“And what does the Lord require of you but to DO JUSTICE, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
When Rev. Martin Luther King Jr said outside Santa Rita Prison in California to a group of Vietnam War protesters on December 14, 1967, “There can be no justice without peace, and there can be no peace without justice,” he was envisioning an inclusive model of social justice that subscribed to the philosophy that “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
Though our society has trudged forward toward Dr. King’s goal of peace with justice, there remains deep potholes and trenches that prevent the two from merging. And now the inequities that still exist over 50 years later, which GNJ has been committed to challenging, like school segregation, poverty, racism, immigration and incarceration disparities have been amplified recently by the onslaught of COVID-19.
The virus has not only exposed thousands to dangerous health problems, but it has also exposed the public to the fact that civil rights imposed many years ago have still not been fully realized. The Supreme Court’s decision on May 17, 1954, outlawing segregation erased the whole doctrine of separate but equal. However, today segregated schools still exist, with New Jersey close to the top of that list.
“This pandemic has illuminated a lot of what we have been working on, focusing on,” said Tanya Bennett, who serves Covenant UMC in Plainfield, chairs GNJ’s Board of Church & Society and is associate dean of theology at Drew Theological School at Drew University. “We’ve come to a new point of concentration.”
This comes as we approach the 2020 Peace with Justice Sunday on June 7, a day when churches tackle challenges and wrestle with where justice lies. Over 370,000 Black and Latinx children in New Jersey (63% of the state total) attend public schools that are segregated by race and by poverty. In 2018 the NJ Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools, Inc. filed a complaint that alleges that the state has been “complicit” in maintaining one of the nation’s most segregated public school systems. This past January the court case, Latino Action Network v. State of New Jersey was brought to the NJ Supreme Court where it still presides.
“We cannot have true peace without justice. Peace with Justice Sunday provides an opportunity to highlight some of the injustices and disparities within our own communities and how we can work to alleviate them,” said GNJ Director of Mission Ashley Wilson.
“Many injustices and disparities have been further illuminated by how the virus has impacted people of color, low-income communities and marginalized communities, especially when it comes to rates of exposure due to the nature of employment, access to healthcare and food security.”
She added, “As Christians, we are called to love our neighbor as we advocate for just systems.”
Throughout GNJ the amplification of inequities is being felt.
“COVID is bringing all of these things we have been fighting for to light,” said Pastor Sammy Arroyo of First United Methodist Church in Hightstown, who also chairs the Salvation and Social Justice, the organization who among other public policy issues teamed up with the Latino Action Network to challenge school segregation in the state.
He added that in a city like Trenton, as is the case for many urban areas, the highly segregated schools that exist are at an extreme disadvantage because many of the minority students go to homes with maybe one computer and no Wi-Fi.
He added, “They’re also dealing with teachers who aren’t necessarily culturally and racially competent and turnover is rampant…They’re behind the rest of the students before they even begin.”
“COVID has brought these things to the surface. Some kids live in hotels. Hospitals are moving outside cities, making it harder for people to get there,” said Arroyo, who added that creating partnerships between faith and lay leaders who together can do advocacy work is crucial.
Like Arroyo, those leaders who are valiant champions of human rights are not giving up hope.
“This pandemic needs to make us better,” said Bennett, adding that she hopes we use this time of isolation to focus on determining how we emerge as better people, those who are seeking a society that has peace with justice.
“We need to emerge as prophetic leaders who work together to create systemic change…it’s about economic reformation, not economic renewal,” she said, adding that it needs to be a “thoughtful, meditative process.”
King’s Poor People’s Campaign, which sought to bring economic justice to America’s poor, is still alive more than 50 years since his death.
Donations accepted on Peace with Justice Sunday go toward valuable grants so that churches can continue their global ministries of reconciliation and make a difference in the world where peace and justice can coexist.
Jonathan Campbell, a pastor at Old First United Methodist Church in West Long Branch as well as the Peace with Justice coordinator, has extended the deadline to apply for a Peace with Justice grant to August 15 to allow churches to adjust to this new environment. More information can be found at www.gnjumc.org/church-and-society/peace-with-justice-grants/.
For more information and resources from UMC, visit www.resourceumc.org/en/content/peace-with-justice-sunday-pastor-and-leader-kit.