On Saturday October 17 two-dozen leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Indigenous African and Unitarian Universalist faiths gathered to give witness to our unwavering support for the Black Lives Matter Movement in Pioneer Square in downtown Portland Oregon.
This witness took place in the midst of three days of focused learning, dialogue and concrete action planning to support Black Lives Matter, end racism and deconstruct systems of white supremacy. Those gathered committed to making these issues a priority in our private teaching, public speaking, activism, financial giving, and volunteering. We offered ourselves personally, congregationally, and for those in seminaries and institutions, organizationally.
We were blessed by the brilliant leadership of Teressa Raiford of Don't Shoot Portland, Laila Hofstein, the Youth Coordinator of the Portland Black Chapter of PFLAG and Molli Mitchell, a member of Portland SURJ (Standing Up for Racial Justice).
The Portland clergy contingent converged around sixteen specific actions. We committed to attend upcoming rallies and City Council meetings, provide legislative, accounting, administrative and financial support to local BLM groups, and activate members of our Community of Welcoming congregations through trainings and more. Yes, we got real.
Participants from around the country clarified how to invest their time and their institution's resources when they returned home, as well as who their local partners were. We determined how we as a community would stay connected.
I had the privilege and honor to convene this gathering in my role as Executive Director of Nehirim, an LGBTQ Jewish retreat and advocacy organization. I worked in partnership with two amazing souls: Professor Dr. Sheikh Ibrahim Abdurrahmani Farajaje, Provost of Starr King School for the Ministry, A self-described "queer/two-spirit pro-womanist/mujerista green anarchist Muslim" who has been speaking truth to power for his entire life, and Reverend Tara Wilkins, Director of the Community of Welcoming Congregations in Portland.
The messages from Saturday's public witness feel important to share widely.
I opened our witness with the following words.
We gather to affirm our conviction that Black Lives Matter.
We gather to affirm our conviction that religion and people of faith must prioritize our work, our time and our money in support of Black lives.
We gather as LGBTQ faith leaders, ourselves knowers of marginalization, prepared to give voice to the most critical civil rights struggle of our day.
We gather to mourn the Black lives lost to gun violence.
Then all clergy gathered sang the words that Samuel Jackson made popular in his challenge to celebrities to work on behalf of Black lives:
I can hear my neighbor cryin -- "I can't breathe"
Caught up in the struggle sayin' -- "I can't leave"
Callin' out the violence of the racist police
And we ain't gonna stop -- til people are free!
We ain't gonna stop -- til people are free!
Teressa Raiford led us in a powerful chanting of "I can't breathe."
And into the still deep silence that followed Reverend Tara Wilkins shared her prophetic vision that the Welcoming Congregation movement, the movement so skilled in making change, so seasoned as allies of those whose lives have been deemed less important than the majority, the movement that has been supporting LGBTQ lives for so many years, support the Black Lives Matter movement with just as much passion.
Professor Dr. Farajajé, sourced by what he calls "counter-oppressive Earthkeeping, organic multireligiosity and organic earthodoxy" preached on why this is a make or break issue for all of us, making it crystal clear that none of us are safe until all of us are safe.
All clergy gathered recited a litany, responding to the horror of a life taken in a grotesque incident of police brutality, with scriptural guidance regarding right behavior.
A sampling of our offering:
I can't breathe.
Exodus, Chapter 23: Do not bring death upon those who are innocent and in the right, for I will not acquit the wrongdoer.
Do not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.
I can't breathe.
1 John 4:18-21
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, "I love God," and hates his brother or sister, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother or sister whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother and sister.
I can't breathe.
Quran Surah az-Zuha 93:6 Did Zhe not find you as an orphan and take care of you? Did She not find you perplexed and show you the way? And did He not find you in need and enrich you? So do not oppress the orphans, and do not drive the beggars away, and proclaim the bounties of the One who Holds you in Wild Mercy!
Black Lives Matter.
Reverend Roland Stringfellow, of Detroit MCC, and Coordinator of the African American Roundtable for the Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies in Religion and Ministry, rallied those gathered around the notion that Spirit led action works, that together we can bring justice, love and peace.
We closed with a memorial and then a song of hope: Freedom is coming, freedom is coming, freedom is coming oh yes I know.
Since returning home from our conference we have immersed ourselves in our commitments. Brilliant sermons have been shared, a Facebook group was created and we have started praying with our feet as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, may his memory be a blessing, instructed.
As for myself, I attended a rally last week against mass incarceration and a City Council vote on affordable housing yesterday. I've signed 4 or 5 petitions (easy when you are on the right lists) and reached out to hundreds more clergy to join our work. In the months to come I'll be working with Reverend Tara to engage our local Community of Welcoming Congregations. I am also in conversations about a national campaign to ensure that the Black Lives Matter message is front and center at Pride festivals around the country next June.
Soon may others join us in this prophetic work, calling all to end racism, celebrate our differences, protect and honor life, and usher in a new day, where all are safe, free, educated, healthy, live in abundance and pursue their unique calling.
May that day come speedily!