The sting of church eviction day
What happened to tolerance and diversity?
By Rev. Richard Del Rio and Jeremy Del Rio, Esq.
[Originally published by NY Daily News on 2/12/12]
Today, if Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott have their way, our church — Abounding Grace Ministries, which holds weekly services at PS 34 on Avenue D on Manhattan’s lower East Side — will be one of 60 or more evicted from public schools citywide.
The city, relying on a federal court ruling that the Supreme Court chose to let stand, says it’s within its rights to do this.
What they’re not saying is that neither does the ruling or the Constitution require the city to evict congregations like ours.
Currently, the Department of Education rents vacant school buildings to 10,000 community organizations, only 60 of which are congregations. We pay the same rents and operate under the same terms as every other group.
Excluding congregations alone contradicts a city that from its birth has celebrated freedom and pluralism.
As we contemplate eviction, Mayor Bloomberg’s declaration 17 months ago haunts us. In defending the right of a mosque to build near Ground Zero, he said: “We in New York . . . are Americans, each with an equal right to worship and pray where we choose. There is nowhere in the five boroughs that is off-limits to any religion. By affirming that basic idea, we will honor America’s values, and we will keep New York the most open, diverse, tolerant and free city in the world.”
The mayor’s boasts from another occasion ring equally hollow: “Our doors are open to everyone . . . Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that, even here in a city that is rooted in Dutch tolerance, was hard-won over many years.”
The mayor argues that when the city allows churches to use school buildings for worship services on weekends, it confuses communities and children into believing that there’s an official religion established at a particular school.
The logic is craven. Are we to believe that the same New Yorkers Bloomberg admonished to “do what is right, not what is easy” during the mosque controversy now cannot tell the difference between a mosque, synagogue or church that rents an empty school facility on weekends and the academic instruction that occurs in the same building Monday through Friday?
New Yorkers are smarter than that. Our children are smarter than that, too.
And if on occasion a young, impressionable child cannot tell the difference, the rest of us can surely do the right thing, seize a teachable moment and explain our city’s “most important” freedom to worship.
We hope state legislators succeed in their efforts to nullify the evictions. Despite Speaker Sheldon Silver stalling a floor vote in the Assembly, the state Senate overwhelmingly rejected the mayor’s policy in a bipartisan, 54-7 vote on Monday.
But regardless of the outcome of these efforts, we are committed to serving the school and its children long after today.
It has been our privilege to partner with PS 34 for almost 20 years, even though we have only rented space there for three. PS 34 students primarily come from low-income housing projects along Avenues D and C. It has been gratifying to help those students — our shared students — and families in after-school, sports, mentoring and performing arts programs, and gang interventions; to beautify the school through paint and mural projects; to provide motivational speakers for graduations and assemblies, and to honor the school community through appreciation breakfasts, schoolyard festivals and barbecues. We join PS 34 in celebrating student achievements at the school.
After a decade of reform, the odds that graduates of New York public schools will finish college or be career ready is still only one in four.
We invite Bloomberg and Walcott to elevate this conversation from a debate about space to a long-term strategy that engages and mobilizes congregations for the leverage we alone can provide for sustainable reform.
Loving neighbors, pursuing justice, educating children — these are universal religious imperatives. Regardless of tradition, the vast majority of the faithful are directly or indirectly connected to public schools.
Transformational change requires us to see beyond parochial interests and forge partnerships on behalf of 1.1 million students. Let’s show them how neighbors of all faiths and no faith at all can co-create a more just New York.
Richard Del Rio is the senior pastor of Abounding Grace Ministries on the lower East Side. Jeremy Del Rio, his son, attends Abounding Grace and directs 20/20 Vision for Schools.