I am grateful for the victory through “Judge Loretta” Preska for a strong preliminary injunction giving the churches the right to rent space from the public schools in the off-hours. This action gives the church a little time to regroup to prepare for ministry in public spaces. One thing we need to do is to repair a weakness that this struggle has exposed in the function of the church as it serves New York City.
After my experience at hearings, arrests, hunger strikes and private conversations with secular and religious leaders, it is clear that the church is victim to a bevy of misunderstandings. Some see us as a private club; others think that we are in it for the money. We are going to have to reintroduce the church to our culture.
Historically, the church has always co-existed with the government, sometimes with harmony and sometimes with persecution. The church also has not always been the victim but the victimizer. The worst times have sunk into memory through Jesus’ sayings.
We remember Jesus’ encouragement that “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)." And to keep us from being a revengeful victimizer ourselves, Jesus coined the golden rule, "Love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39)."
Mostly, the politicians of our city and state appreciate the work among the poor and needy that the churches do. We serve tirelessly to mobilize the largest volunteer force in the city to clean, feed, educate, counsel, mentor and help in any way that we can imagine.
In this great city of ours, the church has not played favorites when opening its pulpits to political candidates, be they Democratic, Republican or Independent. However, our services to the poor and the politicians seem to have been brushed aside by the politicians for a more tangible pay off - money. My friend, throughout the whole mess over worship services in public places, this discovery exposes where the church has come up wanting.
As a whole, we have not been engaged in making generous donations to political candidates. As we communicated with political figures, we became painfully aware that they did not really care about the good we are doing or feel accountable to us. They are more concerned with the appeasement of the special interest groups that supported them financially. Our political leaders view the churches as a do-good group that does good in order to gain membership to its club or a handout from the government. They don’t see us as a group that is selflessly engaged with society as a whole.
In our attempts to lobby politicians and visibly show support for bills in favor of allowing houses of worship to continue meeting in public schools, it was clear time and again that we were indeed the strangers in the room, be it in Albany, the City Council or in the State Assembly chambers. It was a sad realization that though most churches say they serve the city, we largely ignore the leaders of the city and sometimes even sink to demonizing them from our pulpits. Non-engagement or building walls doesn’t help our city very much. The churches should remember that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, John the Baptist and Jesus all engaged the political leaders of their day.
New York undoubtedly needs the faith community to be actively engaged. Indeed, at times we need to be the voice of conscience. So, we need to be engaged. However, our job is to not be like the world in its regular activities--the continuous generation of political agendas or grasping for handouts. We should show our selflessness for serving the poor and needy. If we look just like another private club or a group with an agenda or a need for money, then our effectiveness will be limited. We may have to pass up certain grants because accepting them would actually end up making us beholden to current political leaders in the city. We need independence to speak to problems of need and justice and also to remain silent in the partisan conflicts.
I recently met with an Assemblyman who shared that he personally broke from the ranks and voted on a bill to help the churches in NYC, but felt totally unappreciated when not one church called to say, "Thank you." He mentioned that while groups opposing our Right to Worship bill were keen to call and show up in their offices, he was often left defending the church without a single church behind him. I apologized for the church's lack of involvement. Our city needs to see the church in action. Most political people were surprised how gentle and selflessly we lobby and how thoughtful the church can be. Let’s do more of this public square engagement while being careful that we don’t undermine our reputation for selfless concern for the welfare of the community.
The prophets of today must not go with their hands out. Let us be the pure church that does not lust for power and money but serve as good model for the public to admire. Let’s be like Daniel in Babylon. Those politicians, who didn’t like Daniel, found that they had a hard time speaking ill of his words and deeds. Daniel wasn’t lusting for public recognition or public funds. All he wanted to do was to serve his city Babylon with excellence and integrity. Whether in the schools, community centers, the chambers of the city council or the hallways of Albany, let’s show up with a voice ringing out with the authority of the unselfish and unwavering desire to do good.
If agree or disagree, please give me your comments. I appreciate the discussion.
Pastor Dimas is currently preaching on the letters of the Apostle John at Infinity Church. Sunday Services are held at the Bronx River Community Center located at 1619 E174th Street, Bronx, NY (b/t Stratford and Morrison). Services start at 11:30am.
Directions: Take the 6 train to Morrison / Soundview and then walk two blocks north to E174th Street or take the BX36 bus to E174th Street.