Rabbi Ron Symons on December 28, 2021
“I believe that our faith could influence our civic engagement.”
I am hoping that for some of us, the above statement raises at least one eyebrow. After all, we know each other well enough to understand how precious I hold the rights explicated in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights that prevent Congress from making “…no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In embracing these words, I oppose municipal, city, county, state and federal holiday decorations (even when there is ‘equal’ representation – because there never is equal representation for all our neighbors), prayer in public schools (because they are taxpayer funded), elected officials leading prayers in government sessions or other settings in which they are acting in an official capacity (because they work for all of us, not any one religious group).
Please do understand that I am all in favor of the teaching of religion in public schools as an academic subject including community spiritual leaders guest teaching without insisting on practice during the lessons nor proselytization. In fact, I think those lessons are essential in humanities and/or social studies classes. I believe that the lack of those lessons leads to the otherization of neighbors we are experiencing across the country. The inclusion of those lessons will make it harder to hate and act on that hate.
In the same vein, I am all in favor of spiritual leaders joining with government officials when the spiritual leaders offer prayers for the well-being of our community. I embrace this type of government and religious partnership in keeping with my deep held belief that one of the purposes of religion is to help each of us clarify the values taught through religious tradition and apply them to the real world around us.
That’s why, when I was asked to join with a dozen or so Black Pastors, Mayor Peduto, Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich, Police Chief Schubert and a host of police officers in offering prayers for the city as we anticipate a new year and new administration, I accepted. We gathered in Pittsburgh’s newest park, the Frankie Pace Park after the late Hill District activist and community advocate. It aims to bridge the unjust gap created more than 60 years ago between the Hill District and Downtown. Our gathering was designed to celebrate the hard work interfaith spiritual leaders have been doing with the police to improve relationships between the police and community. Our CFLK not only served on the Mayor’s Police Reform Task Force in Summer 2020 but is also at the center of organizing police clergy meetings in all the police zones to help police and clergy see each other as humans.
The prophets of Ancient Israel had what to say about the real world in which they lived some 2,800 years ago and I believe their words should guide us in facing our problems today:
THUS SAYS THE ETERNAL,
This is what I desire:
to unlock the fetters of wickedness,
and untie the cords of lawlessness;
to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke.
Share your bread with the hungry,
and take the wretched poor into your home.
When you see the naked, give clothing,
and do not ignore your own kin.
If you banish the yoke from your midst,
the menacing hand, the evil speech;
If you offer compassion to the hungry
and satisfy the famished creature —
then your light shall shine in darkness.
Just think about what our city/region would be like if we all followed Isaiah’s words and aspired for a community in which neighbors turned to each other for the simplest forms of kindness he describes. It follows, then, that I would offer this prayer:
O GUARDIAN of life and liberty,
may our city always merit Your protection.
Teach us to give thanks for what we have
by sharing it with those who are in need.
Keep our eyes open to the wonders of creation,
and alert to the care of the earth.
May we never be lazy in the work of peace;
may we honor those
who have died in defense of our ideals
and victims of violence from all our neighborhoods.
May we be responsive to the daily traumas of our neighbors
and work with each other to
redefine the term neighbor as a moral concept
in real ways that impact our neighbors for good.
Knowing that our corner of the world would be so much better if each of us lived out the ideals of kindness in this prayer, we still need to make sure that the systems of government embrace these universal values.
And so we pray for our leaders:
We pray for those
who have dedicated themselves to leading our city
at all levels of public service.
We pray for those
who are about to dedicate themselves to leading our city
at all levels of public service.
Grant all our leaders wisdom and forbearance.
May they govern with justice and compassion.
Help us all to appreciate one another,
and to respect the many ways that we live in community
as we uphold the constitutional rights of every neighbor.
May our homes be safe from affliction and strife,
and our city be sound in body and spirit.
The words I shared at the gathering represent three components of how I approach in the intersection of religion and civic engagement. At first, we turn back to religious values to better understand how previous generations structured the communities of their day. We do this to learn both negative lessons to avoid in repetition and positive lessons worthy of adaptation. Next, we hope that the values expressed in our religious settings will be lived out by us and our neighbors, on behalf of our neighbors. Finally, we elevate these values in the presence of our government officials with hopes that they use them as guidance in their decision making around social policy and funding priorities, always aware that they have no right to establish a religion or limit the free exercise thereof.
As we enter the fifth calendar of year of the work of the JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement, we affirm that we need religious voices amplifying the values of kindness, equity, food, shelter, justice and so many more… to motivate our government officials to actually make a difference for loving kindness and civic engagement for all of our neighbors.
Prayers have been adapted from Mishkan Tefillah prayerbook, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007.