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An Open Letter from Courtroom 500 to the Chicago Faith Community

Posted: October 4 2018 at 08:56 PM

“Seek the Welfare of the City” Jeremiah 29:7 NRSV

The “postmark” on this letter is from Courtroom 500 at the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse at 26th and California in Chicago. Courtroom 500 is the venue for the Jason Van Dyke trial. The name appearing on the court calendar is Jason Van Dyke however, Van Dyke is on trial in name only. 

The line of questioning over the last three weeks by Van Dyke’s team crafted to sully and vilify the victim, Laquan McDonald might have one believing that Laquan is on trial; but he is not.  So, what’s really on trial in Courtroom 500? Justice!

Fellow members of the Chicago faith community and people of good will, the accumulated failings of disgraceful policing, dysfunctional child welfare services and a dehumanizing criminal justice system are what should really be on trial.

Unfortunately, we can’t put ineffective systems on trial in a court of law. We put people on trial. And so, the accumulated guilt and shame of these systems that have seldom honored the rights black and brown people yet protected the rights of white people has been heaped upon a teenager named Laquan McDonald. To say that Jason Van Dyke is guilty is an admission that the systems are guilty of failing both LaQuan and Jason Van Dyke.  

Therefore, communities of faith must continue to create movements that change public policies and unjust laws. Any law that degrades, dehumanizes and demonizes any person is unjust.

As you read this, across Chicago activists, organizers, faith communities and community members are bracing themselves and considering rapid response options to the civil unrest that will inevitably follow the announcement of the verdict. 

Borrowing from the prophetic words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this moment calls for us “to be more courageous than cautious.” It is time for people of faith not just to hear but listen to and respond to the Macedonian Call (Acts 16:9) that originates from the souls of empowered, energetic young adult activists and organizers. 

Now is a time for unity in the faith community. It is not a time separate into denominational divisions and sectarian separatism. It is essential for members of the faith community to work together with the outcome being more than a “photo-op or sound bite.” Our efforts cannot be grounded by the gravitational pull of ego and insecurity.

In the Hebrew scripture Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29), the weeping prophet sends a letter of instruction by way of royal messenger to a people living in exile under the rule of an oppressive regime. He instructs them to “seek the welfare of the city.” 

Jeremiah’s letter is written to both exiles and the Hebrew power elite which included priests, prophets, members of the king’s court and what we might call the business community. Among those to whom the letter was written included accommodationists and curators of the status quo who benefited from keeping things as they were. By not speaking out and taking action in this moment, faith communities can inadvertently become part of the system of accommodation.

Jeremiah’s letter is pastoral, prophetic and political. It speaks to the faith community today! We are urging faith community leaders to respond to this historic moment pastorally, prophetically and politically. 

Responding pastorally includes:

  • Praying – Pray for peace in our city! Pray for just verdict. Pray for change to unjust laws. Pray for strength and courage for community activists and organizers. Pray for people’s safety. 
  • Creating Space for Public Processing Pain and Grief – Affirm the loss of individuals and communities most affected by the verdict. Asking people not to respond to the verdict is like asking a grieving parent not to cry from the death of her only child.
  • Practicing the Ministry of Presence - Be in the public square to support others. These spaces may include being with students, principals, school administrators and local first responders. 

Responding prophetically includes:

  • Casting Light on the Injustice - Consistently cast light on the tension that already exists (e.g., renegotiating FOP contract with citizen representation, holding the current mayor to his promise to provide civilian oversight of policing, etc.). Affirm, support and participate in public actions and public demonstrations aimed at shining light on systemic injustice.
  • Advance Advocacy & Justice – Encourage your faith community and others in your community to advocacy, action and rapidly mobilize when necessary.
  • Speaking Truth to Power in Love – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek” This includes holding elected officials accountable. Host public meetings at your church with your Alderman (who have been silent during this entire trial) and other elected officials to determine their position regarding police reform (e.g., GAPA Ordinance).

Responding politically includes:

  • Registering to Vote and Voting – Host voter registration events and encourage your faith community members and constituents to vote. 
  • Participating in Nonviolent Direct Public Action – Join collective efforts to (e.g., organize Prayer Vigils in public spaces)
  • Education – Share key legislation and public policies (e.g., the Laquan McDonald Bill HB4478 providing for recall of elected officials, Consent Decree providing guidelines for Chicago Police Reform) with your constituents. 

While teaching some of his followers, Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13a).” Jesus was reminding His followers that they should make a difference in the world. We are urging faith communities across the city to “be the positive difference.” 

Coalition of Faith Leaders Seeking Justice for Laquan (in formation)
Rev. Ira Acree, Leaders Network
Rev. Robert E. Biekman, Maple Park UMC
Rev. Robbie Craig, Interim Executive Director, Community Renewal Society
Mr. David Crawford, President, McCormick Theological Seminary
Bishop Sally Dyck, Northern Illinois Conference, United Methodist Church
Dr. Marshall Hatch, Leaders Network
Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., International President RainbowPUSH Coalition
Rev. James M. Moody, Sr.
Father Michael Pfleger, The Faith Community of St, Sabina
Bishop Darryl B. Starnes, Sr., Michigan Conf.-Mid West Episcopal District, AMEZ Church
Bishop John F. White, Fourth Episcopal District AME Church
Bishop Sylvester Williams, Third Episcopal District, CME Church
Rev. Janette Wilson, Esq., RainbowPUSH Coalition/Fernwood UMC

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