This is an excerpt from Lessons Learned: Stories from a Lifetime of Organizing (c) 2020 by Arnie Graf (ACTA Publications, www.actapublications.com). Used with permission. All rights reserved. Click here to read our review of the book.

 

The phone rang early one morning in 2004, startling me into semi-consciousness. As I fumbled to pick up the phone, I could hear Cheri Andes’s voice asking me excitedly if I had seen the Boston Globe’s front-page story. 

When I finally gathered myself, I asked her why she sounded so frantic. She told me to get my computer and read the article on the demonstration that took place on the Boston Commons the day before. She added, “I think we are dead! The issue of equal marriage will tear us apart.” 

Cheri was the very talented lead organizer of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), and I was the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) national supervisor working with her and the organization. The State Supreme Court had issued a ruling requiring the Massachusetts State Legislature to change the wording of the law on marriage to recognize same-sex marriages. Demonstrators on both sides of the issue were separated by a rope line, surrounded by police, and yelling at each other. Rev. Jennifer Mills Knutson, the Associate Pastor of Old South Church and GBIO’s co-chair, was quoted in the Boston Globe article as saying that the issue of equal marriage was a civil rights issue. Rev. Hurman Hamilton, the African American pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, the other co-chair of GBIO, was quoted as saying that passing a law legalizing same-sex marriage was wrong. (Fortunately for the organization, the reporter did not mention the fact that Revs. Knutson and Hamilton were the co-chairs of GBIO.)

***

At the time when the issue of equal marriage burst on the scene, GBIO was in a very fragile state of existence. The two excellent founding co-lead organizers, Jim Drake and Lew Finfer, were gone. Cheri Andes had recently become the lead organizer and was just beginning to establish herself in that position. Additionally, many of the Roman Catholic parishes that comprised a majority of the founding congregations were being forced to either close or merge with other parishes. Additionally, the all-powerful mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino, hated GBIO. (When I was first introduced to him, he called GBIO The Greater Boston Idiots Organization). Finally, as hard as Jim, Lew, and the leaders had worked to diversify the organization, GBIO had remained predominately white.

In 2003, I had worked as the interim lead organizer — traveling from my home in Maryland to live in Boston every other week. I understood my role as re-building the organization, developing the new lead organizer, and diversifying the base of the organization.

During that year, through the very fine work of GBIO’s associate organizer, Ari Lipman, we slowly began to bring in a number of Haitian congregations. I concentrated on recruiting African American congregations in addition to conducting numerous training sessions and discussions with the primary leaders of GBIO.

As this work progressed, we slowly began to change the issues agenda, the base of the organization, and the mix of people in leadership positions. By 2004, a clear pathway for success was becoming evident. Then the issue of equal marriage exploded, threatening to split the organization in two.

Many of the white leaders were adamantly in support of equal marriage, while virtually all of the Haitian and African American leaders were adamantly opposed to it. I shared Cheri’s fears about GBIO’s future. It was definitely unclear whether these newly formed and still fragile relationships within GBIO would withstand the strong feelings that people on both sides of the issues expressed.

Soon after the front-page article appeared in The Globe, some powerful African American clergy, led by Bishop Gilbert Thompson, the pastor of a mega-church not connected with GBIO, called for a rally to oppose equal marriage. Over 2000 Black clergy and lay people attended the rally. Bishop Thompson was the main speaker. His talk included some very ugly and inflammatory comments. Rev. Hamilton also spoke at the rally. His comments centered around his opposition of equal marriage from his theological point of view. The reporter from the Boston Globe who attended the rally quoted only Bishop Thompson’s incendiary comments. The reporting of the bishop’s comments brought the emotions from the pro-equal-marriage proponents to a fever pitch. It certainly did not help that the issues seemed to further expose an already deep historical divide between the African American and other religious communities.

The day the article appeared, Rev. Hamilton realized that the emotions he had helped light threatened the very existence of GBIO. That morning, he called his co-chair Rev. Knutsen, who he knew was pro-equal marriage, to come and talk. Rev. Knutsen agreed that they needed to meet to discuss what was needed to do to ensure GBIO’s survival.

When Rev. Hamilton called Cheri Andes to inform her about his initiating a meeting with Rev. Knutsen, Cheri tried to talk him out of meeting her alone. She knew where both stood on the issues. She also knew that Rev. Hamilton’srelationship with Rev. Knutsen was new, and she feared that if their meeting went poorly GBIO’s future would be in serious jeopardy. Cheri called me to see if I would intervene with Rev. Hamilton to dissuade him from meeting with Rev. Knutsen alone. I fully understood Cheri’s concerns and why she called me.

Rev. Hamilton and I had begun to develop a very close and trusting relationship. Although he was one of very few African American pastors present at the founding of GBIO, by the time I arrived on the scene his activity in the organization had waned. As the pastor of a small, struggling, African American Presbyterian Church in the Roxbury section of Boston, he had decided to dedicate all of his energy into the building of the congregation.

When I did my first individual meeting with Rev. Hamilton, I felt an immediate connection with him. He may have had only 40 to 50 members at that time, but there was something very special about him. Beyond his keen intellect, he radiated a positive spirit. Usually, I try to keep an initial face-to-face individual meeting with a new potential leader to around 45 minutes. After what seemed like 30 minutes to me, I realized that I had been in his office for an hour and a half. From then on, Rev. Hamilton and I met with each other frequently. Eventually, he became the President of GBIO, after Rev. Knutsen left Boston to pastor another church.

Rev. Hamilton’s political savvy grew exponentially. Eventually, he became a major figure in Boston and Massachusetts politics as GBIO’s president — never forgetting to bring other leaders along with him, both figuratively and literally. His leadership played a major role in the organization’s rise in political recognition, esteem, and success. Even though he now pastors a large non-denominational congregation in California, the memory of his leadership and his imprint on GBIO remain vivid to this day.

When Cheri called me to intervene with Rev. Hamilton, I told her that while I completely understood her concerns, I thought that we should trust his instincts; besides, he had already set up the meeting with Rev. Knutsen.

The two ministers knew that they stood on opposite sides of the issue of equal marriage, but they were absolutely together on the importance of the survival of GBIO — especially as it was just becoming appropriately broad-based and diverse.

One of the foundational universal principles that Saul Alinsky and Ed Chambers and Dick Harmon and others taught all of us IAF organizers was the primary importance of the face-to-face individual meeting. They called it the most radical tool in the organizer’s arsenal. The individual meeting is a 30-45-minute, face-to-face encounter. Its purpose is for both participants to explore each other’s story, to see if there might be a mutual self-interest on which they could consider acting together. It is not an “interview,” and it is not an attempt to pry into someone’s private life; it is a discussion meant to determine if there is a basis of trust to engage in public action together. After 45 years of engaging literally thousands of people in this way, I can attest to the power and the radical nature that are inherent in the individual one-to-one relational meeting.

Rev. Hamilton and Rev. Knutsen had been with GBIO long enough to have discovered and explored the power of quality individual meetings. Their agreement to meet face-to-face at that crucial moment was spot on. If they had not previously met in this manner to establish a relationship of respect and trust, their meeting at such a charged time would have been either a waste of time or an unmitigated disaster. Instead, each minister engaged the other without trying to convince the other that his or her position was the right one. They started from the basis of respect for each other and in the common belief that, in the long run, the Boston metropolitan area badly needed a broadly based, diverse, non-partisan organization such as GBIO.

Their meeting concluded with a decision: They would convene a small group of leaders who were on opposite sides of the equal marriage issue to explore—without organizing staff present, by the way—ways to move through the existential crisis facing GBIO. They invited Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Rev. Wesley Roberts, Rev. David Carl Olsen, and Rev. Ray Hammond to join them to discuss how GBIO should move forward.

When Rev. Hamilton told Cheri Andes about their decision, she once again became very anxious, which was understandable given the gravity of the split. Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who was the associate rabbi at Temple Israel, a member congregation of GBIO and a very large and prominent synagogue in the Boston region, had just begun to become involved in GBIO through the urging of Fran Godine, a wonderful lay leader at Temple Israel.

While the senior rabbi at Temple Israel, Ron Freidman, was a strong supporter of GBIO, he had numerous responsibilities that kept him from becoming a senior leader in GBIO. At Ms. Godine’s and Rabbi Freidman’s urging, Rabbi Pesner had begun to become more involved in the organization.

Rabbi Pesner, who is now the executive director of the Religious Action Center of the Union of Reformed Judaism, was a young, smart, engaging, charismatic leader. He exuded energy and enthusiasm. Along with GBIO organizers, he and other Jewish leaders had assisted in recruiting additional synagogues into the organization. Today, there are 14 dues-paying synagogues that belong to GBIO.

Temple Israel was and is an open, affirming synagogue that has a number of gay couples as part of their membership. The temple’s rabbis and membership were publicly supportive of the Equal Marriage Movement. Rev. Ray Hammond was and still is the pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Boston. I have always thought of Rev. Hammond as a true renaissance man because his interests are so varied and fascinating. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, entered Harvard at the age of 16, and at age 24 graduated Harvard Medical School. After practicing medicine for many years, he responded to God’s call to become a full-time minister.

Every organizer that had ever worked for GBIO had tried to recruit Rev. Hammond. The reasons for this were obvious. He is not only a fine pastor, but from the very beginning of his ministry he has been deeply engaged in the community. He was one of the co-founders of the 10 Point Coalition — an organization that was widely recognized as turning around a terrible spike of homicides in the African American community. There was no local or state politician, including Mayor Menino, who did not hold Rev. Hammond in the highest regard.

It was never the case that Rev. Hammond did not respect GBIO’s work; he was so busy with many other organizations, such as the 10 Point Coalition and other endeavors in the Black community, that he did not understand why his general support on various GBIO issues, such as affordable housing, was not sufficient. Cheri and I, along with many leaders in GBIO, knew that Bethel Church’s joining would bring instant credibility to GBIO’s re-organizing efforts. After meeting with Rev. Hammond numerous times and with the help of Rev. Hamilton, GBIO brought Bethel A.M.E. into the organization as a dues-paying member just before the Marriage Equality issue exploded.

Five of the six ministers invited met and decided to make two recommendations: First, to call for an expanded GBIO leaders meeting; and second, to recommend to the leaders that GBIO agree to take no public stand on the issue of equal marriage. They also agreed to ask each leader when and if asked to speak publicly on the issue to be clear that they were speaking as an individual—not as a GBIO leader. (Eventually, Bishop Thompson, who had only recently joined GBIO, left the organization based on this decision.) In between the small group meeting and the proposed leader’s meeting, Rabbi Pesner called Rev. Hamilton with an invitation. He asked if the minister and Rev. Hammond would be willing to come to dinner hosted by two gay couples from Temple Israel at one of the couple’s homes. Rabbi Pesner said that if the two ministers agreed, he and Rabbi Freidman would join everyone for dinner.

Rabbi Pesner explained that these two couples had been very impressed with both Rev. Hamilton and Rev. Hammond at GBIO meetings but now wanted Rabbi Freidman to pull Temple Israel out of GBIO due to the pastors’ opposition to equal marriage. The two rabbis had come up with the idea for this dinner and convinced the two couples that this invitation was the right course of action to pursue.

Rev. Hamilton immediately agreed and said that he would contact Rev. Hammond, who did not hesitate in accepting the invitation. Cheri Andes was convinced that this was a terrible idea. She knew correctly that neither man would ever change his mind on this volatile issue. She also had never met the gay couples who were hosting the dinner. This, plus her knowledge of Rabbi Pesner’s passionate belief in equal marriage rights, increased her concerns.

In talking to Rev. Hammond recently about the dinner, he said that he completely understood Cheri’s trepidations. First, he was a new member of GBIO, and Cheri had not gotten to know him very well. Second, neither Cheri nor he nor Rev. Hamilton knew who these two couples were. Rev. Hammond told me he had a sense that if everyone did not come to the dinner with an open heart and open mind the entire endeavor would be a disaster.

The dinner lasted about two hours. According to the participants there was very little conversation about the issue of equal marriage. As Rev. Hammond and Rabbi Pesner recounted the story to me, everyone spent their time together sharing stories about significant events that had shaped their lives. Rev. Hamilton said that the evening had a profound impact on his life. He left the dinner believing that a concrete wall had been replaced by a spirit of understanding and mutual respect. Rev. Hammond told me, “The wall turned into an open doorway.”

I was greatly moved, as was Cheri Andes, by what these leaders had risked and learned about themselves and the others at the dinner. As Cheri told me later, “The leaders saved the organization.”

The belief in building relationships of trust across various boundaries of differences had been completely affirmed. I was grateful to the IAF relational culture that I had learned from my first mentors at the IAF. This learning had been constantly reinforced over and over again at national and local training sessions, and that ultimately gave me the courage to believe that it might work even in this explosive situation.

A couple of weeks later when the extended leaders meeting took place, although there was some palpable tension in the room, I was confident that Rev. Hamilton, Rev. Hammond, Rev. Knutsen, Rev. Olsen, and Rabbi Pesner would carry the day.

Even though Cheri had briefed other leaders prior to the meeting, there was still some uncertainty as to how the proposal would be received. Knutsen and Hamilton laid out the idea that GBIO would formally take no position on the issue of marriage equality. This was met with complete silence. It was difficult to discern what the silence meant. However, after Rev. Hamilton told the story about the dinner he and a few of the leaders had attended at the gay couple’s home and how the event had a profound effect on all in attendance, almost everyone began to talk. The more people spoke, the more it became evident that good will was developing in the room.

Eventually, a vote was taken and passed unanimously to accept the recommendations that had been put forward by the clergy leaders. The organization survived and thrived because of that decision to avoid an issue that was internally divisive. (After this meeting, Revs. Hamilton and Hammond decided on their own to never again speak publicly on this issue—not even as individuals.)

A couple of months later, 450 members of GBIO met at Salem Seventh Day Adventist Church. Salem is a large Haitian church in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston and had originally been a synagogue. In fact, there was still a large Star of David at the top of the front door entrance. At this action, GBIO had the State’s Attorney General present to publicly pledge to uphold a civil rights agenda developed by GBIO leaders and Certified Nursing Home Assistants (CNA) workers from the Haitian churches.

In doing hundreds of individual meetings and house meetings in synagogues and Haitian churches, leaders and organizers had heard myriad stories and complaints. From the Jewish community, there was a good deal of frustration and anger about the poor care their parents and relatives were receiving at various nursing homes. From the Haitian community, there was a good deal of frustration among Haitian CNA workers who were being mistreated by owners of nursing homes. (We had learned that many nursing homes assigned 20 or more beds to each CNA to clean each day, in violation of Massachusetts State regulations. We also learned that at break times, and in violation of their civil rights, CNA workers were forbidden to speak Creole, their native tongue.)

Given this situation, GBIO initiated a series of house meetings involving Jewish and Haitian leaders who belonged to GBIO. At these meetings, leaders from both communities exchanged stories and frustrations. Together, they concluded that the root of the problem stemmed from the bad behavior of nursing-home owners. Relationship building led the two communities to develop a workers’ civil rights agenda to present to the Massachusetts State Attorney General.

At one point, one of the major nursing-home owners — who belonged to Temple Israel — went to Rabbi Freidman to ask him to intervene with GBIO on his behalf. After all, the man was a member of the Temple in good standing and a generous contributor. When he brought his request to Rabbi Freidman, the rabbi told him that he would do no such thing. He reminded the nursing-home owner the meaning of Jewish ethics and values. Rabbi Freidman asked the owner to live out his faith. Once again, Rabbi Freidman showed how a principled and upright leader should act.

On the wonderful night of that action at Salem Seventh Day Adventist Church, the State’s Attorney agreed to act on the agreement that was brought to him by GBIO.

Three months before this action, GBIO would not have been able to hold such an action at Salem because Temple Israel and the Haitian church factions were still deeply divided on the equal marriage issue. However, newborn trust and respect had evolved, and the two communities and the entire organization were able to move forward to correct a serious injustice.

The power and symbolism of this meeting taking place at a Haitian church that was originally a synagogue; where a local union had been founded in its basement; where the grandfather of Ari Lipman, the Jewish GBIO associate organizer who had brought Salem into GBIO, were recognized by all the leaders who had taken the organization through the storm that had almost destroyed its very existence.

Today, among many other victories, GBIO has successfully pushed the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to pass legislation for universal health care; criminal justice reform; and the establishment of a $70 million public STEM school in Roxbury, among other victories.

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