Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A victory against segregation

New Jersey Regional Coalition mobilizes diverse interfaith organization
to bring structural social change to New Jersey

(TRENTON) – With the final passage Monday June 23 of legislation to abolish Regional Contribution Agreements (RCAs), New Jersey has witnessed an historic victory for regional equity and the power of community organizing.

On Monday, over 200 people from congregations across the state filled the statehouse rotunda and jammed the hallways to press their senators and await the historic vote to repeal Regional Contribution Agreements. Monday's victory and statehouse rally was the culmination of over three years of tough and sometimes rough and tumble community organizing across the state led by the clergy and grassroots leaders of the New Jersey Regional Coalition.

As an affiliate of the Chicago based Gamaliel Foundation, the New Jersey Regional Coalition works in the tradition of grassroots and faith-based community organizing that presidential candidate Barack Obama did when he worked with Gamaliel on the south side of Chicago. Through a series of large regional public meetings with legislators, the New Jersey Regional Coalition brought together thousands of people across racial, economic, geographic, and partisan dividing lines.

Rev. R. Lenton Buffalo, Jr., Pastor of Union Baptist Church in Elizabeth said "The fact that NJRC is a regional grassroots and faith-based organization made all the difference in this effort. It was the regional impact and influence of NJRC that made this victory possible."

In 2005, responding to the anger and indignity of its members in every part of the state, and to Speaker Joe Roberts call for their repeal, NJRC began a campaign to end RCAs. “After learning about how RCAs undermine the quality of life, people were motivated to take action,” said Rev. Buffalo.

But NJRC tactics were considered controversial and hard hitting by some. William Dressel, Executive Director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities once complained to Governor Corzine that the group had "staged a series of demonstrations" against Dressel and then DCA Commissioner Susan Bass Levin." Dressel, who led the fight to preserve RCAs, accused the NJRC of "distortion and personal attacks" against RCA backers such as himself and Levin.

NJRC members reject that characterization and defend its actions and tactics. NJRC board member, Rev. Dr. Robert F. Hargrove Sr., Pastor of Christ Care Unit Missionary Baptist Church, Sicklerville said NJRC is "bringing justice to those who have been suffering injustice. I've been involved in other efforts over the years" continued Hargrove "but with the NJRC we've gotten results."

NJRC members say its real purpose is to unify people to change unjust structures. Rev. Hugh Brown, Rector, All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton Township said "One parishioner told me that in the call to come to the statehouse she heard a ‘call to her heart.’ Teens and seniors, Republicans and Democrats, all found common cause. It is important that this is non-partisan and we hold everyone accountable to a justice agenda."

Seeing the harm RCAs have done to cities and suburbs alike, people came together to change the system. Mrs. Rebecca Mitchell a long-time resident of Trenton and member of Shiloh Baptist Church, a founding NJRC member said, "We've seen the effects of RCAs, they cause concentration of poverty and racial segregation, and deny people the opportunity to choose where they want to live and send children to school." Bishop Edgar da Cunha, representing the New Jersey Catholic Conference, a key backer of the NJRC, said, "Regional Contribution Agreements have done little to ease the shortage of affordable housing in this state or create much needed employment close to home."

"This could not have happened without people from every walk of life coming together to work persistently for change," said Paul Bellan-Boyer, chair of the NJRC Housing Task Force and Parish Deacon at St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Jersey City. "Assembly Speaker Roberts deserves tremendous credit for having the vision and the courage to lead this long-needed reform through the Legislature but the NJRC brought about the political climate and made the moral argument that made this victory possible."

Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday prayer

In the name of God, the most merciful: Look with kindness upon our world. Give rest to the weary, food to the hungry, release to those in bondage, and power to the oppressed. Above all, help us to dwell in peace with one another. Support those who seek to bring a just order to communities and nations, especially those working to build a civil rule in Iraq. Bless your people with a renewed vision of your promise and your beauty, that we may rejoice in your gifts to us and have your name ever upon our lips. Amen.

Over the past month, our Hudson County Brotherhood/Sisterhood Group for Interfaith Dialogue and Concerns has had the privilege of meeting two delegations of Iraqi leaders brought to the U.S. by the State Department. Without revealing much detail about the identities of these guests, they have represented much of the geography of Iraq, and a variety of power: tribal, parliamentary, provincial. It has been a blessing to have several hours at a time to meet, converse, and share a meal together, for what has been at times very interesting interactions. And it is very important for us to receive information about Iraq that does not come from Americans in the green zone in Bagdhad, then filtered through corporate media organizations.

Our Iraqi brothers and sisters travel back to a nation under military occupation, with a broken constitution, and where power politics involves assassination and mass murder. I will keep them in mind as I do some community organizing at the church picnic tomorrow, knowing that this is, quite literally, a walk in the park.

Electrical wires span the streets in Baghdad, fed by private generators that provide backup for districts without power from the central grid. Photo by Marko Gorgiev, for the New York Times, August 23, 2007.