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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At Our Church, We…

giant slayers

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on June 10, 2018.

John 5:1-9, Psalm 98

Just over a year ago, a panicked young mother, Julissa, called her pastor, AJ Johnson, from the Saint Francis Hospital Emergency Room. Through tears she explained that her infant daughter had been bitten by mice as she slept in their apartment in the Clay Arsenal neighborhood of Hartford. As if the horror of mice biting her baby wasn’t overwhelming enough, the Department of Children and Families had been called and was now refusing to release her baby to return home with her. Pastor AJ arrived within minutes, and so begins a most remarkable, disturbing, and ultimately inspiring story.

In addition to leading the Urban Hope Refuge Church in Hartford’s North End, Pastor AJ is a neighborhood organizer on the staff of the Christian Activities Council, a Hartford faith-based social justice organization. As he inquired more about the circumstances that led to Julissa’s emergency room visit, he learned that the Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments (CARA) where she lived had an uncontrolled infestation of mice living within its walls, beyond the reach of tenants’ traps or poison. In addition to mice and rats, the 300-plus tenants of these CARA apartments dealt with leaks, water damage and mold, broken windows, and no heat; and despite being cited more than 2,300 times for violations, the landlord Emmanuel Ku, failed to remedy these deplorable, inhumane conditions.

Pastor AJ and the Christian Activities Council began to organize the CARA tenants in what would become a year-long effort to hold Ku accountable for providing safe housing. Community organizing campaigns like this one depend on the leadership of the tenants. The Christian Activities Council remains in the background, training, equipping, and supporting the tenants to do the necessary research, meet with public officials, and publicize their cause. The tenants soon learned that Ku is one of the most notorious slumlords in America. Every year he received over a million dollars in subsidies from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and 260,000 dollars in tax abatement from the City of Hartford.

Holding Ku accountable would require holding HUD and the city accountable. Mayor Bronin of Hartford quickly agreed to support the tenants; not surprisingly, HUD moved more slowly. But on May 31st, HUD notified Ku that they would be removing his subsidy, effectively ending his management of the CARA apartments. Tenants will now be given a voucher from HUD to relocate, and the Christian Activities Council is working with them to make sure they secure appropriate housing.

In the words of Psalm 98:

O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.

Just a year after a young mother’s desperate phone call, she and her fellow tenants came together to stand up to forces of evil and achieve justice for themselves. This is the promise of community organizing.

First Church has had a number of meaningful connections to this campaign, most significantly through our intern, Anastasia, who has been working on the front lines with the Christian Activities Council since September. And I have been meeting with a group of over 40 Hartford Area clergy organized by the Christian Activities Council to provide a faith-based witness for righteousness and justice. In May, I had the privilege of sitting in on a large meeting between all the players. The city was represented by Mayor Bronin and the Fire Chief; HUD executives in Boston appeared via a large video screen; Emmanuel Ku’s people were at the table, CARA tenants set the tone for the meeting; and a couple dozen of us clergy sat in rows along one wall, now that I think of it, like a kind of holy jury. I was deeply moved by the skill, strength and resolve of the tenant leadership of that meeting.

First Church has now formed a Core Team of six volunteers that will develop relationships within our church to inform future organizing efforts. Ten of us from First Church were present at an organizing training on Tuesday evening, when the tenant leaders of the CARA apartments were invited to come forward. The room, over a hundred representatives of some thirty-five churches, erupted in a spontaneous and raucous standing ovation for this remarkable, if unlikely, group of giant slayers.

From our psalm, The Lord has made known her victory; she has revealed her vindication in the sight of all people.

With the time I have left I want to address a couple questions.

First, is it consistent with our faith for churches like ours to participate in community organizing efforts like the one in support of the Clay Arsenal tenants?

And, if this is indeed the work of the church, where do each of us find ourselves in stories like this?

In the story I shared from the Gospel of John, a crowd of people with various disabilities gathers at the edge of a pool of healing water. From time to time the water is agitated, activating its healing properties, and those waiting to be healed clamor to be the first into the water. The King James Version of the Bible describes this scene more colorfully. “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”

It seems that some people were closer to the edge of the pool than others, some may have been less debilitated than the man Jesus is talking to, and others may have had someone to help them down into the water. But this man who has been ill for thirty-eight years can never reach the pool in time to be healed. Others have more access, ability and resources. Jesus instructs this man, stand up, take your mat and walk. And the man stands up and walks!

Likewise, by themselves, the tenants of CARA did not have the access, ability, or resources necessary to remedy their situation. Like Jesus, the Christian Activities Council prepared and supported the tenants to stand up and walk on their own.

The psalm continues, God has remembered her steadfast love and faithfulness to her children. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Yes, this equipping and enabling of those without access and means is work we are called to as the body of Christ, the church.

Though this work of organizing for justice and equity is clearly the work of the church, as a pastor I know well that not every individual feels called to such ministries. So, where might you fit in to stories like the one about the CARA residents’ victory over Emmanuel Ku?

Well, this is choir Sunday, and Psalm 98 instructs us, Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

I think our music ministry provides a perfect model for ways we might all claim our place in the social justice “choir.”

At First Church, those who feel called and have a gift for music are invited to sing in one of our choirs. But not everyone feels so called, and not everyone has been so gifted. But the music ministry of this church, with all its choirs and musicians, clearly inspires us all and enriches our faith. And called or not, and gifted or not, each of us is regularly invited to participate in the music of the church through the singing of hymns in worship. And though we might not like every hymn sung or piece of music performed, I think we would all agree that we have an extraordinary music ministry here at First Church, especially unique and successful in my mind, because of the diverse music Mark Mercier brings to us. I would like to think that all of us, whether or not we sing or play an instrument, claim the music ministry as our own, “At our church, we have the most amazing music ministry!”

In fact, I would like to think we could come up with a whole string of “At our church, we…” statements. At our church, we have an extraordinary youth group. At our church we have a great church school. And that each of us feels empowered and equipped to tell stories about these, our ministries.

Like the music ministry, those who are gifted or called are invited to enter into particular roles in our fledgling community organizing ministry. You might attend a training to be a member of the Core Team. Or you might agree to host a house meeting in the fall. Or down the road, you might fill a specific need in a particular campaign. But whether or not you participate at this level, like the music ministry, this organizing ministry will inspire us all and enrich our faith. And called or not, gifted or not, there will be opportunities for everyone to participate. Instead of Sunday morning worship, you will be invited to attend gatherings called actions in support of particular issues. Instead of hymns to sing, you will be given stories to tell. And I would like to think that all of us will become comfortable saying, “At our church, we have a thriving community organizing ministry. Let me tell you the story of Julissa and how, with Pastor AJ, she sparked a campaign that brought down one of the most notorious slum lords in the United States! Yes, at our church, we stood alongside the tenants as witnesses to righteousness and equity!”

Tell these stories, and…

Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.

With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.

Let the floods clap their hands;

let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord,

for God is coming to judge the earth.

And God will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

 

 

 

 

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