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Some Faith Leaders Victimize Rape Survivors Again

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By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

THIRD IN A SERIES

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Simone Oliver had always been called, as they say in the religious community. She was active in the Baptist church throughout her youth, playing piano for the youth choir and even ghostwriting sermons for several pastors as a teen. She loved Scripture, loved preaching, and loved God. For her, church was heaven-on-earth.

But it was also hell. At 15 years old, Oliver’s then-pastor called her into his church office, grabbed her, put his tongue in her mouth, and fondled her until she broke away. It was the third time in her life she had been sexually assaulted, already a rape survivor at 12 years old at the hands of her sister’s first husband, and again at 13 by a family friend staying in her home.

Still, her faith did not waver. In fact, it grew stronger as Oliver transitioned from being a public school teacher to a minister.

In the mid-2000s, she took on an associate pastor’s role at a non-denominational church in New Jersey. The founding pastor tried to court her for years until she finally acquiesced and the two began a secret relationship. However, a year later, he decided to marry someone else. Still, the affair continued.

“I couldn’t get out. It was almost like sinking into an abyss,” she remembered. “I had gone to someone in the church to let them know this was going on. And they pretty much turned on me.”

And no group leans on the church more than Blacks.

“While the U.S. is generally considered a highly religious nation, African-Americans are markedly more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole, including level of affiliation with religion, attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer and religion’s importance in life,” according to a report titled, “A Religious Portrait of African-Americans” by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Black Women are the Most Religious

And among the most religiously committed, no segment is more committed than African-American women. The report found that 84 percent of Black women say religion is very important to them and 59 percent say they attend religious services at least once a week.

As committed as she was, Oliver eventually left that church, broke off the affair with the pastor, began dating the man who would become her husband, and was accepted into Princeton Theological Seminary. As her life got better, her former co-pastor’s behavior grew worse. He sent threats to her regularly, and began stalking her and her then-fiancé.

She recalled, “He said to me – not of himself – but he said, ‘A man can commit murder, do his time, put on a suit, and still be a man. But when a woman’s reputation is ruined, she is ruined.’ Those were his threats to me.”

In 2011, five days before her wedding, the pastor’s behavior moved beyond idle threats.

“It’s a miracle story I’m here and alive, because this man stabbed me 30 times. I was paralyzed from the waist down,” Oliver recounted. Years later, she still remembers his final threat, prior to the day of the attack: “‘When I’m finished with you, you will not get married, you will not have a ministry, and Princeton will never have you.’ That was the last thing he said to me.”

Oliver was stabbed mostly in her abdomen and back, damaging her spinal cord and liver. Her former co-pastor was arrested walking down the street covered in her blood, still holding his hunting knife.

Survivors Need More than Prayer

Sharon Ellis Davis, a former criminalist in the Chicago Police Department and retired pastor, knows a bit about crime from more than one perspective.

She said, “I was married to a police officer, and there was a domestic abuse issue and sexual abuse. It was dismissed all the time. It was a matter of, ‘You all stop,’ or ‘Don’t be so bad,’ or ‘It’ll be okay.’ But never ‘I hear you, I understand you, I believe you.’ Even if [the department] knew the abuser was guilty, there was that code where you don’t rat on other police officers.”

So Davis channeled her frustration into something useful. She successfully lobbied for an internal domestic violence advocate, a civilian who would support and speak for domestic violence victims in police officers’ homes and became a full-time police chaplain.

But in Davis’ own church experience – first in the Pentecostal church as a child, then in the United Church of Christ as an adult – she saw parallels to the way she was treated by the police department.

“The church was nice to me, but they didn’t know what to do with me,” she said. “I need more than prayer, I need more than a hug. In fact, sometimes [survivors] don’t even want to be touched. I need more than a deliverance service, I need more than a Band-Aid on what forgiveness might look like.

“The two very important institutions that I was involved with – the church and the criminal justice system – both in the time that I needed them, failed me. Now they didn’t know they did, because they were not conscious of it.”

Davis feels that lack of consciousness grew from the problematic messages about women coming from the pulpit. For example she points out the Biblical stories that are emphasized, such as the false rape accusation of Joseph, and the ones that are largely ignored, such as the actual rapes of Dinah and Tamar as well as David’s coercion of Bathsheba.

To her, they all sent the message that the burden of sexual trauma is not welcome in the sanctuary.

“The church has not become the safe place it needs to be that would give some women in church permission to disclose,” Davis said. “The consequences of not having church as a safe place…you can kill the souls of the people that are there. People can lose their faith.”

Sex and sexuality remain taboo in many faith communities.

“How is it that the church is going to really be advocates for victims of rape in the Black church when even having normal conversations of sexuality can’t happen? How can we talk about patho-sexuality if we haven’t talked about normal sexuality?” she asked. “We’re still stuck in many way on the thou-shalt-nots. We spend more time judging the behavior than helping someone understand this was not their fault.”

Even worse than a lack of knowledge among leadership is that perpetrators often exist within the church, their violence and damage unchecked and even covered up.

Oliver said, “I had a woman call me – I thought she was calling to check on me and see how I was – but she called to tell me her own story, about a pastor. Someone [else] told me a story. She was invited out to another church to preach, and was raped by the pastor who had invited her. When the third person, and fourth person, and the fifth time you hear these stories…. I’m like okay. Something is going on here.”

After more than three months of physical rehab, Oliver overcame her paralysis and learned to walk again. She testified in court against her attacker, who was sentenced to 21 years in prison.

For all their silences and inadequacies, many Black faith centers are adept at serving their communities and fostering communal solutions and cooperation. Both Davis and Oliver assert that Black faith centers have also made great strides toward addressing domestic violence, with permanent ministries and pastor trainings becoming more common.

“We’re better in the Black church at caring for people,” Davis explained. “But we’re not as good at having a model of pastoral care for people who have been sexually abused. We’re not having clergy exposed to the education that they need to understand these dynamics.”

Some outside the faith community recognize this as well, including Sherelle Hessell-Gordon, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center.

“The Word says faith without works is dead,” she says. “There has to be fruit, there has to be action, there has to be community…there has to be active justice,” she said. “The rhetoric of ‘It’ll get better by and by’ – nah. That’s just spirituals to move our souls. When you leave that room, you’re still carrying that cross.”

Oliver, now a full-time seminary student, said, “I’m a rape survivor, but I’m also a gender-based violence survivor, and it took the violence for me to really reckon with the rape,” she acknowledged. “In telling my story…I started to realize how many horror stories are in church.”


NEXT WEEK: Breaking the silence

Part I: Rape and the Myth of ‘The Strong Black Woman’
Part II: Rape’s Other Victims

(The project was made possible by a grant from the National Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.)

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Activism

40 MLK Freedom Center Students Study Myth of 1st Thanksgiving, Role of Gratitude in Civil Rights and Social Change

Yolo County’s Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation members partnered with the Oakland-based Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center for its annual ‘Days of Gratitude’ this Thanksgiving weekend in Guinda, CA. From November 26-28, students from the San Francisco Bay Area, Yolo County, Sacramento and Kent and Tacoma, Washington, spent time with Yocha Dehe Language and History Associate, Dillon McKay and Cultural Resources Manager Laverne Bill to learn about the importance of Native Sovereignty and the role of cultural values in American democracy.

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Dillon McKay (in tan shirt wearing blue mask), Laverne Bill (in Blue shirt with abalone shell necklace), Martin Luther King Jr, Freedom Center Executive Director Dr. Roy D. Wilson (in black jacket and blue mask) with Freedom Center students.
Dillon McKay (in tan shirt wearing blue mask), Laverne Bill (in Blue shirt with abalone shell necklace), Martin Luther King Jr, Freedom Center Executive Director Dr. Roy D. Wilson (in black jacket and blue mask) with Freedom Center students.

3-Day Intensive with members of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation called Days of Gratitude

By Scott Horton, communications manager for the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center

While many Americans took a long weekend after enjoying a day and a meal with family and friends, 40 high school students got together to dig deep into understanding the myth of the Thanksgiving story and learn the truth about Native American history and culture from members of Yolo County’s Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation.

Yocha Dehe members partnered with the Oakland-based Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center for its annual ‘Days of Gratitude’ this Thanksgiving weekend in Guinda, CA. From November 26-28, students from the San Francisco Bay Area, Yolo County, Sacramento and Kent and Tacoma, Washington, spent time with Yocha Dehe Language and History Associate, Dillon McKay and Cultural Resources Manager Laverne Bill to learn about the importance of Native Sovereignty and the role of cultural values in American democracy.

McKay and Bill spoke to the group about many aspects of Yocha Dehe culture, including preservation of its language and oral history, governance, dance, food and agriculture, cultural resources/archaeological sites and the roles of tribal members in community.

Dillon emphasized that, “Our cultures may be diverse, but we share values. We all have one thing in common: we all want to make this a better place.”

Bill added, “We’re no longer living in a world where we are isolated from each other based on our color or our culture—we’re are evolving from that–and people need to understand each other. Your family and your community raised you to be who you are and to express yourself through your culture and heritage.”

The Freedom Center’s dynamic ‘Days of Gratitude’ course accomplishes three significant goals. First, students, staff and community members study the history of “Thanksgiving,” deconstructing false narratives. Secondly, the group studies Native Sovereignty and self-government. Thirdly, participants dig deep into the psychological, political, economic and cultural value of gratitude and particularly its fundamental role in the Civil Rights Movement and in making positive social change.

“We are honored, humbled and deeply grateful to the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation and to Dillon McKay and Laverne Bill,” said Dr. Roy Wilson, executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center. “They generously shared their cultures, histories, traditions and explained the concept of native sovereignty and self-governance. We have much to learn as a democracy from their generational examples of sovereignty, community and civic engagement.”

In addition to spending November 26 with McKay and Bill, the students and staff studied the role of gratitude as a fundamental principle of self-transformation, and civic engagement as part of traditions of nonviolent social change and civil rights.

For more information about the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center, visit www.mlkfreedomcenter.org.

Scott Horton is the communications manager for the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center.

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Activism

With Union Contract OK’d, Moe’s Books Workers Get Improved Wages, Benefits 

Despite some mixed feelings from workers about the owner’s reactions to the union, both workers and ownership expressed optimism about what they think the Moe’s Books union can do for the future of the four-story store with over 200,000 mostly used books. “If customers see the positive impact of shopping at independently owned stores that do all they can to support their workers,” said Moe’s Books owner, Doris Moskowitz, “then this agreement will only make Moe’s Books’ future stronger.”

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Moe’s Books Union members Phoebe Wong (left), Owen Hill (center), and Bradley Skaught (right) pose inside the Berkeley bookstore on November 30. Photo by Zack Haber.
Moe’s Books Union members Phoebe Wong (left), Owen Hill (center), and Bradley Skaught (right) pose inside the Berkeley bookstore on November 30. Photo by Zack Haber.

By Zack Haber

Workers at Moe’s Books in Berkeley agreed to their first union contract with store ownership on November 23. The agreement has given them a $20 minimum wage, dental insurance, more paid vacation days, a new procedure for filing grievances, and job security protections.

“I think this is a good, solid contract, and a good starting point for improving worker/owner relations,” said Owen Hill, who’s worked at Moe’s for about 35 years. “I wish we had this 10 years ago, but better late than never.”

Moe’s Books owner, Doris Moskowitz, told this publication she’s happy with the contract as well.

“I feel great about the agreement,” said Moskowitz. “Supporting our workers is part of Moe’s 60-year legacy, and we are proud to continue in that tradition.”

In early March about 95% of eligible Moe’s workers agreed to form a union by joining with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The move was part of a growth in bookstore unionization spurred by COVID-related issues.

Workers at Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle and Bookshop Santa Cruz each formed unions in 2020. This year, bookstore unionization has expanded as workers at Printed Matter in New York City formed a union in October, while workers at three different Half Price Books locations in Minnesota are awaiting election results in mid-December to certify their unions.

Immediately after its formation, Moskowitz recognized Moe’s Books Union, but she had mixed feelings about it. In early April, she told Berkeleyside she “deeply respected” the workers’ decision to unionize but that the move had also left her “very sad and confused.” Following initial negotiations related to COVID safety measures, the union and Moskowitz began its first contract negotiations. In total, both sides came to 35 agreements during 16 bargaining sessions over eight months.

“The bargaining process was long, tiresome, and sometimes tense,” said Hill. “But mostly people were respectful and tried to come to an understanding.”

According to Bruce Valde, an organizer with the IWW who works with Moe’s Books Union, the eight months it took to agree to the contract was comparatively quick. In his experience, it usually takes workers and ownership a year to a year-and-a-half to agree to a first union contract. Valde called Moskowitz’s choice to immediately recognize the union “wise” and lauded the workers’ collaboration in clearly stating their requests.

“I think the workers diligence in actually forming our positions was excellent,” said Valde.

Since the new contract has passed, all union members will soon be getting a 10% raise in their salaries, or a $20 an hour wage if the 10% bump doesn’t already exceed that wage.

They’ll also get a 3% wage increase during the second and third year of the contract.

Additionally, the contract has stipulations related to respecting employees’ gender and gender expression. Harassment violations now specifically include ownership or management commenting in an ostracizing manner on workers’ gender expression, including clothing choices or hairstyles, or not making a concerted effort to correctly use workers’ pronouns.

While the union members unanimously agreed to the contract and Moskowitz told this publication “I feel like it is a win-win” situation, workers claimed along the way that the owner wasn’t always respectful of the union. In late September, union members and supporters held an informational picket at the store to support their demand for the $20 minimum wage that was eventually granted, but also to share information with the public about how they thought the owners were practicing “union busting.”

Around this time, the union filed unfair labor practice claims to the National Labor Relations Board, one of which was related to their accusation that Moskowitz was offering promotions for the sole purpose of removing people from the union by placing them in management positions.

Barry Bloom, who works as a book shipper, claimed Moskowitz asked him if he’d agree to be the supervisor of the shipping department, a position that would prevent him from joining in the union. He was the only member of the shipping department at the time, and she didn’t offer him a raise.

“My immediate reaction was to wonder ‘who would I be supervising?’” Bloom said. “I pretty much instantly saw it as a union-busting tactic.”

Moskowitz denied the accusation of union busting, saying, at the time “We have not made any job offer or offers of promotions in order to encourage any employee to break from their support of the union.”

Soon after agreeing to the new contract, Moskowitz taped a statement to the front window of the store, expressing that she was proud of the contract and Moe’s openness to organized labor. The statement, which was posted to Moe’s instagram and Facebook accounts, also encouraged other businesses, specifically large bookstores, to allow workplace organizing.

“If a small, independent used-book seller can accomplish this while keeping the doors open during a global pandemic,” the statement reads, “there is no reason for more lucrative companies to claim labor organizing will shut down their business or harm their employees.”

Two days after the statement appeared on Moe’s books social media sites, Moe’s Books union’s Twitter account put up a post stating “There’s a little revisionist history going on over at the boss’s social media site.”

While largely happy with the contract, Moe’s Books worker Phoebe Wong told this publication she’s uncomfortable with the owners’ actions immediately following its ratification.

“I’m really pleased and so proud of the work everyone put into doing the contract,” said Phoebe Wong. “But it’s been a long fight. And, to be honest, it makes me a little queasy to see ownership touting pride because it seems pretty dishonest considering the pushback we got.”

Despite some mixed feelings from workers about the owner’s reactions to the union, both workers and ownership expressed optimism about what they think the Moe’s Books union can do for the future of the four-story store with over 200,000 mostly used books.

“If customers see the positive impact of shopping at independently owned stores that do all they can to support their workers,” said Moskowitz, “then this agreement will only make Moe’s Books’ future stronger.”

“Moe’s now offers good wages, good benefits, and job protection,” said Hill. “I think we have a lot to offer to workers, and that we will be able to employ top quality people. I don’t think I’m being too dramatic when I say that the union saved the business.”

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Activism

Leaders Push Pardons, Payouts for “Port Chicago 50” Black Sailors U.S. Navy ‘Unjustly’ Punished

According to a 2009 California Senate Joint Resolution (SJR-21), authored by former state Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood), on the night of July 17, 1944, two transport vessels loading ammunition bound for the war in the Pacific at the Port Chicago naval base on the Sacramento River in California were suddenly engulfed in a gigantic explosion.

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African American sailors of an ordnance battalion preparing 5-inch shells for packing at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in 1943. The explosion occurred a year later. U.S. Navy photo.
African American sailors of an ordnance battalion preparing 5-inch shells for packing at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in 1943. The explosion occurred a year later. U.S. Navy photo.

By Antonio‌ ‌Ray‌ ‌Harvey‌ | California‌ ‌Black‌ ‌Media‌

A growing chorus of Black leaders and activists in California is calling on the federal government to pardon 50 Black sailors they allege the U.S. Navy wrongfully punished nearly 80 years ago.

Advocates are pushing for payments to the families of sailors who died in the 1944 explosion in Port Chicago that was the underlying cause for the Navy taking action against the servicemen.

They say the sailors’ families deserve more than an apology or posthumous pardon. They should get monetary compensation as well.

“The 50 African American sailors at Port Chicago who took a stand against discrimination should be remembered as heroes,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA-13).

In July of 1944, Port Chicago Naval Magazine, a few miles from the city of Martinez, was the scene of the largest explosion on the mainland of the United States. The blast shook the San Francisco Bay Area and the disturbance was felt as far away as Nevada.

About 320 sailors were killed instantly in the explosion. More than 200 of the midshipmen and commissioned officers were young African Americans.

Another 390 military and civilian personnel were injured, including 226 African American enlisted men. Only Black sailors were assigned the dangerous job of loading ammunition with no prior training in weapons handling.

“The Port Chicago tragedy is another painful reminder of how our nation must confront its history of systemic racism,” Lee said.

The people killed or injured in the disaster were loading highly explosive bombs, anti-submarine weapons, torpedoes, shells, and naval mines totaling 4,606 tons of ammunition onto the merchant ships SS Quinault Victory and SS E.A. Bryant.

According to a 2009 California Senate Joint Resolution (SJR-21), authored by former state Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood), on the night of July 17, 1944, two transport vessels loading ammunition bound for the war in the Pacific at the Port Chicago naval base on the Sacramento River in California were suddenly engulfed in a gigantic explosion.

“What I am pushing for is that everything of public record where Black folks were wronged needs to be righted,” Rev. Amos Brown, vice-chair of California’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, told California Black Media (CBM). Brown is the pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco and president of the city’s NAACP branch.

“We must do our due diligence and get all the facts on this explosion. It’s definitely a case where Black folks had been wronged and injured. There was a culture of negligence here and was prevalent when it came to Black folks,” Brown added.

The exact cause of the Port Chicago explosion is still unknown.

People familiar with the explosion say incidents leading up to the disaster unfolded in a culture rife with negligence and racism.

A string of injustices followed it, as well. After the explosion, the Black sailors working at Port Chicago were ordered to continue loading ships under the supervision of an all-white crew of officers. Many of the surviving Black sailors felt that their commanders had not addressed the safety problems that triggered the blast but still asked them to continue loading ammunition.

Soon, the Black sailors, who had been trained for U.S Navy combat, decided to stage a protest. Afraid their lives were at risk, they stopped working. In September 1944, the Navy charged 50 of the Port Chicago sailors with disobeying orders and initiating a mutiny.

A court-martial was convened to try the men who staged what was called “the largest mutiny in the history of the Navy.” It was held for several weeks on Treasure Island outside of San Francisco.

The Black sailors were found guilty and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in prison. Forty-seven of the 50 sailors were released in January 1946 while the remaining three served additional months in incarceration.

Only one member of the Port Chicago 50, Freddie Meeks, received a Presidential pardon from Bill Clinton in December 1999. Meeks, who was discharged in 1946, passed away in 2003 in Los Angeles.

“I knew we had a good president and I figured he would do the right thing, and he did the right thing with this pardon,” Meeks, 80, said in an Associated Press article published Dec. 24, 1999. “I’m not bitter because it’s something happened so long ago, you just outlive it, that’s all.”

Brown, 80, says the Port Chicago disaster was the result of carelessness, disregard for humans’ safety, and racism.

“All of the evidence is there,” Brown told CBM, speaking via phone from his San Francisco home.

People’s World, a publication that provides news and analysis of labor and democratic movements, reported that discrimination even played out in the compensation awarded to the families of those killed.

The Navy paid out $5,000 to white families but only $3,000 to Black families, the 2009 article reported.

Brown made the statement about the Port Chicago incident after learning that a group of Democratic lawmakers is attempting to revive an effort to pay the families of Black service members who fought on behalf of the nation during World War II for benefits they were denied or barred from receiving.

The federal legislative effort would compensate surviving spouses and all living descendants of Black WWII veterans whose families were denied the opportunity to build wealth with housing and educational benefits through the Government Issue (GI) Bill.

The site of the disaster is now called the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, dedicated in 1994 to recognize the sailors who perished in the deadly blast. The memorial, managed by the National Park Service, is located at the Concord Naval Weapons Station near Concord.

Last summer, in honor of the 77th anniversary of the Port Chicago Disaster, U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA-13) and Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11-Walnut Creek) introduced a House Resolution, recognizing the victims of the explosion.

The resolution called for the exoneration of the 50 African American sailors they say were unjustly court-martialed by the Navy.

“By calling for the exoneration of the Port Chicago 50, our resolution would bring justice to these sailors and recognize their courage as well as honor the service and sacrifice of the victims of this disaster,” DeSaulnier said.

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