September 16, 2019

Faith Leaders Meet to Talk About Race

(L-R): Dr. Roberts, Toi Hutchinson, Rabbi Hier, and Sylvia Mendez |
Photo courtesy of Museum of Tolerance

“It’s safe to say that when you get 10 clergymen in a room, Jewish or Christian, you get 15 ideas for 20 coalitions. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told the Journal following a recent faith leaders’ event at the Center’s Museum of Tolerance (MOT) in West Los Angeles.

Held as part of the National Conference of Black Legislators, dozens of faith leaders, together with more than 75 elected officials, took part in the July 30 program hosted by state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica).

The event also honored Illinois Democratic state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, who received the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s National Leadership Award. Civil rights icons Terrence Roberts and Sylvia Mendez presented the award. Roberts was one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of black students who enrolled at the formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in September 1957. Mendez helped end “separate but equal” segregation in California schools in 1954.

Following the presentation, attendees convened in working groups to hash out ideas for cross-community partnerships. 

“Anytime you have a gathering of African-Americans, Jews and Latinos with a common history of standing together, shoulder to shoulder, to confront the new challenges of the world we live in today, it reminds us how critical it is to continue working together,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center and the MOT. 

Rev. Mitchell Johnson of Chicago, Rev. Shane Harris of San Diego and Rabbi Cooper have been spearheading ongoing talks to do just that. Each mentioned a sense of history at the root of his desire to bridge gaps where longstanding ties have existed between Jews and Christian African-Americans. 

Johnson added, “Every picture of a successful civil rights effort included different faith leaders — rabbis and preachers — linking arm-in-arm. That’s how the pendulum of justice swings forward.”

“Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking about Soviet Jewry before Jewish Federations were,” Cooper said. “And remember, Rabbi [Abraham Joshua] Heschel and countless others were directly involved in [the 1965 voting rights march in] Selma, Alabama. Sometimes it feels like those deep ties have been forgotten by both communities.”

The first concrete plan to emerge from their talks is a nonpartisan, multifaith press conference set for October in Chicago to condemn the Republican Party for allowing avowed-Nazi and Holocaust denier Arthur Jones to run for election to represent a Chicago-area congressional district. Jones will appear on the November ballot.

“Every picture of a successful civil rights effort included different faith leaders — rabbis and preachers — linking arm-in-arm. That’s how the pendulum of justice swings forward.” — Rev. Mitchell Johnson 

“It’s outrageous that the Republican Party, in the land of Lincoln, the party that authored the Emancipation Proclamation, would be the party of an avowed racist running for Congress,” Johnson said. “It can’t be tolerated.”

The trio also said they hope to further coalitions between their communities through broad, open forums on race and religion. The list of topics they hope to broach includes how to respond to hate speech, economic disparities between the communities and how they shape perceptions of both, mass incarceration, partisanship and police brutality. 

“Our rabbis, our reverends and our preachers haven’t had the best communication,” Harris said. “I think that, today, our religious centers are some of the most influential places in the nation, whether it’s a church, a mosque or a synagogue. One of the best ways to unify people is to bring religious leadership together. We all have way more in common than we realize.” 

Rather than create a new framework, they plan to work closely with Simon Wiesenthal Centers across the country, including the MOT, to bolster its existing “Space to Talk About Race” program.

Started in the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, the MOT, with the help of a grant, launched the program to encourage discussion across racial and political lines. 

“The initiative is a dialogue-based, solutions-oriented program to bring people together in modeling the importance of true dialogue in a country that’s strained and short on spaces for that,” MOT Director Liebe Geft said. 

The MOT has been hosting “Space to Talk about Race” events in Southern California and in the Midwest for several years. The wide-ranging discussions vary in length from a few hours to daylong programs and often include arts activities, particularly for teen groups. Pre-arranged programs held at the museum include tours, while some public events are held offsite. 

A key part of the program is the training of faith leaders to facilitate dialogue at “Space to Talk About Race” events. 

Cooper thinks faith leaders are primed to set the tone in their communities by taking on this type of responsibility. 

“As clergy, I think we have a great responsibility to try to overcome ideological and theological differences that exist in our communities,” he said. “In order to be an example for others, religion should be a source of blessing. It should not be a curse, a source of division, the way it’s used in so many parts of the world today.”

Johnson said he plans to work with Harris, Cooper, Hier, other prominent rabbis and Wiesenthal Centers across Midwestern and Southern states to “cast a wider net” in hopes of enticing more Jews and Southern Baptist communities with African-American and Hispanic members to participate in such programming. 

“If we do, conversations will end up being real and raw,” Cooper said. “As a result of those real conversations, I believe some absolutely measurable good fruit will come out of it.”

Cooper said he hopes these types of talks take place with liberals and conservatives under one roof for “good cross-communication.” 

“The Museum of Tolerance stands ready to provide services at all times,” Geft said. “This is a very important program to us, particularly at such a pressing time.” 

“We shouldn’t have to wait until crisis strikes to form these relationships,” Cooper said. “Besides, we all know we’re in crisis mode right now.”