What Can Religion Teach Us About Justice?: A Visit to New Day Church

“Loving is always a revolutionary act.” – Carter Heyward

Rev. Douglas P. Cunningham, pastor of New Day United Methodist Church in the Bronx.

A close friend of mine who recently quit her job as a middle school teacher will be attending a theological seminary in the fall, answering a religious and spiritual calling she has been sensing for a long time. The daughter of a pastor and a contemplative Christian herself, she has long struggled with her involvement in radical and activist communities which often do not incorporate religion into their politics, unless it is being criticized. Her own shifting relationship to faith was not something she always felt able to discuss in these spaces, though it was just as integral a part of her life as her feminist, Pinay and artistic identities. She has invited me several times in the recent years to visit the church her father founded in the Bronx, and which she attends regularly. In light of her recent acceptance of calling, I thought it was high time I took her up on her offer, and finally went to visit this past Sunday.

I identify as spiritual, and decidedly not religious. Though I attended several different kinds of churches as kid, and visited other religious centers with my friends and peers, it was always the communities which gathered in these spaces which I found moving and powerful, not the messages and scriptures under which they gathered. As the descendent of colonized peoples, and particularly as a queer man, religious doctrine has always been something of which I’ve been skeptical and wary. Going this past Sunday to visit the New Day United Methodist Church in the Bronx, I was excited to be supporting my friend, and not sure what to expect from the service.

The service was held, as it is every week, in the cafeteria of a catholic school located close to the D Train. I was warmly greeted by every person I encountered from the moment I entered the space, and was surprised to see how genuinely multiracial, mixed-class and queer the community which had gathered there was. Many people were there from the immediate neighborhood, and many others had come from all over New York and New Jersey to be present. As we took our seats, we joined in with several members of the congregation as they played and sang Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”

After quoting from a passage in the Bible, the pastor, my friend’s father, led a sermon about making God the top priority in one’s life. He recounted the case of Tanya McDowell–a Connecticut woman who is currently facing grand larceny charges for enrolling her kids in a public school by using a false address. He noted that members of the Democratic Party have argued recently that Republican candidate Rick Santorum’s children are essentially in the same position, attending a well-funded public school in Pennsylvanian while Santorum resides in Virginia. “Yet none of these debates are actually about pointing out injustice,” he stated, “they are really just about presidential election politics. My question is: Where is God in these accusations and decisions? How was God’s vision prioritized in the sentencing of Tanya McDowell for trying to procure an education for her children?” He went on to note that most of what is becoming mainstream Christianity is concerned almost exclusively with individual morality–what women may do with their bodies, the role that sex should play in intimate relationships, who the institution of marriage should or should not include, etc. Yet it was public morality, the pastor argued, with which Jesus was most concerned, and that Christianity as a spiritual practice was founded on–the bringing of all people together to design a way of living which could meet the needs of and bring justice to all. Where had this commitment disappeared to? As I listened, I found that I had to do a lot of translating–that the words “God” and “Jesus” stood for different concepts and ideas in my own mind–but that when I did the translating, I found the pastor’s message incredibly powerful, inspiring and personally challenging.

After more music, poetry, and a moment where we broke into small groups to discuss the sermon and reflect on its meaning for our own lives, we were led in prayer as we prepared to accept communion. Several members of the congregation came forward to bless the wine and store-bought pita and guide individual prayers.

“This wine was made from many grapes, yet becomes one when we take it into our bodies. So, too, are we all made one within God.” As the bread and wine were carried to the center of the room for consumption, another member spoke:

“We take this bread and this wine, made from many hands, created in an unjust world, and eat them as a commitment to peace and fairness, and a world in which all have enough to eat.” This was the point in the service where I found myself the most moved. Such an open acknowledgement of inequity, and a vow to its eradication, I had never heard made in any religious setting before. To be a part of a ritual performed not as a nod to the traditions of colonizers, but to bind a community together in outspoken opposition to injustice, gave me a feeling of joy and urgency that I have rarely felt before, and never in a religious hall. That feeling stayed with me for a long time after I had left the service.

This visit was a truly changing one for me, and did not only touch and renew my desire for a just world, but challenged many of my own politics and beliefs on how I imagine us all getting there. Much of my own life has been spent struggling to find spaces where I feel all parts of my being are understood and welcomed, and where others share my desires for an inclusive, democratic and vocal movement for justice. It had never occurred to me before this past weekend that I might find so many of those qualities in a religious community–a fact which displays my own ignorance, and failure to envision the connections between my struggles and those of others with different spiritual leanings. That spirituality in general, but organized religion specifically, might be able to play a major role in movements for justice, reparations and freedom is not a thought I have heard entertained in many of the communities I belong to, and is a question I am contemplating for the first time after my trip to New Day. That these questions may not merely be ones of personal preference, but actually about how we choose to structure our communities of struggle, to connect to one another and nurture our spirits in the face of adversity, is an intimidatingly new discussion in which the visit pushed me to engage.

Above all, the service at New Day brought a message of genuine and radical love, and reminded me as I have never been reminded before that a commitment to justice requires of us that we attack systems of inequity, not the people who occupy those systems. In many of my own politics of resistance, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about who I am fighting against, and not about how I can learn to align my fight with those of others, for the goal of our collective liberation and happiness. The true diversity of the space, the clear messages of the sermon, and the wisdom of the entire congregation taught me that it is precisely the systems of domination and disparity we rail against which create the illusion of our separateness, profiting the notion that certain races, classes, genders and cultures are so fundamentally different that they can never be rallied around justice for all people. I learned this weekend that only by seeing past this illusion, and working to address all people as partners and resources in our own struggles, can we devise movements which have the capacity to imagine the freeing of our entire humanity.

2 responses to “What Can Religion Teach Us About Justice?: A Visit to New Day Church

  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful experience. I visited the Cunninghams and New Day church when my family was in New York last December, 2011. Our first weekend in New York was a morning worship at the New Day church and it was a great heart warming experience.
    I had to pause and re -read this line :“We take this bread and this wine, made from many hands, created in an unjust world, and eat is as a commitment to peace and fairness, and a world in which all have enough to eat.” I totally agree that we all have to revisit how we see the world not just for ourselves but for the whole humanity. I am glad you shared your meaningful experience at New Day Church.

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