On May 5th, 2015, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Jersey Shore, with the guidance of interim minister Rev. Cynthia Cain, formed an Anti-Racism Task Force with goals of supporting black-led racial justice organizations, learning and educating (including understanding white privilege), building connections, engaging with others and responding to calls for action.
In late June, UUCSJS held a vigil to memorialize the nine victims gunned down in the Charleston, South Carolina Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. At that time, we reached out to the St. Paul AME Church in nearby Pleasantville, NJ, to share condolences. Our Anti-Racism Task Force also began turning our attention to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Over the summer, Rev. Cain and members of UUCSJS participated in weekly community walks in various neighborhoods in Atlantic City. With police officers, town and county government officials, members of community and religious organizations, and committed residents of Atlantic City, we walked to support improved community relations in the neighborhoods where people of color live and raise their families.
On August 23rd, with the unanimous support of our Board, UUCSJS raised our Black Lives Matter sign on our property. The unveiling ceremony was attended not only by UUs, but by members of the St. Paul AME Church and the Seaville Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) along with local community and religious leaders such as Kaleem Shabazz, the president of the Masjid Muhammed Mosque in Atlantic City, and Pastor William Williams of the Asbury Methodist Church in Atlantic City.
The display of the sign was met with both support and backlash from individuals on social media. Most heartening were the Unitarian Universalist ministers and congregations nationwide who posted their encouragement and solidarity on our Facebook page and made valiant attempts to explain that of course, all lives matter, but that historically, black lives in our society have not mattered, and so now we’re focusing on this complex and longstanding issue.
On the morning of September 2nd, our Black Lives Matter sign was vandalized with spray paint to read “All Lives Matter.” The Board of UUCSJS and the Anti-Racism Task Force agreed the sign should remain standing, despite the vandalism, until a repair could be made. This decision came in the face of vague threats of violence both on social media and on voicemail. Rev. Cynthia Cain told The Press of Atlantic City, “If people really want to work for all lives, they would be working for black lives.” She also said, “Nothing can take away from what happened when we put up the sign. A mostly white congregation stood up and made a courageous statement on behalf of the African American community. Nothing will stop us from continuing to fight for black lives.”
UUCSJS has been bolstered by many letters of support. From State Senator Jim Whalen and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo: “We wanted to take a moment to commend the Unitarian Universalist Congregation for joining the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. Despite some of the hateful comments members of your congregation may read on social media, you are helping to bring attention to the pressing issues facing the African-American community that, for far too long, our nation has ignored.”
From Reverend Collins A. Days, Sr., Pastor, Second Baptist Church, Atlantic City: “As a Pastor, I am encouraged by your congregation and your stance on the issue of ‘Black Lives Matter.’ As a person of African-American heritage and descent, I am encouraged by your courage in placing the ‘Black Lives Matter’ banner in front of your church. As an African-American, I welcome more progressive allies to the effort to reinforce and reestablish our human dignity and worth in the eyes of our fellow citizens.”
From Jesse L. Tweedle, Sr., Mayor, Pleasantville, NJ, “As Mayor of the City of Pleasantville, I would like to extend my acknowledgement to you for your support of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. Despite the unconstructive opinions of some which members of your congregation may have experienced through social media, please know that your stance is not in vain.”
The Ocean Heights Presbyterian Church passed a resolution on September 22nd stating in part:
“Whereas the Ocean Heights Presbyterian Church wishes to take a position supporting the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Jersey Shore and the rights of the church and its members to exercise First Amendment rights free of intimidation, harassment, vandalism, threats, or any actions inconsistent with the free exercise of the First Amendment rights of the church and its members…
Be it further resolved, that the idea that ’black lives matter,’ should guide the work of our church in every aspect.”
Pastor David Delaney of the Central United Methodist Church in Linwood, NJ, told the Press of Atlantic City, “My hope is that their church will not cower in the face of hate…. leaders in the faith community can stand behind them in their expression.”
These sentiments echo the support we have received nationwide.
Thanks to the skill of a congregation member/fine arts painter, our Black Lives Matter sign has been restored and reinstalled, and continues to symbolize UUCSJS’s support for racial equality and justice. Now, we are working in conjunction with the Asbury United Methodist Church and many others to create forums for continuing the learning and discussion taking place not only in Atlantic County, NJ, but across the nation, as UU congregations and other organizations seek to stay engaged and bring about a system of fair, transformative and restorative justice.
Read Rev. Cain’s “It Starts and Ends With Love” on the Our Stories page at Standing on the Side of Love.