“IF YOU DON’T THINK RACISM EXISTS, YOU’RE WHITE”


was a button slogan handed out by the Chicago Theological Seminary at the recent UCC Synod meeting in Cleveland where Racism was the subject of two resolutions passed by the delegates.


One resolution called for “Dismantling Discriminatory Systems of Mass Incarceration in the United States” by identifying mass incarceration as a critical human and civil rights issue because of its disproportionate impact on people of color, youth, and limited economic resources.


The facts prompting this resolution are very shocking: The U.S. with 5% of the global population accounts for 25% of the world’s prison population, more than any other country in the world. More than 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails, while 5 million are on probation or parole. There are more people under “correctional supervision” in America now than there were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin. Also, this prison population is far from representative of the nation’s population as a whole. For example, while African American males comprise 6% of the U.S. population, they make up 40% of those in prison or jail.   African American males have a 32% chance of serving time at some point in their lives, Hispanic males a 17% chance, compared to white male’s 6% chance. There are more black men in the grip of the criminal system than were in slavery in the 1850’s. Also, prisons and jails have become the “new asylums” as the number of individuals with severe mental illness in prisons and jails (350,000+) exceeds the number in state psychiatric hospitals (35,000)by a factor of ten. People with mental health conditions comprise 64% of jail population nationwide.


A second resolution called for the Dismantling of “The New Jim Crow”, a term used by Professor Michelle Alexander in her new book of the same name. Again, the facts supporting the resolution are very disturbing. The War on Drugs has primarily targeted blacks who are disproportionately targeted for prosecution and incarceration. While drug use among Blacks is no more than Whites, in seven states, 90 % of people imprisoned for drug offenses are Black. Thus the saying,” If you White and caught doing drugs, you go to college; if you are Black, you go to jail”. To make matters worse, once people of color are caught in the criminal system, it is very difficult to fully re-enter society resulting in permanent caste of second-class citizens who, once labeled a felon, can not vote, serve on juries, and are ineligible for federal assistance. No wonder the recidivism rate for ex-felons is around 66% and why there are so relatively few Black males in many poor Black communities.


Racism is a factor, and probably the factor, behind the New Jim Crow and the system of Mass Incarceration. Whites tend to think about Racism only on occasion, people of color think about it every day. These resolutions are intended to mobilize members of the UCC to join the growing movement of faith and community organizations to understand modern racism, to dismantle the New Jim
Crow, and stop mass incarceration and the growth of the prison-industrial complex.


Here at First Church, the Adult Education Team is offering a discussion on Modern Racism by inviting the following speakers:

Thursday, September17th, co-sponsoring with Bay Path University, Boston author Debra Irving, who will discuss her new book ”Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race”.


Sunday, September 20, author and professor Jason Sokol from Longmeadow, who will discuss his new book “All Eyes Are Upon Us” which deals with Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn, including a chapter on the “Springfield Plan “ for combating Racism in the 1940’s.


Sunday , October 25th, Professor Richard Anderson from Springfield College will talk about his book, “ A Home Run for Bunny”, the inspiring story of anti-racism action demonstrated in Springfield in the 1930’s.


Not Choosing Sides

By now many  of you have heard or read that the United Church of Christ voted Tuesday, June 30th at its General Synod Meeting in Cleveland to approve a resolution calling for divestment from companies that profit from Israel’s control of the West Bank and to boycott  products made in the West Bank. The vote was 508 in favor and 124 against with 38 abstentions.  As an appointed delegate for the Mass Conference, I , along with Rev. Marisa Brown Ludwig, was able to participate in this historic vote.

I knew beforehand that this resolution was likely to be the most significant resolution facing the Synod. I was instructed to study the resolution carefully beforehand but not to decide my vote until the Synod meeting.  The polity of the Synod is not as a representative, democratic process but rather to study an issue collectively and try to listen for the voice of Still Speaking God.  The arguments for the resolution were many and powerful:  the many cruel and unjust treatments of the Palestinians by the Israel government,  the vote by the Mass Conference recently at its annual meeting to  support the resolution, a letter circulated at the meeting from Archbishop Desmond Tutu  endorsing the resolution, the argument from one Jewish supporter at the meeting that standing up to injustices against the Palestinians or anyone else was the best way to prevent another holocaust,  and,  from another liberal Jew, that voting Yes would  would make it easier for other progressive Jews to try to change the policy of the  Israeli government.

On the other hand,  I heard that when the Presbyterian Church voted 310 to 303 in  June 2014 to endorse divestment, that several hundred Palestinians lost their jobs working at Sodastream in West Bank,  and that many relationship[s between Presbyterian pastors and Jewish colleagues were cut off.  I personally felt that an article in the Christian Century last August by Peter Pettit, Director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding, entitled “On not Choosing Sides”  made a lot of sense and I later quoted from it.

When the time came Tuesday morning to vote on the  resolution, I decided to stand up publicly and speak at the “against” microphone.  In essence I said “that as a physician, when faced with a difficult decision, I tried to follow the dictum  “do no harm”.   Both Jews and Palestinians live with the mortal fear of loosing their identity, legitimacy, and ties to their homeland  When  people have these  fears , anything that bolsters the case being made against them ends up contributing to the conflict, not to the resolution of it.  Focusing just on the evils of the occupation, which are real and many, ignores other deadly forces in the region.  Since we have not walked in the shoes or sandals of the Jews or Palestinians, I don’t think that we are in a position to choose sides.  Let us not be guilty of causing harm.  I encourage you to vote NO.”

That evening I called my best Jewish friend back in Longmeadow and gave him an update about the vote.  I tried to reassure him that the UCC Synod criticism of the Israel government is not anti-Semitism, that First Church had not been asked to vote on the resolution, and that the two delegates from First Church did not support the resolution. I told him that I would be trying to support other actions that would encourage the principal parties to believe that they have more to gain from risking peace than continuing the status quo and the occupation.

My Jewish friend seemed very appreciate that I had sought him out to share my thoughts and feelings.  I would encourage you to do the same with your Jewish friends and help keep the good interfaith relationships we have in Longmeadow strong.

Mark Pohlman


Last month I again had the privilege of leading a group to visit our friends and partners at CONASPEH in Haiti.   The group consisted of Dianne Doherty and myself from First Church; David Entin, Pauline Bassett, and Heidi Rademacher from First Churches in Northampton; Ayesha Ali, nursing professor at AIC, with five nurses and students.


One purpose of these trips is to see with our own eyes what is going on at CONASPEH and try to determine if the help that First Church has provided over the years is being effective. This goal can be difficult to determine during a short visit, but overall things seemed to be going well.   The school was very busy, the students seemed happy and active, and many small improvements were noted. The ceilings and interior walls are being finished in the school building, glass windows are being installed, the utility building to house equipment for the trade schools is nearly complete, and a new (at least to Haiti) yellow school bus sits proudly in the school yard read for service next fall. The nursing mannequins and textbooks   and beds are in a secure place and appear to being used. There is now a lecture hall on the second floor lined with shelves of books that Nancy Marshall kept insisting that we carry down on previous trips. The water truck to fill the cistern for the flush toilets in the headquarters building came one day.


The main purpose of our visit is to share knowledge with CONASPEH students and here the results are more apparent. Dianne did an effective job teaching the basics of small business development. In the mornings, she taught a group of pastors and in the afternoons, a group of university students and teachers. She was able to solicit a few specific business proposals that will need some start-up funding.   David helped with teaching leadership skills and Pauline teaching team learning and networking skills. Heidi, who is fluent in French, helped with the translations and shared her passion for knitting with the students.


Ayesha Ali and the students again interacted with the CONASPEH nurses, by examining healthy students together and using the mannequins together. Eric Ruiz again taught CPR to the nursing students. Since he is now a certified instructor, he was able to hand out certificates, legitimately, afterwards. Unfortunately, there was not time for distribution of the eyeglasses that Dan Bausch had collected, but that will happen later. The nursing kits collected by Mary Friedman last Christmas were given to Madam Chery, the new nursing director.


The other purpose of these trips is to introduce and reintroduce the problems, complexities, and wonders of Haiti to people. This time we saw some of the beauty of Haiti by going to a local beach because school was cancelled due to a partial traffic ban. We also visited a nursing school in Leogone that is the first private nursing school to offer a four-year baccalaureate degree. The hope is that CONASPEH can be the second such school.


The long-term effects of such a trip is harder to measure.   One student nurse announced that she was going to change her career choice and go into international nursing. Others are already planning how to help re-establish the micro loan fund at CONASPEH or to help individuals with their business plans or graduate education. I think all return home more humble, more appreciative, more thankful, and more willing to work to help the less fortunate, no matter where they are.


More reports are available on the First Church Forum in the Haiti Matters section, available here.


Mark Pohlman