By Melissa Kimiadi, Deputy Director for A Journey through NYC religions.
Wave after wave they cross the street. The people kneel, start to pray. And then handcuffs are thrown on. It is orderly, almost breathtaking in its poignancy. It is a plan of desperation. A sad tribute to misguided city government policies to eliminate religious groups from housing projects and public schools where working and poor New Yorkers gather for respite from a hard life.
Thirteen pastors and thirty civilians are arrested for their disorderly conduct in their civil disobedience.
Prior to the confrontation, Mayor Bloomberg put out a humorous video to commemorate this day that portrays him as a Lady Gaga devotee with a red apple in his hand being driven to the Bronx in a black livery car. No doubt to throw the peasants an apple once he arrives.
The peasants gather out front of Morris High School in the Morrisania area of the Bronx prior to Mayor Bloomberg’s 11th and penultimate State of the City address at noontime, Thursday, January 12th. Defending his policies on reforming public school education, the mayor vaguely alludes to Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I have seen from the mountain top” speech for civil rights. The mayor says, “We have to be honest with ourselves: we have only climbed halfway up the mountain, and halfway isn’t good enough.”
Outside, waving signs that read “Save the church, save the poor communities” and “Don’t make my church homeless,” pastors, seminary professors, lay people, politicians and others have come together for a prayer rally. They argue that their activities are closer to the true spirit of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ministry.
Councilwoman Letitia James [of District 35 in Brooklyn] tells the crowd of about 300 people, “In every government office, they begin with a prayer. So the argument that this is removed from politics and that we should remove state from church is not true.”
The uproar is a response to a New York City government policy to prohibit religious groups from meeting in public schools after February 12th. For at least eighteen years the city has tried to make a distinction between religious and other community groups in the use of publicly available space in the city’s schools. However, since 2002, Federal courts have forced the city to stop their discrimination. Then, in June a court reversed course and allowed the city to close the schools to groups that want to have “worship services” while allowing other religious expressions like Bible studies, prayers, and lectures. It effectively banned the main reason that churches were paying for use of the space. The United States Supreme Court declined on December 5th to reconsider a lower court’s ban, and the city moved ahead with their plans to close the churches.
Religious groups had other things to be upset about. They were upset that the mayor specifically prohibited religious groups from participation at the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center bombings. There was a small uproar over the taking down of holiday decorations from the Staten Island ferry terminal. There was wildfire of local then national reaction when some local New York City Housing Authority with little notice told churches that they couldn’t meet any longer on public housing community centers. One high official in the Housing Authority emailed a local community center director, “NYCHA will not be able to rent to Churches based on a recent circumstance.” The local director told the church that the “circumstance” was the court ruling about churches meeting in the schools. At least one large mosque using housing authority space for worship and other religions’ services probably would also have been affected. They are some of the silent victims of the policy change.
The uproar threatened to go viral among Christian groups after last Thursday’s arrest of 7 protestors outside the building that houses NYC Department of Law offices. The arrestees were Pastors Dimas Salaberrios of Infinity Church, Pastor William Devlin of Manhattan Bible Church, Pastor Michael Carrion of Promise Land Covenant Church, City Councilman & Pastor Fernando Cabrera and three laymen.