Dear Speaker Sheldon Silver,
You are my assemblyman. We live blocks apart and frequent the same stores.
I write on behalf of the protestors who are gathering outside your home. We are mostly poor minorities plus other kind people who stand in solidarity with us.
All we want is a place to worship — a right to rent vacant space in school buildings under the same terms available to other groups. Mayor Bloomberg tried to kick us out. Federal Judge Loretta A. Preska intervened, thrashing the Mayor’s policy as an unconstitutional attack on religious freedom in a 51-page opinion in February. City Hall has appealed, wasting tax-dollars on needless litigation.
I write, and we protest, because for six months you have ignored our phone calls and stood us up at scheduled meetings. In the New York State Assembly you are the gatekeeper for legislation, and so, you are personally responsible for blocking justice on our behalf because you have refused to bring common sense legislation protecting the right to worship in public schools to a vote.
Four months ago, Speaker Silver, you said to the press – never directly to the 60-plus aggrieved churches – that you would wait for Judge Preska’s ruling before bringing a legislative bill protecting the churches right to worship to a vote.
Well, she ruled on February 24. More than a hundred days later, with eviction of the churches looming, you continue to stall.
Worse, you refuse to meet with us and hear our story, leaving me no choice but to explain our cause in this online magazine.
Bloomberg’s reason for trying to ban churches like mine is the preposterous notion that children cannot tell the difference between a religious group that rents empty space on weekends and academic instruction during school hours. Four months ago, the State Senate overwhelmingly rejected that condescending rationale, voting 54-7 to ban Bloomberg’s ban.
While I live in your district, I pastor Abounding Grace Ministries on Avenue D, technically outside your district by a few blocks. Our membership includes people from around the city and tri-state, but mainly we live in your district and Alphabet City.
Some of our members are middle-income professionals, but mostly we are low-income and working class residents from the projects that still define much of the community. Our multi-ethnic congregation consists primarily, though not exclusively, of Blacks and Latinos.
Abounding Grace has ministered in Alphabet City since 1982, when the area was the city’s heroin capital and an NYPD official described its streets as, “where they kill people, sell their drugs, and sell their bodies.” Surely you remember the Lower East Side of thirty years ago, when Avenue D became Abounding Grace’s home.
Due to the recent gentrification of the neighborhood, Abounding Grace now finds itself primarily ministering to people who can no longer cover their overhead. Many of these same families provided the stability and work ethic that has made the community attractive to middle-America transplants.
Four years ago, we discovered that the most economically efficient way to convene large groups for weekend gatherings was to rent otherwise vacant public school space. The resulting partnership between Abounding Grace and PS 34 on Avenue D and 12th Street has provided much needed revenue for a school beset by budget cuts while serving predominantly low-income neighborhood children.
In the last two weeks, there have been multiple shootings and stabbings in Alphabet City. Due to the stalled economy and chronically underperforming schools, youth unemployment this summer will be over 50%. It should come as no surprise that the resulting idleness and despair has led to a resurgence of gang activity and violence. We want to do our part to help these kids.
Many of the aggrieved churches are just like mine serving predominantly poor, working class, or minority congregations on the margins of high society. From among 10,000 community groups who rent public school space during out-of-school hours, the mayor intends to evict only churches.
We are those whom you ignore. Since you intend to render us homeless by allowing Bloomberg’s eviction to stand, we will continue to convene outside your home. Perhaps then you will hear us and allow simple and necessary legislation protecting the right to worship to come to a vote.