Sacred resistance: L.A. faith community united in holy opposition

LOS ANGELES—Thirty-six times in the Hebrew Bible alone, plus many other places in the New Testament, believers are commanded, as in this passage from Leviticus, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” The Koran also includes many passages about giving to the needy, wayfarers and travelers.

Almost 200 faith activists gathered Thursday night (March 9) at one of L.A.’s leading African American houses of worship, Holman United Methodist Church, to bear witness regarding Sacred Resistance, the part people of faith are playing and are sworn to play in contemporary struggles over immigration rights, worker rights, and the rising police state mentality in America.

This was the fifth annual ingathering sponsored by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), under the slogan “United in holy opposition against all forms of fear and oppression.” CLUE and its affiliates certainly have their work cut out for them in the Trump Era.

As the Rev. Janet McKeithen of the Church in Ocean Park said, we defenders of our neighbors’ humanity and rights act “not out of guilt, not out of pity, and not because we want to get into heaven,” but because a whole, caring society is in our own interest too.

Pastor Kelvin Sauls, a native South African who leads Holman United Methodist, welcomed the attendees to his church, remarking that “We’ve lost our direction, based on what is coming out of Washington, D.C.” “Let’s not get caught up in the paralysis of analysis,” he said. “Tonight, we stand firm in the direction we are heading—toward liberation for everyone.”

Najeeba Syeed, professor of interreligious education at Claremont School of Theology, framed the discussion around two questions. “Who is human?” she asked—and the answer to what she called “the theological question of our time” is not so simple! Society has myriad ways, through its institutions and policies, of reminding certain classes of people that they are indeed not fully human entitled to the dignity and rights we afford to others. And who among us, she cautioned, is immune from acting in big or small ways, to dehumanize those we characterize as “the other?” Mass incarceration, the treatment of women and the LGBTQ community, Muslims—the list is almost endless. Our country bombs and kills innocent people in other countries, and then shuts our borders to people fleeing from that same violence.

Syeed’s second question: “What is sacred?” We seek justice, we seek peace, she said. But she reassured us, “The greatest prophets were always labeled as ‘crazy.’” Moses rebelled against the kingdom of power and went with the slaves who refused to be complicit. Jesus sat among the most marginalized. Yet in America today, which many people characterize as a “Christian nation,” “hate is being commodified. It’s being bought and sold on Wall Street.” Society tells us, “Make a deal with evil and you’ll get something.”

“Can we give up the shiny things that attract us?” Syeed asks. “The Earth herself is being attacked—the Earth is sacred…. How will our religious communities be held accountable? We need to take back the language of religion.”

Radical intersectionality

Talia Inlender, senior staff attorney at Public Counsel Immigrant Rights Project, joined Ameena Qazi, executive director of National Lawyers Guild L.A., in a co-presentation on protecting vulnerable communities. They reminded us to think of our challenges today as not so much a break with the past as a continuum. Detention centers and mass deportations, after all, were hallmarks of the Obama administration. Muslims have had a long and uneasy experience living in America. Trump did not invent the Muslim registration program: That dates from the early George W. Bush years. Says Qazi, “Trump is not the extent of the problem we are facing. If we want to dismantle what we are seeing we have to look beyond Trump.”

What feels different now is that officers of the law feel emboldened to act within what they believe is the spirit of the new iterations of policy, and we are losing our commitment to due process. “Expedited removal” existed under Obama, but was limited to undocumented persons within 100 miles of the border and within 14 days of entry. Now it has been expanded to everyone and everywhere, and law enforcement has been green-lighted to move with impunity. Only in the courts are these new applications being contested.

Both Inlender and Qazi were a constant presence during last month’s protests at LAX, where thousands showed up to defend Muslim passengers legally entering the country. Qazi emotionally recalled the scene of afternoon prayer in the middle of Bradley Terminal when dozens of Muslim worshipers huddled together, encircled by respectful supporters. “Allah U Akbar (God is Greatest)” chanted the prayerful—words that would get travelers brusquely escorted off a plane under current conditions.

Project director at the UCLA Labor Center Victor Narro spoke about protecting working people. Again, he emphasized, the current onslaught against labor did not originate with Trump, but goes back to Ronald Reagan. The Trump people are seeking to fulfill Reagan’s mission to destroy the labor movement through a national “right to work” law that will severely weaken labor power, and so-call “paycheck deception” laws which will take away unions’ right to financially support political action.

Right now union density is at a low 10.3 percent, and Narro anticipates that with his new appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, Trump will further decimate labor standards in America.

“The labor movement is in a state of crisis, of panic” now, Narro said. And yet some of the most promising developments in union organizing, among carwasheros, hotel workers and janitors, for example, are all being led by immigrant workers. “California and Los Angeles can show the way. It’s on us to stay united with radical intersectionality—not just to fight Trump but to dismantle the system.”

Reimagining public safety

A third presentation on protecting civilians against the rising police state featured Executive Director of ACLU Southern California Hector Villagra, who warned of Trump’s “law and order” vision that will do nothing to reform the police. To the contrary, the president has attacked the very notion of police reform and its advocates. Trump loves “stop and frisk” and is “tough on crime, drug dealers and traffickers.” If there was criminal “voting fraud,” according to the Trump narrative, expect more laws restricting voting, and we will be reverting to punitive criminal justice practices of the past. Villagra spoke of the unfairness of our bail system. If you are poor and cannot afford bail, you will languish in prison, be subject to abuse there, and be unable to help support your family. If Obama tightened requirements on transferring military equipment to local police, even to cops in schools, expect to see that flow increased in the Trump era.

Villagra mentioned a new app now available to record police or vigilante abuse: Mobile Justice California. Even if your phone is confiscated or damaged, the phone automatically sends the recording to the ACLU which can then use it in court.

Also speaking on the police state was the magnetic Pastor Cue JnMarie of the Church Without Walls who works on the CLUE staff and is director of Creating Justice Los Angeles. We always hear about “black on black crime,” he said, but how come we never hear about white on white crime, or Asian on Asian crime? It’s part of the attempt to criminalize black people, to imbue in the public mind the idea that blacks are prone toward crime, all the while black people are dying at the hands of the police in city after city across the nation. Recently it was disclosed that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had compiled a list of 300 miscreant officers, yet two judges under the influence of police persuasion have stopped the release of those names.

When there’s a call for police in a black neighborhood, JnMarie said, “they send out the SWAT team instead of the SMART team.” On L.A.’s Skid Row, 75 percent of the people there are black, and that is the most densely policed part of town. Desperate homeless people get arrested for “crimes,” like public urination or jaywalking, instead of being housed or helped by social service agencies. Even in this reputedly progressive city, JnMarie reminded us, L.A. allots to the police department over half the city budget and at least 70 times what it devotes to youth development.

“We must reimagine public safety,” the pastor said.

Andrea Hodos ended the evening with a “movement for the movement” exercise. She captured certain dramatic gestures the Sacred Resistance speakers had employed throughout the evening and made an impromptu “movement” piece of them, in which the audience participated. Singers accompanied the moving crowd in a song by John Thompson and Randy Scruggs derived from Exodus and Psalm 115:

Oh Lord, prepare me
To be a sanctuary
Pure and holy, tried and true
And with thanksgiving, we’ll be a living
Sanctuary for You.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first book, Five Days, Five Nights, is available from International Publishers NY.