Convicting and Convicted: Testimony from Joshua Serrano and a Response from Pastor George Harris

josh

Tenant Organizer Joshua Seranno with Congressman John Larson

On January 27, 2019, Mission Sunday, at First Church, Joshua Seranno, Tenant Organizer for Christian Activities Council, shared these words during the traditional sermon time.

Good morning everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here this Sunday morning. My name is Joshua Serrano. I am a community organizer with the Christian Activities Council. I come from the Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments also known as CARA where I’ve lived for the past 13 years.

For years we lived in horrendous conditions.  I’m talking rat infestations, roaches, mold and mildew and numerous safety hazards — In a property that was being subsidized by the Federal Government. Our owner was getting over 1 million dollars a year to provide decent, safe, and sanitary housing. Years of negligence on behalf of the owner, Emanuel Ku is what caused the deteriorating conditions.  The worst I’ve seen it in all my time residing there.

About a year and a half ago the Christian Activities Council got involved.   After attending a meeting with the property manager we realize we needed to organize. The CAC taught me and my fellow resident leaders the principles of organizing, which helped us take action in our community.  We researched contracts, policies and procedures, and analyzed who had the power to influence HUD and the City. We met face to face with city and federal officials, including HUD secretary Ben Carson. WE had public meetings and some from this congregation, including your pastor and CAC board member Sara Batchelder stood with us as allies.

After months of organizing we were successful in compelling the Mayor of Hartford to revoke the owner’s tax abatement and we compelled HUD to revoke his million dollar contract. In addition to getting HUD to pull the contract, all of our 150 families living in Ku’s 26 buildings were given mobile section 8 vouchers so we could move wherever we wanted in CT or in the United States. You see, before this, our housing subsidy was tied to our unit so if we left our apartment, we would no longer have a housing subsidy, forcing us to stay in these conditions. Now we were free to move to any community we wanted to – or at least that’s what we were told.

The day HUD announced they were relocating us we thought  our prayers were answered. This decision and the relocation benefits was music to our ears. Freedom some of us called it — we finally have choices. It gave a lot of us hope where for so long we seen little of, like we can finally leave and live life better, more humanely. Isn’t this what we all want, to be able to raise our family in a safe sanitary home with the promise of progress.. Well in actuality, not all of us were able to move into the town’s and county’s we desired.

Though it is illegal to deny a person or family housing with a section 8 voucher here in CT, we found out that there is an invisible wall surrounding Hartford for those of us who are “poor” and, in particular, who have black or brown skin.

Every time we called a landlord for a property in West Hartford, Glastonbury, Newington, and, yes, Simsbury, we were told the apartment had been rented, only to find it still listed when a CAC staff person would call. We then decided to have white people call to make the initial appointment and then when we would go to look at it they would require a credit check which doesn’t make sense with guaranteed section 8 income, or they would simply never call back after we submitted our application. The message was clear – we were simply not wanted in this community or in any other community where good schools, low crime, and other opportunities exist. Where we did find possibilities, HUD created others barriers forcing us into already segregated neighborhoods.

I find hope and comfort in our partnership with your faith community and the other 50 congregations that are organizing together through the Greater Hartford Sponsoring Committee. I dream of the day we get to fight together to bring about justice together.  Thank you for all that you do and for the work we will do together in the future.

Following Josh’s testimony, I shared the following words during the Our Common Life time in the service.

This is the time in the service we call Our Common Life. I usually deliver it from the chancel steps, but I think I need a pulpit for some of what I am moved to say.

So, Dawn offered the powerful, beautiful image of the body of Christ as the Apostle Paul refers to it in First Corinthians, Chapter 12, that we are all members of the body of Christ. We often use this image to refer to the local church, those of us who are sitting here this morning, other times more broadly, the church in Connecticut, or the church universal, or the entire Beloved Community of Christ. And, it refers to the need for all members to be present, for the body of Christ, for Christ to be present in the world.

I found myself convicted twice in the last seven days. That word, “convicted,” is a legal term, but it is also a religious term, and it means the same thing in both contexts, it means found to be guilty. I was found to be guilty twice in the last seven days. The second time was by Joshua. Thank you, brother. It took a lot of courage, Joshua, to stand up here and say what you did, both to affirm the good work of the Christian Activities Council and this church, and to say that you and others have been turned away by towns like ours, by our town. Convicted, that’s me, Simsbury resident, member of this town, I heard you, and I felt that.

The first time I was convicted was on Monday, at the Martin Luther King celebration in Hartford, at the State Capital. One of the women being honored there was Elizabeth Horton Sheff. You will recognize the name Sheff. On behalf of her son, she brought the case, Sheff-O’Neill. That was the court case that said there should be equity in funding for public education across towns in Connecticut. Now some thirty years later that case is still very much alive, still being debated, has not been resolved, there is not equity in public education across Connecticut.

Again, I was convicted. I am a Simsbury resident. I am here in part, because… well first and foremost because I accepted a call to this good church, but by gosh, my sixteen year old daughter is getting a great education in the Simsbury school system. And that education, and the cost of that education, the money devoted to my daughter’s education in Simsbury, has a negative impact in Hartford, could be apportioned differently to benefit Hartford. Elizabeth Horton Sheff reminded me of that, in fact she is a member of a UCC church and, she preaches. And you can expect to see her in this pulpit one day before too very long.

So, thank you brother. I share this because it has everything to do with Our Common Life, doesn’t it, and whether we define Our Common Life as those in the sanctuary this morning, or whether we define Our Common Life and the body of Christ, as reaching across to Hartford, across Connecticut, and around the world, and how that body of Christ responds to and treats our weakest, most vulnerable members.

 

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What Kind of Witness?

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on May 14, 2017.

Acts 7:55-60

The short passage from the seventh chapter of the Book of Acts that I am going to preach on makes little sense without the story that precedes it, beginning in Chapter 6. So, here is that story.

Following Christ’s resurrection, then ascension to heaven, the Apostles began to organize as the church and set out in an around Jerusalem to share the story of Jesus and baptize people in his name. Among those early converts were Greek speaking Jews. Though the Apostles baptized these so-called Hellenists, they weren’t seen as the equals of Hebrew speaking Jews who traced their ancestry to Abraham.

Every day, the early church would distribute food to widows and those in need, but the Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected. This annoyed the original twelve Apostles because they thought it was below them to “wait on tables,” serving food, especially to Hellenist widows. So they directed the Hellenists to identify seven of their own men of good standing to serve as Deacons. The Deacons would serve the food, so the Apostles could focus on praying and sharing the word of God.

Among those seven Deacons was a man named Stephen. Though he was said to be full of faith and the Holy Spirit; he wasn’t expected to do more than to volunteer in the soup kitchen.

But he quickly got himself in trouble by arguing with members of a Hellenist synagogue, and these Greek speaking Jews brought Stephen before the ruling council of chief priests in Jerusalem. His accusers said that Stephen’s promotion of Jesus as the “Way” represented a break from Jewish tradition and that he should be punished for this. Stephen then gives a long and impassioned speech to the Council to refute their charges.

He argues that there have been two groups in Israel’s long history, those who accept God’s message and messengers and those who reject them. Stephen and the Apostles are aligned with Moses, the prophets, and Jesus. The Council and the Jews they represent are aligned with the Egyptians, the ancestors who killed the prophets, and those who crucified Jesus. One group sought the liberation of the slaves, justice for the poor, and new life for the most vulnerable, while the others oppressed these same. According to Stephen, rather than rejecting God’s law, the followers of Jesus are in line with the faithful in Jewish history who have sought to keep covenant with God. Jesus is a fulfillment of the law, not a break from it. Stephen finished his speech to the Council with these words:

‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’

Not surprisingly, Stephen’s words enrage his accusers, and this is where this morning’s passage picks up.

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him.

Note, this is the Saul that would soon have a conversion experience, after which he would be known as Paul, the Apostle who would become the greatest evangelist our tradition has ever known, and whose letters have profoundly influenced the way we understand our faith.

Stephen, the waiter, was stoned to death by a mob for confronting powerful religious authorities for their failure to follow Jewish law. Stephen was a witness for God’s truth and justice, and it cost him his life.

Saul was a different kind of witness, he stood by and watched as authorities incited a mob to murder, and his silence communicated his approval.

What kind of witnesses will we be?

During the “Dirty War” in Argentina, waged from 1976 to 1983, the military government abducted, tortured, and killed left-wing militants, and anyone they claimed were “subversives,” including all political opponents of the regime. Many of the dissenters were young people, students and other youth trying to express their dissatisfactions with the regime. The kidnapped people became referred to as the “disappeared.” The government obliterated any records that would help the families find the bodies or reclaim their grandchildren.

The military government’s censorships prevented any discussion of the matter. Within a terrorist state, those who spoke out put their own lives in danger. Yet, in the face of the disappearance of their children, in 1977 a group of mothers began to meet each Thursday in the large Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, the site of Argentina’s government. There they walked in non-violent demonstrations. As they walked they chanted: “We want our children; we want them to tell us where they are.” The madres said, “No matter what our children think they should not be tortured. They should have charges brought before them. We should be able to see them, visit them.”

The mothers’ simple request was the first time any of the public had spoken out against the brutality of the regime. The movement and numbers of women whose children had “disappeared” grew. In their weekly demonstrations some carried pictures of the missing children. Later they wore white scarfs to symbolize the white dove of peace, which “can unit all women.”

The mothers’ nonviolent expression of truth to power eventually drew international attention. Human rights groups arrived to help them open up an office, publish their own newspaper and learn to make speeches. Although the police continued to harass them, (the early founders in fact “disappeared” themselves), it became more difficult for the government to ignore the moral presence of mothers standing witness to the illegal and brutal acts of the regime. As mothers, they presented a powerful moral symbol which, over time, transformed them from women seeking to protect their children to women wishing to transform the state so that it reflected maternal values.

In no small part because of the mothers’ witness and martyrdom, Argentina returned to a civilian government in 1983.

One of the mothers, Maria del Rosario de Cerruti said:

“One of the things that I simply will not do now is shut up. The women of my generation in Latin America have been taught that the man is always in charge and the woman is silent even in the face of injustice…Now I know that we have to speak out about the injustices publicly. If not, we are accomplices. I am going to denounce them publicly without fear. This is what I learned.”

Either we speak out, or we are accomplices.

What kind of witnesses will we be?

At the end of April, a number of students from Canton High School chanted “Trump, Trump, Trump” at a basketball game against the predominantly black and Latino Classical Magnet School in Hartford. In an editorial, the Hartford Courant named the incident for what it was, racism, and the Principle of Canton High School acknowledged that the taunts crossed the line into hate speech. At the end of February, someone rearranged the letters of the Granby High School sign to spell a racial slur against African Americans.

We would like to think Simsbury is immune to such incidents but it isn’t. During a performance of 42nd Street in February a student yelled out a homophobic slur at one of the actors on stage. Rev Kev and I hear of other incidents of students directing slurs toward immigrants, African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and Jews in the hallways and classrooms of Simsbury High.

Frankly, I felt convicted by today’s story about Stephen. I have heard about such things at the high school all year but, not being sure how to respond, have stood silently by. And I hear the words of Maria del Rosario de Cerruti, “We have to speak out about the injustices publicly. If not, we are accomplices.”

This is not to blame teachers or the administration. Naming and confronting such behavior is hard. And I am not imagining mothers wearing white scarves protesting in the school parking lot, though wouldn’t that be something. But maybe there is a response appropriate to our faith, something encouraging and helpful to the administration and teachers, something supportive of youth and their families, something that equips everyone to respond constructively to racism and homophobia when it arises, as it surely will.

Please help me think about this as we attempt to answer the question, what kind of witnesses will we be?

Retelling Redemptive Stories: Leah and Casey Anthony

Based on very little biblical evidence, scholars have often reached the verdict that Leah is the ugly, less desirable sister who was rejected by Jacob in favor of her younger, more attractive sister Rachel. Midrash brings sacred imagination to the biblical bits of Leah’s life to weave stories that reveal Leah to be strong and compassionate. These stories redeem Leah and her reputation in history.

Casey Anthony has been almost universally condemned. Can we pick up her story at the courtroom exit and use our sacred imagination to craft narratives that are redemptive, for Casey and for ourselves? What would such a story look like? Where would we begin?

Salt and Light: Witnessing to God’s Presence in the World

Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth and light of the world (Matt 5:13-16). That means that people see God in and through us, and we see God in and through the acts of others. Have you had a God Sighting lately? Have you been somewhere where the unexpected kindness of someone makes a difference in your day? Have you or someone you know spoken out against racism or in support of the rights of gays and lesbians? Have you witnessed the faith and courage of someone as they face a life threatening illness?

Thanks to technology first developed to chronicle human suffering, we can now share our witness and testimony about God’s work in the world for all to see. Ushahidi (Swahili for witness and testimony) is an internet application that was first developed to document acts of political violence in Kenya in 2008. Since then, Ushahidi has been used to monitor elections in India, locate earthquake survivors in Haiti, identify oil washing up on beaches following the BP oil spill, and monitor crime in Atlanta. Ushahidi collects, sorts and maps reports from observers, then displays this information on a website. If the technology is useful for monitoring suffering, why not use it to report Good News!

This is what we have done at South Church in New Britain. Using the Ushahidi application we have set up a website to allow anyone to report their God Sighting, their Good News about the ways God is acting in the world today. Reports will appear on the Salt and Light website with a brief description and a color-coded dot on a map to indicate whether the God sighting was evidence of faith, compassion or justice. Try it! There are currently four ways to submit your witness and testimony to the Salt and Light website:

1. Go to the website, http://saltandlight.crowdmap.com then click on the green “Submit a Report” button in the upper right. First enter a short title, then a brief description of your God Sighting, next click whether this event was a reflection of faith, compassion or justice, and finally enter the location and click the green “Submit” button at the bottom of the page.

2. Send a text message including a brief description of your God Sighting to 860-681-9128. Include the word faith, compassion or justice and your location in your text.

3. Tweet your God Sighting on Twitter with the hashtag #besaltandlight.

4. Or send and email to saltandlight@southchurch.org. Here too, include the word faith, compassion or justice and your location.

Including your name and email address is optional (when reporting through the website). If you choose not to include your name, your submission is completely anonymous. Once Pastor George approves your report, your witness and testimony will appear on the Salt and Light website. Be salty! Let your light shine!

Published in: on February 15, 2011 at 10:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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