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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