Brooklyn First voices speak in the midst of COVID-19 and racism pandemics




The Brooklyn First Church family, in a pre-pandemic gathering in the church sanctuary
Photo courtesy of Doris Abdullah

The Brooklyn First Church family, in a pre-pandemic gathering in the church sanctuary

By Doris Abdullah

One of the first things that I noticed about white privilege is my white friends are never asked to speak for other white folks. People of color are always asked to speak for the entire community. Words of any Black person is taken as the gold standard for the feelings, commitments, and actions of not just that person, but all Black people.

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The men, women, and children at Brooklyn (N.Y.) First Church of the Brethren speak with a wide variety of voices based in their identities as people of color, trapped for 100 days in their homes by the twin pandemics of coronavirus and racism. Listen carefully and you will hear their anger, beliefs, Christian praises, fears, joys, and hopes for tomorrow.

We called our first Zoom meeting topic “Struggling in the Midst of COVID-19 and Racism Pandemic.” The biblical scripture was taken from Isaiah 56:7. From the first meeting came forth “Worship for Change: A concert by Brooklyn First SonShine Praise Team” on Facebook Live in honor of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. The Brooklyn First SonShine Praise Team gave voice to peace, love, and justice through Christ.

Voice - Luidgi Altidor letter to councilman:

“Dear Councilman,

“Blessings to you and your family during these times of unrest in our city. In the midst of pandemic and just when we felt that we had enough distance between us, the nation stands further divided, because of George Floyd’s killing by a police officer while three other police officers stood by. The video is traumatizing to watch, leaves a feeling of uneasiness in me, and makes me immediately think of my own encounter with the police.

“I am a 30-year-old African American male, married to my high school sweetheart, with two wonderful sons, ages 3 years and 3 months, have a master's degree in special education, a music teacher in the public school, and lead guitarist in my church praise band. The color of skin representing immediate danger and fear and not my identity as a Brooklyn husband, father, son, teacher, and Christian came to mind when I was stopped by two white police officers. One officer approached my side while the other approached the passenger side with hands on hip. I was told to roll down all four windows, told of my offense which was: running a red light and not following proper protocol for a traffic stop.

“Fear passed through my body as my chest tightened, breathing became difficult, sweat formed on my forehead, and water formed in my eyes. I gave them my license, registration, and a PBA card. My father-in-law was a retired police officer and thus the source of the PBA card.

“Everything changed in the encounter because of the card. The officer took her hands off her hip and the officer on my side reached in to shake my hand. My encounter was changed by a card, but George Floyd did not have a PBA card. He was not treated with any respect, courtesy or professionalism. I was not shown any of those things either until I showed a piece of plastic that let them know that I knew one of their kind.

“I want my sons to grow up in a nation where they are not looked upon as a threat because of the color of their skin. I want them to receive the same courtesy, respect, professionalism, and justice accorded to white men. The badge of an officer should not represent authority, fear, and power for one group of people over another. Let us come together as a community and hold those in power accountable for the job they do as we recognize that we are all members of the human race.”

Voice - Melissa Marrero:

“Yes, I agree something does need to come out of talks and letter writing is definitely one way of getting the message across to those who may benefit from hearing the message in writing.

“I would want my words to be heard by those who have turned a blind eye to the burdens of others, rather than to those leaders and politicians who are already supporting the protest and legal reforms.

“While those who are helping move this country in the right direction still need support, it is those who are not utilizing their leadership roles to thwart or exact injustice that probably need our prayers."

Brooklyn First conversation on police reform:

Brooklyn First members want the police held accountable for their actions. They want better training for all police and those with disciplinary and mental health issues cared for and relieved from duty.

They feel that they should be able to call on the police in a time of crisis and not be fearful that they will become a victim rather then being cared for. In 2000 a West African immigrant named Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times by the police. All four officers were acquitted of the charges of second degree murder and reckless endangerment. Black Lives Matter because the color of skin is a gift from God that identifies one group of humans from another group of humans. Black is not a crime nor does it denote being less than human. Eric Gardner was also unarmed and represented no threat to the police, yet they choked him to death. The police were not held accountable for his death. Black should not make one a target for terror at the hands of the police. Black Lives Matter.

Background:

Brooklyn First is home, since its 1899 founding, to immigrants from many lands. New arrivals, elders, and dual-language speaking second and third generations blind easily together in their love for each other and love of God. It is an urban church in the wide meaning of the word where one hear dozens of languages and dialects including Chinese, Spanish, French, and English. The church founders were white farmers from rural Pennsylvania. The founders and the immigrants have been and are still being transformed by the unique dynamics and interrelationships between those from European heritage and those from African heritage that have defined American for 400 years.

Skin color, in America, is a weapon. One does not need to know the history of 200 years of chattel slavery and 100 years of legal segregation to know that being Black in America can cost you your life. Those deemed Black do not get to choose their destiny and are always subject to violence. White privilege means you are not held accountable for your actions in dealing with those of color. White privilege allows you to get away with unspeakable crimes.

Early Brooklyn First immigrants tried to accommodate by turning away from their heritage and even changing their last names. Since the 1960s’ Black rebellion in Watts, Calif., by southern sons and daughters of African heritage, many immigrants have embraced their native heritage. They rejected changing their names to blend in. They embraced their indigenous, European, and slave heritage. And many rejected the false notion that white is better and black is of less value. The cultural explosions in the arts, entertainment, and sports, dominated by African Americans, amassed followers among the youth. They found pride in the contributions of artists and sports figures from their native countries.

At the same times, immigrants’ skin colors expose them to the same terror as their African-American counterparts. The white police officer patrolling the neighborhood does not care about their country of origin. They are/were classified as non-white and became targets of violence. This has been truer over the last three years and the current administration in Washington, DC.

Some at Brooklyn First are experiencing the anxieties of child separation, as immigrants. That is, their children are born here, but if exposed by the authorities the parents can be deported to their country of origin. Their children would remain in the US without their parents, which is a terrifying notion for any parent. New York City is a Sanctuary City and there is less chance of this happening here, but nerves are still frail. Also, the DACA program that shields from deportation those who were brought here as children is under attack by the administration.

With the pandemic have come loss of jobs and looming fears of homelessness, deportation, loss of medical care when sick, as well as death alone.

Biblical scriptures shared:

“So God created humankind in his image. In the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

“These I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my alter; for my House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).

“Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:11-12).

“Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

-- Doris Abdullah is one of the pastors of Brooklyn (N.Y.) First Church of the Brethren and the Church of the Brethren’s denominational representative to the United Nations.

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