April 28, 2005
By FRANCES GRANDY TAYLOR, Courant Staff Writer
The Rev. Alvan N. Johnson Jr. has resigned as chairman of the Interfaith Coalition
for Equity and Justice, complaining of a "culture of disrespect" that
he ascribes to institutional racism.
In a letter dated April
13, Johnson said he has been treated as a "figurehead" at the organization he helped found,
by the coalition's "majority culture organizers."
The Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition for Equity and
Justice encompasses 40 city and suburban congregations, with
the goal to bring together a diverse range of denominations
and faiths to tackle issues such as access to health care,
tax equity, economic justice and education.
Despite its progressive agenda, Johnson said, the coalition
is plagued by unacknowledged attitudes of racial superiority
among some within the organization. Though lip service was
paid to addressing the issue, he said, in the end it was ignored
because those involved did not view themselves as racist.
"Any institution that is working to secure justice for
the larger society - they have to work exceptionally hard to
be sure they themselves are just," said Johnson, who leads
Bethel AME, a predominantly black church in Bloomfield. "Otherwise
it will never work."
The Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek, who leads the Unitarian-Universalist
Society East in Manchester, became acting chairman of the coalition
last Friday. He said institutional racism does exist in the
coalition, which some have refused to acknowledge, and that
fighting it gradually took a toll on Johnson.
"Just because you do a good job of getting people together
across lines of race and faith doesn't mean you aren't going
to have problems," said Pawelek, who is white. He added
that the coalition plans to address the problems Johnson raised.
"We take his concerns seriously," Pawelek added. "We
have no illusions that it will be easy, but we need to do it."
In his letter, Johnson alluded
to tensions created because "the
dominant culture of this organization has no intention of following
the leadership of our ethnic and racial minorities, notwithstanding
the fact that [members of minorities] are the only ones who
have direct experience with oppression."
The final straw, Johnson
said, came several weeks ago during a health summit sponsored
by the coalition. Before speaking, Johnson said, he was handed
a script that outlined what he should say, which shocked
him. "I've been pastoring for
35 years, and I know what to say," he said. Then, when
he was introduced as a speaker, a coalition member told the
audience that Johnson's talk would be brief, which he says
embarrassed him publicly. Though later he made it known that
he felt belittled by both incidents, he said nobody apologized
and others dismissed his concerns as unimportant. "A simple
apology would have ended the matter," Johnson said.
One issue Johnson touched on in his resignation letter was
the number of black churches in the coalition. Of its 40 churches,
only eight are African American congregations, and Johnson
said that some white members of the coalition blamed the dearth
of black churches on his personality. Johnson said his efforts
to organize anti-racism activities - which might have attracted
more interest from wary black leaders - were shunted aside.
"I wanted to be able
to say to black clergy that we were working on [issues of
racism], but since nothing was happening, I really couldn't
He also said his attempts to ensure the spiritual underpinnings
of the coalition had gone unheeded.
With Johnson's resignation, his church also withdrew from
Though Johnson did not mention
her by name in the letter, he referred to the coalition's
lead organizer, Ann Pratt, saying she had taken power in
her own hands and was calling herself the group's "executive director." Johnson
acknowledged his relations with Pratt were strained.
"This is deeply saddening to me," Pratt said Tuesday. "I
believe he was an excellent chairman who worked tirelessly
to build the coalition.
"This is something that exists in every organization,
and I believe the coalition needs to address this," Pratt
added, referring to Johnson's charges of institutional racism. "We
take this very seriously. I think there is clearly a desire
to deal with it, and our work in the community will be strengthened."
Johnson played a pivotal role in the creation and vision of
the organization, from its beginning as a series of conversations
among area clergy to the coalition's first public meeting in
2003. The organization invited state legislators to gatherings
at area churches to receive their pledges of support to tackle
"I am not resigning because my commitment to justice
has diminished," Johnson wrote. "I am certainly not
resigning because justice and equity have been achieved in
our region. ... I am heartbroken because I had such hope for
this institution to serve as a national model for what loving
and committed people of many faiths could do to transform society."
Bishop John Selders, of Amistad
UCC in Hartford, who is a member of the coalition's executive
board, said he knew Johnson had raised the issue of institutional
racism several times over the past couple of years, but that
apparently it had not been addressed to his satisfaction.
Despite good intentions, many whites are unaware of certain
cultural attitudes and assumptions they hold, Selders added.
For example, he said, some coalition staff and members address
him by his first name instead of as Reverend. "That
never happens to me in the African American community," he said.
Selders said he still supports the work of the coalition
and he will remain in it for now.
"The issue of race
is there, but quite often unacknowledged. Left to its own,
it grows and does what it does in this case. And left in
its wake, people are shocked."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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