On May 18, 2017, Temple Israel of Boston hosted 800-plus Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) members from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim congregations throughout Metro Boston. GBIO came together to do three things: report on progress in affordable housing, healthcare, and responding to anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment; prepare people to call on Massachusetts legislators to enact specific criminal justice reforms; and engage people in building GBIO’s power to pursue social justice.
The evening opened at 6:30 p.m. as over 40 Temple Israel members and staff donned GBIO T-shirts to welcome guests who streamed into the atrium and sanctuary, while Temple Israel’s musical duo played familiar melodies. An exciting moment at each GBIO Assembly is the roll call where a representative of each congregation steps to the microphone to announce the number of members attending. Temple Israel led the challenge with 100 members and earned rousing applause.
Rabbi Zecher opened the GBIO Assembly noting GBIO’s power as “people of faith joined by passion inspired to do justice.” Reflecting on the timeliness of the weekly parshat Leviticus 25:10 and the topic of criminal justice reform, Rabbi Zecher observed that this verse was inscribed on the Liberty Bell and served as an inspiration to the abolitionists. She noted that the Liberty Bell may be cracked and silent today, but GBIO’s voice is not.
Since 1998, Temple Israel has been an active leader in the GBIO, which has 44 churches, synagogues, mosques, and other member organizations. GBIO itself is part of an extensive network of 22 similar multi-faith citizen organizations throughout the eastern United States. Temple Israel member Fran Godine represents GBIO on the MetroIAF Strategy Team, which coordinates efforts for greatest impact. These networks have gathered citizen power to pioneer solutions to common issues such as healthcare reform, affordable housing, and gun violence reduction.
GBIO co-chairs for the evening were Rev. Liz Walker of Roxbury Presbyterian Church and Mrs. Jumaada Smith from St. Katharine Drexel and Grant A.M.E. Church.
The primary action for GBIO this year is criminal justice reform. During the Assembly, members heard about successful community meetings with many local state legislators. A scorecard was distributed showing which legislators had met with GBIO members and how many votes could be counted on. While a few resisted committing to vote for all the bills GBIO supports, community leaders reported legislators were first educated and then moved by first person stories of the torture of solitary confinement and the wasted lives of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders who possessed small quantities of drugs.
Again and again speakers credited the power of citizen action to convince legislators of the moral justice to vote for specific bills that will:
- Repeal mandatory minimums for drug offenses;
- Implement pretrial and bail reforms;
- Reduce or eliminate fines and fees;
- Shorten the length of time spent in solitary confinement.
This action will continue during the legislative session and Temple Israel is actively engaged in meeting with legislators and orchestrating calls to legislators across the state. Contact Rabbi Soffer or Tali Puterman if you want to be part of this social action effort. As of the Assembly, less than half the votes needed to pass each of the bills were committed. Efforts to contact friends and family in Massachusetts outside of the Boston area were solicited, as was volunteering to sit on upcoming legislative hearings. And stay tuned to ongoing work on criminal justice reform being led at Temple Israel by our past president, Kathy Weinman.
Our keynote speaker for the evening, Bishop Douglas Miles, from BUILD, our sister MetroIAF organization in Baltimore, was invited to speak on the topic of building power by building relationships with corporations, major institutions, and their CEOs. By this means, BUILD was able to enlist 25 Baltimore area corporations and organizations in hiring returning citizens, providing income and meaningful work to the formerly incarcerated.
Rev. Liz Walker challenged us to imagine what might be accomplished were we to work with local corporations to find ways for 1,000 long-term residents to become first time homeowners, to join together once more to defend access to quality affordable healthcare, and to find jobs for 1,000 returning citizens in our own community.
Never before has GBIO been so active on so many issues of import. As part of building its power, GBIO provided all who attended with its 2016 Annual Report titled For a Time Such as This: Collective Strength, Powerful Impact. This new report should prove a powerful tool as GBIO takes the next steps towards meeting with CEOs in Greater Boston.
All member congregations provide financial support through dues to GBIO which is a tax-deductible not-for-profit. But it was individual contributions that enabled GBIO to hire a third organizer this year, to support congregations’ social justice work in these challenging times.
Rev. Oscar Pratt of St. Katharine Drexel closed us in prayer, saying there is power in the land and it lies with us coming together to experience the power of love and justice for all: “While we cannot do everything, we are liberated to do something…our step on the path makes an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. Let us be prophets of a future, not our own.”
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