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Becoming Better Allies: “What If It’s YOUR Voice That Can Make a Difference?”

On November 22, we welcomed Rev. Marcus D. Allen Sr. and his wife, Tara, to our Social Action Shabbat. Rev. Allen serves as pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church and is the newly elected president of the African American Council of Churches in Dane County. Rev. Allen’s talk focused on the struggle for racial justice and how the black and Jewish communities can work together more effectively.

Rev. Allen said that he came to Madison after three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and four years as a pastor in Virginia. He and Tara had read all the articles touting Madison as the best city in America on many measures, but they soon found that the reality for black people is quite different. The black community in Madison ranks the highest on every negative measure, including poverty, school test scores, homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration. He asked us to picture what would happen if white religious congregations went together with black congregations to tell the government that this is wrong.

Assuming that we knew he was a Baptist preacher when we invited him (we did), Rev. Allen drew on biblical stories to illustrate his remarks. He spoke about the power of “radical relationships,” relationships different from the usual, where differences don’t matter. As an example, he cited the way Ruth stayed with her mother-in-law Naomi after the death of her husband, Naomi’s son, even though Ruth and Naomi were of different people and religions. Although hard times were looming, Ruth threw in her lot with Naomi, saying, “Wherever you go I will go, and wherever you stay I will stay. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Because of this radical relationship, Ruth supported her ally when times got tough. According to Rev. Allen, “Collaboration is never truly effective until what’s bad for me causes you discomfort.”

The story of Purim also revolves around a radical relationship. Esther was brought up as the adopted daughter of Mordecai and became queen of Persia. When the evil Haman plotted to kill Mordecai and all the Jewish exiles in Persia, Mordecai prevailed on Esther to speak to the king to defend her people, even though she could be put to death simply for speaking out of turn. Mordecai prevailed upon her, saying, “Who knows if you were put in your royal position for such a time as this?” Because of the trust built up between Esther and Mordecai, she gathered her courage and was able to foil the plot.

Rev. Allen enumerated five practical ways to be an ally to the black community:

  1. Get to really know each other, not just through an occasional coffeeshop visit.
  2. Know your role—be there to assist and not to take over.
  3. Have meaningful conversations about race within your own communities and families.
  4. Be committed to stand by your ally when the going gets tough, like Ruth.
  5. Use your position to speak truth to power, like Esther.

Reflecting on Rev. Allen’s talk, TBE member Alice Kavanagh said: “We need to meet and listen to those experiencing inequity in Madison, so we can work together to eliminate the racial disparity that exists here in education, affordable housing, incarceration, and food accessibility. Our Temple community already contributes to solving these problems, but I’d like to learn more about what we can do to engage with others around these issues.”

Rev. Allen closed by asking us to speak on behalf of the voiceless even when it doesn’t directly affect our way of life. “What if it is YOUR voice that can make a difference?”

August 13, 2020 23 Av 5780