a dog coming toward him. Momentarily he was filled with fear that the dog might attack him and if he lifted the cane to protect himself, who knew if she might be carrying a gun or in some way might put him in danger—fears that are a result of the Trayvon Martin murder. Finally, she smiled at him, and he felt a relief of tensions.
He told me that he was crying when he heard from another pastor at his church that I had approached the church yesterday to ask if it would be okay for Jews and other spiritual progressives (of every ethnic, racial, religious or secular identity) to come to his church this Sunday so that we could show solidarity with the African American community.
He said that he was so overjoyed with this gesture at a time when fears are so profound that he cried, and was still, at the moment he was talking to me, on the verge of tears. Yes, he said, do come, and do spread the word to others, “though just your presence, Rabbi Lerner, will speak volumes to Oakland’s African American community about the solidarity of the Jewish community with our Black community.”
So that is why I’m writing to YOU to urge you to either come with me on Sunday or go to a nearer African American church this Sunday and let the African American community in your neighborhood or town know that they are not alone, that we understand their fear and stand in solidarity with them. No matter where you came out on the Zimmerman trial, you can still stand in solidarity with African Americans, support them in their grief, and signal to them that they are not alone.
This weekend there will be at least a hundred demonstrations calling for justice in the murder of Trayvon Martin. You can call your local NAACP or go online to find the one closest to you. We hope you will attend one.
But I’m also asking you to try this other way to express solidarity with ordinary African Americans who are once again reminded of how pervasive and frightening the racism is that surrounds and, for many, defines the lives of African Americans in this country.
We at Tikkun and the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming (i.e. you don’t have to believe in God to join us) Network of Spiritual Progressives urge you to show up at your local African American churches and just be with people as they grieve and express their fears. You will encounter there a different section of the African American community than you’ll find at the demonstrations. And those churchgoers are actually likely to be very appreciative that you came. If you have time, you could draw up a short leaflet explaining why you are there. Or contact your local African American church and ask the pastor for his/her advice about the best way you can show solidarity. But J. Alfred Smith, Sr. made clear to me that people would welcome your presence even if you don’t alert the pastors in advance. (Of course, if you are already part of an integrated church community and you believe that this issue is going to be discussed there this Sunday, you don’t need to go elsewhere to find solidarity with African Americans.)
If you are going to be in the S.F. Bay Area this weekend, how about coming with me to the Allen Temple Baptist Church, 8501 International Blvd, Oakland, Ca.? It would be great to be there with some other spiritual progressives. Lets meet there at 10:45 a.m. and try to sit together? Give yourself time to find parking in the area.
Please send this letter out to everyone on your lists, post it on your Facebook page, tweet it, and in any other way possible communicate this spontaneous gesture of solidarity. And while you are at it, please JOIN or make a tax-deductible contribution to Tikkun‘s action arm, the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives—we badly need the financial support!!
Love and Blessings to you!
Rabbi Michael Lerner RabbiLerner.Tikkun@gmail.com
Below is an example of the way the murder of Trayvon Martin has been received by many African Americans, and below that is the exchange of emails I had with the pastor of the largest African American church in Oakland.
My heart and head ache this evening. My son Israel turned 15 last week, and he’s having a belated birthday party tonight. He asked me if he and his friends could go outside this evening and play “Cops and Robbers” with his Nerf guns.
My stomach lurched and cold fingers of fear grasped at my throat when I imagined my dark son, dressed in a sweatshirt, running through the streets of our neighborhood. With a dry mouth and wet eyes, I angrily told him that he could not go outside and play a simple childhood game.
I hope he knows that I am not angry with him, but I’m infuriated with the world we’re raising him in. I’m angry at myself for limiting my son and denying him his youth because I’m petrified of what may happen to him for LWB (living while brown). I’m angry that black and brown boys are always seen as a threat, and never as the joyful kids I know them to be.
The verdict in the Trayvon Martin case has caused so much pain for so many, and our family grieves tonight. We mourn not just for Trayvon and his family, but for the loss of innocence and freedom every brown and black kid endures with this verdict.
I know we’re all looking for something to give us hope after the events of this past weekend. I find hope in my children’s eyes. I find hope in working for change every day as a Senator in the Colorado state legislature. I find hope in the kind words friends and strangers have offered up at this difficult time.
That’s why I’m asking if you’d be willing to share your story. How did you talk to your children about Trayvon Martin? What words have moved or comforted you in the past few days? I think right now, having these conversations about what we can do to make things better is one of the most important things we can do. Would you be willing to share your story with me?
I am proud to join with ProgressNow Colorado to share my story, and I hope you will share yours, too. As a parent, I know the importance of sharing these stories to help keep this important conversation going.
Thank you so much for your time.
Colorado State Senator
Letter from me to the current pastor of Oakland’s largest African American church–Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland, the poorest section of Oakland:
Dear J. Alfred Smith, Jr.
I’m the editor of the world’s largest circulation progressive Jewish magazine and have the honor of being a friend of J. Alfred Smith, Sr. He invited me to talk at Allen Temple when my 1995 book Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin (written together with Cornel West) came out, and I again had the honor of delivering a sermon at Allen Temple when my 2006 book The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right came out (and went out to become a national best seller) in 2006.
I’m writing to you now because I want to stand in solidarity with my African American brothers and sisters at a time when the horrible verdict in the Trayvon Martian case must have left many African Americans as outraged as I felt, and far more vulnerable than me. I don’t really know what to do in the short run (in the long run, I want to invite you to join our Network of Spiritual Progressives and urge you to read about it at www.spiritualprogressives.org), except to physically be there with your community. So I’m wondering if I might come to your church on Sunday, perhaps with a few Jewish brothers and sisters if I can reach them this late, just as our way of saying that progressive Jews stand with you?
If this gesture seems ridiculous, patronizing, or pointless, of course I won’t come. So I’m asking you if this makes sense to you, and if so, which service on Sunday morning I should come to.
Warm regards and blessings,
Rabbi Michael Lerner
Editor, Tikkun Magazine www.tikkun.org 510 644 1200
Chair, The Network of Spiritual Progressives www.spiritualprogressives.org
Rabbi, Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in S.F. and Berkeley, Ca.
Author: Embracing Israel/Palestine, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right, Spirit Matters, The Politics of Meaning, with Cornel West: Jews and Blacks–Let the Healing Begin, The Socialism of Fools: Anti-Semitism on the Left, Surplus Powerlessness: The Psychodynamics of Daily Life and Work and more.
Letter from J. Alfred Jr, the current senior minister of Allen Temple:
Greetings Dr. Lerner,
I have followed your powerful work for many years and have been enlightened and inspired by your writings. Also, Allen Temple has been blessed by the longstanding friendship between you and my father, who brought you to preach to our congregation. So, we are deeply blessed and encouraged by your expressions of solidarity.
You are certainly welcome to worship with us on this coming Sunday or on any other occasion. We will be honored by your presence. As you may recall, our largest attendance is at the 8 am worship. This coming Sunday, I will not be preaching; I have a student preacher who may not necessarily address the Trayvon tragedy. On last Sunday both of my sermons and the entire worship was focused on our response to this unjust verdict.
However, in this coming Sunday worship, we will come together in solidarity during our period for corporate prayer to seek Divine assistance as we recommit ourselves to the struggle for justice and the end to the pandemic of violence in all of its forms in our community and the world. If you are able to be present, I would love to call on you to lift the corporate prayer.
In addition, I look forward to joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives.
J. Alfred Smith, Jr