December 19, 2014

Churches Can Break the Chokehold

authenticityIn light of the recent announcements of the grand jury decisions in the matters involving Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Companion Magazine sat down with Rev. Gary Williams, Pastor of Faith United Methodist Church and Hamilton United Methodist Church in South Los Angeles, for a conversation on faith and the future. Rev. Williams is a life-long resident of South Los Angeles and Chair of the Mass Incarceration Task Force of the Justice and Compassion Essential Ministry Team.

How did you feel when you heard the news?

Seeing the video of Eric Garner brought about some personal memories for me.

What kind of personal memories?

gary-1-webWhen I was a teenager, the police put me in a chokehold. They left me while I was passed out. When I woke up, I was looking at my friends who were waiting for me.

Do you feel like this kind of thing happens often in the community here?

People in the community, especially our younger people, feel as though the police are not there to help them. And, we need to get to a place where we are sure that the police see us as fully human and worthy of respect. Otherwise, we will continue to see our young people give up and not hope for a better future.

How about in the church? How are our church people feeling?

I think that when the grand jury decisions were reached and announced, many of us were disappointed, but not surprised. On Sunday, the mood was somber. As a people of faith, we have to keep believing that our future is going to be different and better than our past.

gary-2-webThis is probably not the best way to enter into Advent and Christmas. But, do you think that the message of Jesus can speak to times such as this?

The story of Jesus is that of unwed parents of a marginalized community, where their sons were in danger by an occupying force, who gave birth to their child in an impoverished environment. And, the meaning of this story is that God cares, God listens, and God hears the voices of those who live in that way. This is the meaning that we hang on to.

What can our churches do to make things truly different in the future?

Churches need to step in to be the mediator for peace in communities. We also need to help each other see that we are in this together. This is not an important matter for just one community. Maybe what we can do is to start making connections, build relationships, by having pulpit exchanges.

Here in Cal-Pac, you chair the Mass Incarceration Task Force. What is it?

Our hope is to educate and resource our congregations to be aware of unfair imprisonment, especially by race and ethnicity, to nurture mentoring programs that keep young people away from the school to prison pipeline and to advocate for alternatives to prison because prison is not helping.  All of us in the church can do something to help make a better future than our past.

By James J. Kang, Cal-Pac Director of Communications