Wave after wave they cross the street. The people kneel, start to pray. And then handcuffs are thrown on. It is orderly, almost breathtaking in its poignancy. It is a plan of desperation. A sad tribute to misguided city government policies to eliminate religious groups from housing projects and public schools where working and poor New Yorkers gather for respite from a hard life.
Thirteen pastors and thirty civilians are arrested for their disorderly conduct in their civil disobedience.
Prior to the confrontation, Mayor Bloomberg put out a humorous video to commemorate this day that portrays him as a Lady Gaga devotee with a red apple in his hand being driven to the Bronx in a black livery car. No doubt to throw the peasants an apple once he arrives.
The peasants gather out front of Morris High School in the Morrisania area of the Bronx prior to Mayor Bloomberg’s 11th and penultimate State of the City address at noontime, Thursday, January 12th. Defending his policies on reforming public school education, the mayor vaguely alludes to Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I have seen from the mountain top” speech for civil rights. The mayor says, “We have to be honest with ourselves: we have only climbed halfway up the mountain, and halfway isn’t good enough.”
Outside, waving signs that read “Save the church, save the poor communities” and “Don't make my church homeless,” pastors, seminary professors, lay people, politicians and others have come together for a prayer rally. They argue that their activities are closer to the true spirit of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ministry.
Councilwoman Letitia James [of District 35 in Brooklyn] tells the crowd of about 300 people, “In every government office, they begin with a prayer. So the argument that this is removed from politics and that we should remove state from church is not true.”
The uproar is a response to a New York City government policy to prohibit religious groups from meeting in public schools after February 12th. For at least eighteen years the city has tried to make a distinction between religious and other community groups in the use of publicly available space in the city’s schools. However, since 2002, Federal courts have forced the city to stop their discrimination. Then, in June a court reversed course and allowed the city to close the schools to groups that want to have “worship services” while allowing other religious expressions like Bible studies, prayers, and lectures. It effectively banned the main reason that churches were paying for use of the space. The United States Supreme Court declined on December 5th to reconsider a lower court’s ban, and the city moved ahead with their plans to close the churches.
Religious groups had other things to be upset about. They were upset that the mayor specifically prohibited religious groups from participation at the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center bombings. There was a small uproar over the taking down of holiday decorations from the Staten Island ferry terminal. There was wildfire of local then national reaction when some local New York City Housing Authority with little notice told churches that they couldn’t meet any longer on public housing community centers. One high official in the Housing Authority emailed a local community center director, “NYCHA will not be able to rent to Churches based on a recent circumstance.” The local director told the church that the “circumstance” was the court ruling about churches meeting in the schools. At least one large mosque using housing authority space for worship and other religions’ services probably would also have been affected. They are some of the silent victims of the policy change.
The uproar threatened to go viral among Christian groups after last Thursday's arrest of 7 protestors outside the building that houses NYC Department of Law offices. The arrestees were Pastors Dimas Salaberrios of Infinity Church, Pastor William Devlin of Manhattan Bible Church, Pastor Michael Carrion of Promise Land Covenant Church, City Councilman & Pastor Fernando Cabrera and three laymen.
After an uproar that threatened to go viral among Christian groups across the nation, the city government moved quickly to give long term leases to churches meeting in public housing. However, the ban on churches in public schools remains.
Church leaders feel that the general attitude of city government seems to be “No religion in public meeting places.”
Rev. Dimas Sallaberos, one of the key leaders of today’s protest, also says it is a matter of life and death for many poor congregations who are starting up. His church, which assembles at Bronx River Community Center, a housing project, would have been homeless if not for the policy reversal last week. Pastor Dimas, as he prefers to be called, is continuing his hunger strike for the churches who are still fated to being kicked out of public school community space. “When one hurt, we all hurt. That's the message of Jesus,” he says.
Pastor Dimas is on Day 12 of the hunger strike and vows to not eat until the policy concerning churches meeting in public schools is reversed. He is attending prayer meetings across the city, getting in touch with council members, and working with a film maker to document the movement.
Spearheaded by Pastors Dimas and Devlin, today's protest is an attempt to reverse a city policy that will destitute scores of poor congregations. The city usually states that about 60 churches will be affected. Some claim that the number is closer to 160 churches. The rally leaders prepared for this day with a willingness of about forty of them to be arrested if need be.
The preparation and reasons for today’s demonstration
A t 9:45 am this morning, Pastor Dimas girds for his second arrest in less than a week by playing board games with his 4 year-old daughter, Dallas. “If I don't spent time with
her now, I won't get to it for the rest of the day,” he tells A Journey. Over the board games, he reflects on the events of the day and why people should care about this issue.
“The Board of Education is concentrating on their agenda and not really the community in which they serve. It's very short sighted for the city,” says Pastor Dimas.
He believes that the poorer communities’ vitality depends upon the services and volunteers of their local churches. So, it is the poor more than the affluent who will be most impacted by the policy. This is one reason that a rich Manhattanite like Bloomberg has a hard time empathizing with the pastoral leaders of the poor.
The poor and working class know that the presence of churches lessens the violence in their communities. Pastor Dimas says homicides and gang activity have declined in his neighborhood after his church started worship services in Bronx River Houses community center in 2003.
Pastor Dimas says that churches with a predominately poor and working class congregation like his Infinity Church would never have been able to start without the help of the space provided by public schools to community groups. His own church is an innovative blend of contemporary cool and working class fervor. Pastor Dimas notes that Reverend Rick Warren’s purpose-driven movement, widely hailed as one of the most significant religious innovations in modern church history, originated in a public school. “Saddleback Church started in a school,” Pastor Dimas says, “Where would they be if they didn't have that option?”
In his speech today the Mayor will promote the need for innovation in the city. Bloomberg will tout the multi-hundred million dollars that the city is giving out to Cornell University to develop a private high tech center on Roosevelt Island (the city will give $100 million in infrastructure improvements and the land). However, Pastor Dimas says the Mayor would starve the churches for similar support.
Meanwhile, the hunger strike is making Pastor Dimas’ body weak. But his spirit this morning is strong. He keeps going by taking little sips of water from a red plastic cup. In the middle of the interview he asks to be excused to lay down on the leather futon. It is 10:30 am.
The doorbell rings. It is Andre, a documentary filmmaker, arriving to mic Pastor Dimas up before a car ride to the protest.
Everyone has to get ready to leave. The pastor quickly springs back into action. He makes vegetable juice for his wife, Tiffany, who is on a juice fast.
We leave their house at 11:10 am and stop for gas on the way to Morris High School. At 12:30 pm, Devlin makes the first call for arrests through the megaphone. Five men link up their arms and are instructed by Pastor Dimas to kneel and pray as they are apprehended by the NYPD.
In a remarkably peaceful and orderly process, groups of five or eight linked arms and go towards the school to be arrested. They are singing hymns and saying prayers.
At 1:20 pm, in a last and final call for volunteers for arrest to come forward, Pastor Dimas gets himself ready and asks me to fetch him water. He looks tired and closes his eyes for a second or two. Seven minutes later, everyone watches him walk across the street towards the police. He kneels and prays like he had instructed the men and women before him. Once Pastor Dimas is arrested, it is all over. He is the last one and that was the plan all along.