By Rev. Debra Avery, First Presbyterian Church of Oakland
When I considered whether to offer my thoughts on Councilmember Desley Brooks’ proposal for a city Department of Race and Equity, I thought: What can a white, middle class pastor like me say that would be of any use at all? What can I possibly contribute to an already rich conversation full of the pain of first-hand experience, and supported by well-researched statistics and administrative detail?
My first thought was: precious little. Then I remembered a sermon preached by Martin Luther King Jr. to his own Abyssinian Baptist Church on June 5, 1966 – a sermon in which he called his people to the prophetic task of rethinking the purpose of the church.
He said: “The church is not a social club, although some people think it is. The church is not an entertainment center, although some people think it is. The church has a purpose. Heal the broken hearted, bring good news to the poor, free the captives, bring sight to the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Though King was holding up a vision for his congregation when their energy was flagging, his words called through the decades and challenged me to step out of my privileged place and rethink my purpose as the leader of a local congregation. If this is to be the year of living into those prophetic words, then we have to get busy making sure the good news gets to those who need it most.
Nothing changes if nothing changes and Oakland is due for a change.
If we are to believe our newly elected city officials campaign rhetoric was more than stump-speech pandering, then it should be clear that we cannot continue with the status quo. We elected people who sought to join their cries with those who have long struggled and now it is time to call on them to live into the campaign promises they made.
The department seems like a timely tool to help us reevaluate our standards and refocus our expectations. It may not be perfect, but it provides a way to work toward freedom from entrenched attitudes and behaviors that have held our city hostage for years. It has the potential to provide new standards by which we can hold leaders accountable so that everyone in Oakland can have the same opportunity to thrive.
Approving this proposal means that the ayor must live into her promises for a different Oakland for “All Oaklanders” and provide for the Department of Race and Equity in her budget. Councilmembers must move out of entrenched norms of in-house squabbling and work together to support the work of transformation. Everyone will have to sacrifice personal privilege and power for the greater good.
It seems to me that now is the time for Oakland to answer the call to heal the brokenhearted, bring hope to the poor and free those held captive by the chains of oppression.
I believe that the Department of Race and Equity can guide that prophetic work and create a new way of being for our city government – one that truly represents the fullness of the diversity of our beautiful, beloved community.