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Chairman Quits Interfaith Group

Says Mission Foiled By Muted Racism

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 say that."

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 the coalition.

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 issues.

"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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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