Opening a dialogue on race and faith
The spiritual leaders for Bright Star Church of God In Christ and Congregation Beth Shalom share a common dream, envisioning a better future for the generations to come. So when an opportunity arose to open up a community discussion on African American and Jewish relations, the rest was history.
Pastor Chris Harris, of Bright Star Church of God In Christ, gave a presentation and engaged members of the community through a question-and-answer session at Congregation Beth Shalom on Jan. 9.
Cantor Steven Stoehr, of Congregation Beth Shalom, opened up his pulpit and congregation to Harris, seeing how much they shared in common.
“I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to offer a timely account of black and Jewish relations,” he said. “I wanted the congregation to revel in his perspective.”
Stoehr said it brings great meaning to align Harris’s appearance at his synagogue with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday on Monday, Jan. 18 and the annual youth violence prevention fundraiser in support of the Bronzeville Dream Center on Sunday, Jan. 17.
Harris serves as a National Councilmen of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, traveling the country building relationships between African American and Jewish Clergy.
About three years ago, Stoehr and Harris met at the Jewish United Fund, a central establishment for Chicago’s Jewish community, and they kept in contact.
Stoehr recounted how Harris had been a celebrated person at the event, speaking about a dream he had for his community because they go through so many tragedies. He said what struck him about Harris was how he predicated his work based on a trip to Israel.
“The Bronzeville Dream Center, is inspired by (the trauma center) NATAL in Israel,” Harris said. “NATAL believes that individuals [affected by military and terrorist attacks] are all too common. When these individuals overcome their initial shock and return to their normal daily routines, they remain in a state of pain and suffering. While Chicago is not a traditional war-zone, we all know that there is no lack of trauma that our community is facing.”
Bronzeville Dream Center in Chicago serves members of the community with counseling and other social services aimed at minimizing negative factors that cause violence and increasing protective influences that yield positive outcomes.
The overall work of the Bronzeville Dream Center and Bright Star Community Outreach, a nonprofit organization Harris formed to extend his church’s ministry, are supported by the annual youth violence prevention fundraiser and aim to make an impact in the community, providing them the access to necessary programs and services.
“The approach of BSCO is that community partnership starts from the premise that no single factor is responsible for violence, poor economic conditions and stability, homelessness, child safety, or drug abuse,” Harris said. “Family safety and strength depend upon connection with a broad range of people, organizations, and community institutions.”
Stoehr said the hope is that Harris can help guide his congregation and its African American Jews.
“Chris has a wonderful appreciation for each other’s cultures,” he said. “We have to learn from each other, not from the TV and newspapers. We have to talk to one another. I think Chris’s vision is becoming one people and one society who really want the world to be OK and after all, we are our brother’s keeper.”
Harris shared what he thinks is most notable about the history of African American and Jewish relations.
“(It is) our parallel history and our desire to revive,” he said. “With that in mind, we don’t want to keep the old frame in view. We need to look at it from a new lens.”
Harris said there are a number of existing problems that extend between African Americans and Jews that can be resolved by working together and engaging in dialogue.
On Jan. 9, Harris also addressed some of the community youth through a small break out session during the morning service at Congregation Beth Shalom. Stoehr said it was important to have kids engaged in the discussion because it’s about them.
“It can’t just be the parents,” he said. “If they don’t water the seeds for promise, nothing will change.”