Faith Leaders Discuss New Social Justice Movement

As mass demonstrations across the globe draw parallels to civil rights movements of the 1960s, a group of Pittsburgh faith leaders joined the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) and Office of Health Sciences Diversity Wednesday for a discussion on their role in the movement. 

“Words in a sanctuary, no matter if that’s a real sanctuary or a virtual sanctuary, are not enough. We need to take those words, aspirations, prayers, psalms, teachings, moral foundations, and bring them to the street,” said Rabbi Ron Symons during the ODI panel discussion, “Codes of Belief, COVID-19 and Racism: Faith in the Age of Pandemics.”

The discussion was the fourth installment in the ODI and Health Sciences Diversity town hall series, “This is Not Normal: Allyship and Advocacy in the Age of COVID-19.”

In addition to Symons, panelists included Andrew Bossardet, coordinator for equipping thriving congregations for the Reformed Church in America; Imam Chris Caras, religious director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh; and Rev. Dr. John C. Welch, vice president for student services and community engagement and dean of students at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The event was moderated by ODI Institutional Equity Manager Cheryl Ruffin and Director of the Office of Health Sciences Diversity Mario Browne.

Symons, who is director of the Center for Loving Kindness and senior director of Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, called protesting in the midst of a pandemic a “personal decision” but said the faith community must take some form of corrective action beyond the pulpit. 

“I believe that those of us who are people of faith and hope understand that it’s not enough to just articulate but you have to gesticulate also. You have to go out and you have to do,” he added. 

Although all agreed the need for collective action among faith communities was urgent, they acknowledged the pandemic serves as an obstacle. Caras said traditional celebrations that would normally bring hundreds together following the end of Ramadan were canceled due to COVID-19 and Symons said many who follow Orthodox Jewish traditions prohibiting use of electricity on the Sabbath are unable to take part in online services. 

Welch, who said the nation is fighting “the pandemic of racism and the pandemic of COVID-19,” said it is important that members of the faith community are both allies and advocates. 

“James Baldwin said 'I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.' God, in essence, said the same thing in different ways in scripture. To be both ally and advocate is what I think is expected of us by God as a faith community,” he said. 

Bossardet said theologizing about how a history of racism dishonors God doesn’t amount to a call to action and the faith community must turn to scripture to show direct examples of how to serve. 

“To be a white Christian in this conversation is to recognize that Jesus confronted and deconstructed privilege,” he said. 

According to Caras, Islamic leaders across the country were taking similar steps. 

“I think a lot of imams across the country are reminding our community members we have a duty within our traditions being, as the Koran puts it, 'witnesses over mankind' or 'witnesses over humanity,'” he said.  

“The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in one of his most famous sermons said very unequivocally that no Arab is better than a non-Arab, no non-Arab is better than an Arab. No White is better than a Black and no Black is better than a White.”