With the issue of systemic racism and injustice at the forefront of the news Island Heights United Methodist church is stepping up to meet the challenge of educating their local church community and beyond with their small group, Hope and Hospitality, expanding their goals to meet the changing needs of the community “Hope and Hospitality’s usual mission is to assist and learn about newly arrived immigrants.
Due to the pandemic and recent events, we decided to expand our focus,” said Island Heights UMC church member and Hope and Hospitality group coordinator Cindy Roche. “Many feel that the issues of discriminatory practices in our country deserve our attention. Thus, we have chosen this issue as our focus.”
Roche added that after much thoughtful discussion, the group decided their first step in educating themselves would be to organize a meeting in which church members and other community members could read and discuss the highly acclaimed book, “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, an account of his decades-long career as a legal advocate for marginalized people who have been either falsely convicted or harshly sentenced.
In his book, the Harvard Law graduate describes the racism, corruption and cruelty that pervade American court systems and lead to the systemic abuse of marginalized communities. “We introduced this book to the congregation as a way to educate ourselves and have discussions about ways to combat this type of racism. This is not part of any previous book discussion group,” she said.
“We usually have about 30 people total participating who are evenly divided among Zoom meetings and masked socially distanced meetings with seven people who are not church members currently attending our group discussions.”
Roche added that the outreach so far has been to invite a local Island Heights non-church related book club to join the discussion as well as individual church members inviting people who may be interested in the subject. “The group has met four times so far, and we are still in the process of educating ourselves on systemic racism.
Some very general thoughts have included meeting with local churches of color and with local school districts about their curriculum in regards to the history of racism as well as working with incarcerated people in local prisons and in other justice-related ways such as supporting bail bond funds or defense lawyer funds,” she said.
Roche continued that the process to initiate a larger outreach program will be a “longer one than something that will kick off in the fall” due to the pandemic. She said, “We are currently just starting a discussion on ways other churches can be involved. One church member is also researching our Island Heights community’s history in terms of race.”
With conversations on how to move forward taking place, Island Heights UMC is leading the way for other churches as well as local communities to join in on the conversation, with Roche saying that she is hopeful that they can educate others and find ways to dismantle systemic racism in our society.
“If we can begin to identify our role in the perpetuation of these practices, we will be able to determine some ways we can be a part of the process that will eventually eradicate the unequal justice that exists today,” Roche said.
For more information about the Island Heights UMC social justice outreach mission, email the church at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact Cindy Roche at 908-507-5311. Island Heights UMC is located at 111 Ocean Avenue in Island Heights, NJ.