Getting ‘Souls to the Polls’ in Florida

Getting ‘Souls to the Polls’ in Florida

WALKING BY FAITH TO THE POLLS: Dozens af marchers from various churches leave the New Hope Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Sunday Oct. 28, 2012, en route to the African American Cultural Library to vote. (Photo: Joe Cavaretta, South Florida Sun Sentinel)

On a day punctuated by echoes of the civil rights movement, hundreds of people poured out of churches after services in South Florida’s historic black neighborhoods Sunday to march to the voting booth, intent on honoring a right for which ancestors shed their blood.

“People have died so I could do this,” said James Gadsen, 74, a deacon at New Hope Baptist Church, the rallying point for the mile-long walk down Sistrunk Boulevard to the polls in the African-American Research Library in Fort Lauderdale. “Too many people have given up too much for me not to go vote.”

In Boynton Beach, scores of parishioners gathered at St. John Missionary Baptist Church and other houses or worship and were bused to various polling sites.

“We do not make an endorsement, but we urge people to consider a candidate who would do what Jesus would require,” said the Rev. Nathaniel Robinson, pastor of Greater St. Paul AME Church, who led his parishioners to the polls in Delray Beach.

Dubbed “Souls to the Polls,” the get-out-the-vote effort on the second day of statewide early voting was sponsored by several churches, local NAACP chapters and several public service sororities and fraternities, including Delta Sigma Theta.

The march reflected the tradition of many black voters casting their ballots after church on the Sunday before Election Day.

This year, however, the eight-day period set aside for early voting — cut from 14 days in the last presidential election — does not include the Sunday before Nov. 6. Early voting ends Saturday.

Many Democrats charged that Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature scaled back on early voting for 2012 to suppress the minority vote. Republicans deny that charge.

But those marching Sunday said they did not want to take any chances.

“We need to make sure our voices are heard,” said march organizer and attorney Alfreda Coward of Delta Sigma Theta. “And we need to make sure we elect people who are passionate about the issues that we are passionate about.”

The march and the rally outside the polls were nonpartisan. Both Democratic and Republican candidates were introduced before most marchers got in line to vote.

But there was little doubt which of the presidential nominees most of the marchers backed.

“Four more years,” the crowd chanted as the marchers streamed past Ray’s Meat Market, BG’s Home Cooking, under Interstate 95 and over the New River Bridge on a breezy, sunny day.

Not everyone marching was eligible to vote. Among the many youngsters joining family groups was Isaiah Blackwell, 15, a student at Northeast High School. Walking beside his grandmother, Blackwell said he could sense the historical precedents he had only read about.

“This makes me think of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the battle against segregation,” he said. “We have to vote to succeed as a country.”

Inside the library, Broward County supervisor of elections Brenda Snipes said at mid-afternoon that waiting time to get into one of the 50 voting booths ran from 20 to 60 minutes.

That wait time was down from Saturday, when Broward set a record for a single day of presidential early voting.

“We had 28,000 people vote Saturday,” said Snipes. “That is an exceptional number, shocking. I did not realize that people would turn out the way they did.”

By 4 p.m. Sunday, more than 19,000 had cast ballots in Broward County, according to county election officials.

The count of first-day early voters in Palm Beach County on Saturday was more than 13,200, according to elections office spokeswoman Erin Lewandowski. Numbers from Sunday were unavailable.

Whether Sunday’s effort will make up for the loss of early-voting days remains to be seen. But this campaign in South Florida, along with other faith-based efforts in cities like Pensacola, Tampa, Orlando, Kissimmee, and Gainesville, will give Florida residents a chance to try.

© 2012 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL). Distributed by MCT Information Services. Used by arrangement with Newscom.

Wait‚ Something Was Missing from the Mars Rover Mission

Wait‚ Something Was Missing from the Mars Rover Mission

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED: Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, celebrate the Aug. 6 landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on the planet Mars. (Photo: NASA)

On August 6, when the Mars rover Curiosity managed a text-book landing on the red planet, I was as thrilled and enthralled as anyone else who watched the tension in that NASA control room transform into unrestrained joy once the engineers realized that their project was a success. For me, though, watching the jubilation in that room was also bittersweet. As an American I felt the pride and amazement of this great accomplishment in space, but as an African American I was stung by the lack of black faces celebrating in the NASA control room.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of graduates with STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degrees has been declining nationwide, but it’s particularly alarming for blacks. African Americans represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 2009 received only “7 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees, and 2 percent of PhDs.” Education, of course, goes hand in hand with our economic wellbeing. With black unemployment twice as high as that of whites, pursuing STEM careers is an opportunity that could dramatically improve black life for generations to come.

The black church should use its influence to awaken parents and encourage young people to pursue STEM education. In addition to the economic benefit, STEM fields are about the study of God’s creations — the universe, the Earth, and all life forms. Emphasizing STEM in this context at church and the community could channel the natural curiosities of young people in a positive direction. It could help them to see and experience God not as some elusive being beyond the clouds but as a deeper, loving ever-present Spirit who is concerned about their everyday lives.

WELL DONE: On Aug. 13, President Obama made a special phone call to congratulate NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover team. (Photo: Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)

If a kid in the ’hood or the ’burbs can master the physics required to consistently shoot a rubber sphere into a 10-foot-high cylinder or mix and sync the sonic wavelengths of hip-hop beats to precision, they also can achieve in math and science classes. STEM is at the root.

As a youth growing up in the late 1970s, my curiosity in God was actually stirred more by watching reruns of the original Star Trek than sitting in wooden pews enduring long, dry, abstract sermons. Star Trek offered many lessons about how science could be used to help solve human problems and lead us to a better understanding and relationship with Jesus Christ. Star Trek also depicted blacks as intelligent leaders rather than the buffoons I often saw on other TV shows. (As an aside, some years ago I met Nichelle Nichols, who played the original Lieutenant Uhura, at an event in Phoenix, Arizona. I told her that as a youth I was in love with her because she tucked me in bed most nights as I fell asleep after watching Star Trek. She laughed and gave me a big hug.)

One of my favorite Star Trek episodes was “The Ultimate Computer.” Dr. Richard Daystrom, a black man (actor William Marshall), developed the M5 Multitronic Unit, a computer designed to run a 430-crew starship with just 20 crewmembers. The M5 was to replace a commander, such as Captain James T. Kirk. Humans would no longer die at war but could channel their intellect and spirit toward higher pursuits.

M5 thought like a human because Daystrom had implanted M5 with his own human neural engrams. It was tested under a war games scenario, while Kirk sat at the helm observing. After performing flawlessly, M5 hit a glitch and ended up blasting other starships, killing crew members. Daystrom experienced a mental breakdown while trying to talk M5 out of committing more murders. Eventually Kirk reasoned with M5 by appealing to its (Daystrom’s) sense of guilt. M5 tells Kirk, “Murder is contrary to the laws of man and God,” and concludes that it must die for its sins. Even the computer understood God’s authority and submitted.

The outcome was unfortunate for Daystrom, but this 1968 episode revealed something extremely inspiring about the overall Star Trek series: Daystrom, a genius, was responsible for the design of ALL of the starship computers throughout the entire fleet. Imagine that — a black man!

The black imprint in space travel is not science fiction. From Benjamin Baneker, the first African American astronomer, to Guion “Guy” Bluford, the first black man in space, to Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, African Americans have a long and strong legacy. And though it may not have been visually present in that jubilant NASA control room, it was there: NASA’s current leader, Charles Frank “Charlie” Bolden, Jr., is African American.

Editor’s Note: For more information on ways of encouraging student participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs, check out this report, “Increasing the Number of STEM Graduates,” from the Business-Higher Education Forum.

Release, Reentry, and Redemption

Release, Reentry, and Redemption

The year 1787 saw many important milestones in American history. In 1787, the United States adopted its constitution, a document significantly, seriously, and regularly called the most important document of political freedom in human history. Delaware became the first state in the newly named United States of America. Silicon was discovered. It was a significant year.

Seventeen eighty-seven also marked the beginning of the Free African Society in Philadelphia, a mutual aid organization where Blacks gathered for community affairs, insurance and banking, health care, and education. African Americans also recall 1787 as the year that the United States federal government enacted a compromise between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states to account for enslaved Africans in the regular federal census — the now infamous “three-fifths compromise” determining that for the purposes of the census, Blacks were “three-fifths” of a human being. The only reason the South wanted enslaved Africans counted at all was that representation in congress depended on census numbers.

By the way, did you know that in the current practice of the United States Census Bureau, prisoners are counted as part of the census for the communities that host the prisons in which they live? A significant amount of public money is distributed according to census data, which means that communities that host prisons receive state and federal dollars for community projects based on their being the communities in which African American prisoners are held. In both cases, Blacks are counted but not as citizens.

A Mother’s Mission

The year 1787 also marked the birth of Sally Thomas, an incredible African American woman who represents the best in the human realm of what we can learn about the character and will of God concerning redemption.

Sally Thomas was born 225 years ago in Albemarle County, Virginia. She was a fair-skinned, enslaved African American who was led to her pursuit by wealthy White slave owners because of purposes in violation of biblical principles. Eventually she had three children by two White slave owners, neither of whom ever acknowledged paternity. Sally Thomas determined that her life’s goal would be the freedom of her three sons. In that regard, she mirrored the holy intention of God.

The life of Sally Thomas shows us how God commits Himself to our freedom — even as Thomas did for the sake of her sons. She sacrificed and worked hard to earn enough money to purchase the freedom of one, aid in the escape of a second, and arrange for a job that led to the freedom of the third. There was nothing more important to Sally Thomas than the freedom of her children. So, too, does God value the freedom of His children.

Paying the Price for Freedom

God commits to the freedom and redemption of His people out of His love and faithfulness. He expressed His commitment to Israel through the Exodus. He raised up prophets and priests, kings and judges for His people, even in the midst of their unfaithfulness. He expressed His ultimate love in sending Jesus for us “while we were yet sinners.” The renowned preacher Gardner C. Taylor was right when he told young preachers-in-training his charge: “The Bible has only one major theme: God is getting back what belonged to Him in the first place.”

Redemption is paying the price to buy something back. Sally Thomas paid the price for her sons’ redemption through work, money, and sound connections with the business world. God paid the price for our redemption by sending His Son Jesus into the world to die for our sins. The resurrection of Jesus gives hope to all who trust Him as Savior. The apostle Paul says that without the hope of the resurrection “we are the most miserable” of all people. Peter says that the Christian has been “born again into a living hope” by the Resurrection. Truly, the resurrection of Jesus brings us hope. It is the hope of redemption.

Just as enslaved Africans were objects of redemption in the antebellum period of the United States, a new cohort of persons in our society are candidates for redemption in today’s society. Over 2 million men and women live their lives behind the bars of our state and federal prisons, and countless more languish in county and city jails. The United States incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any nation on the earth. And the disproportionate numbers of those prisoners who are African American should give call for pause and prayer, preaching and prophesying in our congregations. According to the Pew Center, in 2008 one in every 100 Americans was incarcerated. For African American males between the ages of 25 and 34, the numbers were one in nine. Our young men need redemption.

In addition, the overwhelming majority of those state and federal inmates eventually return to society. In 2010, the number exceeded 708,000. And this number did not include those returning from county and city jails. For men and women returning from incarceration, redemption means more than just the personal regeneration occurring when a person gives his or her life to Christ. Redemption includes being reconciled with God and humanity, and those leaving the prisons and jails of our country struggle to be reconciled with family and friends, community and society.

Many of our congregations have prison-ministry programs. They do good work in providing worship services, Bible studies, and some counseling and working in conjunction with jail and prison chaplains. Yet so much more is needed. We need the work of full redemption.

When redemption comes to a person, it does more than change them internally. It changes his or her relationship to the community and world, as well as his or her relationship to God. God redeems His people to make them a people and a community of the redeemed who become agents of reconciliation in the world. A prisoner may give his or her life to Christ, but they also need support in reforming and revitalizing the relationships with others. And sometimes they need support to begin new relationships where there once were either bad relationships or no relationships at all.

Hope and Healing After Incarceration

A group of religious leaders met in Baltimore in 2006 at the Annie E. Casey Foundation to discuss ways in which congregations could be a part of the redemption of prisoners, especially those about to return from incarceration. They pointed to relationships as the key concept in assisting people returning from incarceration. As several of them met over the next year, they were joined by leadership from the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which formed a Social Justice and Prison Ministry Commission. That Commission worked with representatives of the Foundation and other key Christian leaders to produce a model for relationally based prison ministry and prisoner reentry called Healing Communities.

In the Healing Communities model, each congregation identifies families in their own church who have an incarcerated loved one — a father, mother, son, daughter, etc. The congregation then begins to minister to the family and the inmate just as they would if that inmate were hospitalized. They provide prayerful counsel and support, visitation to the prison, and assistance with financial matters when appropriate. One group of congregations began using their church vans to provide rides for families on visiting days. Another developed financial support for families with phone bills (a collect call from a state prison can cost as much as two dollars and fifty cents per minute). Yet another church, recognizing how important it is to keep families in touch during incarceration, set up a video-conferencing program with a prison seven hours away so that inmates could have real time video visits with loved ones.

These congregations grew in their ability to be communities of redemption. They became more sensitive to the difficult transition from incarceration back into society by ministering to inmates and their families during the period of incarceration and by becoming welcoming congregations upon the return of the inmate. They even moved away from using the term “ex-offender,” preferring the term “returning citizen.” One pastor, who had served significant prison time prior to his entering the ministry, told a group of churches that were beginning this ministry, “How would you like to be forever known by a title describing the worst moments of your life?”

This same pastor freely shares his having been incarcerated as a way of helping congregations overcome the stigma of incarceration. Many members of our churches have families living with a sense of shame that their family member is incarcerated. But as we look at so many people who have made the successful transition home and share their stories and hopes, we can reduce the stigma and shame and provide real support for all persons affected by crime and incarceration. Some pastors are even preaching sermons about prisoner reentry, citing Peter’s ambivalent reception upon his return from prison in Acts 12, the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity in Isaiah 49, and John coming home from exile with a fresh revelation from heaven.

All of us must be held accountable for our actions. For some, it means the consequences of incarceration. But if we are willing to be changed — to be redeemed — then congregations must stand ready to be communities of redemption, no matter how far someone may have fallen. We should be prayerfully open to God’s heart for the redemption of the prisoner and his or her family. After all, our Redeemer paid the price for us while a prisoner Himself.

This article originally appeared in the 2010-2011 edition of Precepts for Living, UMI’s annual Bible commentary. Visit the Annie E. Casey Foundation website to download the handbook What Shall We Then Do?, prepared by the Foundation and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

Churches Tackling Unemployment

Churches Tackling Unemployment

The U.S. Department of Labor has launched Partnerships Community of Practice (CoP) as a means to help combat unemployment, The Grio reported this week.

Ben Seigel, deputy director for the Department of Labor’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, told The Grio that churches “have a big role to play,” particularly when it comes to addressing the emotional challenges of being unemployed.

“What we have found, and churches have shown us, is that once they can get past the anger stage, and are helped in rebuilding their self-esteem, then they can become more productive job seekers,” he said.

In a blog post at the CoP site, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis discussed employment ministries that include social media training, network groups, and work search round tables as means of support for the unemployed.

If your church has a ministry like this, tell us about it in the comments.

 

Churches Against ‘Jim Crow’

Churches Against ‘Jim Crow’

Since attorney Michelle Alexander wrote The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, a network of churches has joined her in the fight against a criminal justice system that targets poor minority communities and locks up a disproportionate percentage of African American men.

The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a group of thousands of black churches involved in local and global social justice issues, is coming together for Juneteenth to galvanize faith-based action against the new Jim Crow that Alexander writes about in her book.

“The fact that more than half of the young black men in any large American city are currently under the control of the criminal justice system (or saddled with criminal records) is not—as many argue—just a symptom of poverty or poor choices, but rather evidence of a new racial caste system at work,” Alexander wrote in her book. She elaborated on her ideas about the new Jim Crow and the movement against it in an exclusive interview with UrbanFaith.

Iva Carruthers, general secretary of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, said mass incarceration is a moral and civil rights issue that the black faith community cannot ignore.

“If you walked into a black church on a Sunday morning and asked, ‘How many of you have been affected directly or indirectly by this issue?’, you’d see everyone standing from the pulpit to the pews,” Carruthers said.

Iva Carruthers

Inspired by Alexander’s book, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference coordinated an effort to raise awareness about the new Jim Crow during church services on Juneteenth, this Sunday. They designed a bulletin insert for congregations to use, which includes facts about mass incarceration, quotes from Scripture, and a Juneteenth and Father’s Day litany.

“It’s not an event, but the beginning of transformative ministry resources that can help propel a movement,” Carruthers said.

Among those resources is a New Jim Crow study guide the nonprofit wrote for churches and book clubs. The guide examines connections to Scripture and African American history and culture chapter by chapter, and then lists multiple sets of data on mass incarceration. At the end of each chapter, the guide uses the African concept of Sankofa—defining it as “to go back and fetch knowledge from our past in order to move forward with wisdom”—to encourage people of faith to take action.

This week, the nonprofit has joined other groups for several events, including a youth town hall meeting in Chicago with Judge Greg Mathis in Chicago, a rally at St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago with Father Michael Pfleger, and a Real Men Cook Father’s Day event at Chicago State University (see website for schedule and details).

Alexander teamed up with the nonprofit when she was looking to connect with churches and a colleague directed her to Carruthers. From there, the group invited her to speak on the new Jim Crow at their annual conference in February and used her book to frame their activism.

“Michelle Alexander helped connect the dots in identifying characteristics of the system, in a compelling argument,” Carruthers said. (See a video clip from Alexander’s presentation below.)

Both the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference and Alexander have a vision to see churches not only helping individuals, but also organizing to combat systemic issues. Carruthers said the nonprofit started up in 2003 in response to concerns that the black church “had become less vocal and visible in issues of justice” in the post-Civil Rights Era. Since then, the church network has responded to issues such as Hurricane Katrina, hunger in Africa, and the earthquake in Haiti.

“If a faith community doesn’t speak to what’s wrong in a given society, then who will?” Carruthers said.

For more information on how you and your church can get involved in this campaign, read the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference’s ministry alert and complete the New Jim Crow Campaign interest form.