by Bill Batson
Men and women who survived American slavery built St. Charles African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Sparkill in 1865. This sanctuary is a monument to a church movement that included abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Led by Rev. Louis Sanders since 1981, St. Charles is directly linked to the period of history chronicled in the Oscar-nominated film 12 Years a Slave.
When Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning,” he was reflecting on the racial dynamic that led to the creation of Zion Methodism. Sadly, King was describing the state of race relations in the mid-20th century. The legal and cultural customs that discouraged mixed-race religious observance have been a constant feature in American history.
In her exhaustive and exquisite 1983 history of her church and denomination, Jacqueline L. Holland wrote about the conditions facing black Christians in 18th century New York. “There were spots of negro membership in white churches, but it was fashion to segregate them. Negroes were seated in the back of the church, or in the balcony.”
Holland notes that after a slave revolt in New York City in 1712 “whites exhibited a common fear of slave organizations of any kind.” When black congregations sought to hold their own services on Sunday evenings after their European breathren were done worshiping, a motion was adopted at a Methodist congress that said “we don’t want negroes meeting alone together in our church at night.”
In order to have unfettered rights of religious expression, an African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in New York City in 1796. In 1822, James Varick, who was born in Newburgh, NY, was ordained as the first Bishop of the AME Zion Church.
From its inception, the AME Zion Church was an active participant in the struggle to abolish slavery. According to Holland’s account, “The Underground Railroad was practically a church movement.” The Underground Railroad was a euphemism for a clandestine network of individuals and institutions that helped slaves escape from legalized bondage in the American south.
St. Charles was built in 1865 by Rev. William Thompson, an itinerant minister who came from New York City. Holland reports that “St. Charles AME Zion Church families can trace some of the family names” from the First AME Zion church in New York City.
Rev. Louis E. Sanders
On Tuesday, January 28, The Rev. Louis E. Sanders, senior pastor of St. Charles A.M.E. Zion Church in Sparkill, received the 2014 Buffalo Soldier Award from County Executive Ed Day.
The award is named after the all-black members of the 10th cavalry regiment that fought in Kansas in 1866 and is given to African American veterans.
Sanders, who hails from Plymouth, North Carolina, holds a bachelors degree from North Carolina A & T State University, a masters of science from City University of New York and a masters of divinity from Union Theological Seminary.
Sanders rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force Chaplaincy and served actively as recently as Operation Desert Storm.
He has taught for 30 years at Tuckahoe High School in Eastchester, New York. He and his wife, Connie Hale, have three daughters and one granddaughter.
Most of the almost 200 congregants of the historic church live outside Sparkill; in Nyack, Stony Point, Haverstraw, Northern New Jersey and New York City.
Original members of St. Charles were also drawn from a community of free black settlers who lived in an area known as Skunk Hollow. Skunk Hollow encompassed land that includes the Palisades, Piermont, Sparkill and Closter.
St. Charles faces Ferdon Pond, where a black man named John Moore built and operated a mill in the early 1800s. According to historian Dr. Lori Martin, Moore also constructed mill wheels that were said to have produced blankets for soldiers fighting in the Civil War and were used widely throughout Rockland County. Moore’s daughter, Cynthia Hesdra, became a successful businesswoman in her own right, owning property in New York City and Nyack.
Hesdra was also rumored to have used her properties as stations in the Underground Railroad. Piermont Avenue between Hudson and Depew Avenue in Nyack is named for Hesdra, who owned a parcel of land near what is now Memorial Park.
Laurence H. Holland, the brother-in-law of the author of the history of St. Charles, made a material contribution to the church of historic proportions. A chemist at Lederle Labs in Pearl River from 1941-1991 and NAACP leader, Holland won a large lottery prize in the late 1980’s. His generous donations helped finance efforts to renovate and add to the original structure. A fellowship hall was named in honor of Laurence’s brother, Albert Jr., an attorney, who was a respected civil rights leader.
“I was privileged to work as the architect for the addition and restoration with a building committee of outstanding individuals including Rev. Sanders, Leonard Cooke, Albert Holland, Clarence Branch and others,” said President of the Historical Society of the Nyacks, Winston Perry. “Wherever possible, we preserved and restored the architectural features of the historic church building,” Perry said.
Inside St. Charles is a library and museum that contains the history of the men and women who not only survived the most outrageous aspects of American racism, but managed to build an institution that continues to seek to reverse the most pernicious effects of slavery and discrimination.
As historians, builders, advocates, and philanthropists , generations of St. Charles members have constructed a secure vessel to pursue freedom and justice for themselves and others. To paraphrase the inscription at the base of Dr. King’s monument in Washington: with their faith, the members of St. Charles hewed out of the mountain of despair, a stone church of hope.
A copy of Jacqueline L. Holland’s “The History of St. Charles African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church: A Manifestation of the Black Church in America” is available in the local history room of the Nyack Library.
You can purchase copies of Martin’s book, The Ex-Slave’s Fortune: The Story of Cynthia Hesdra on line here or you can also find it on the shelf at the Nyack Library
- Nyack Sketch Log: St. Philips AME Zion Church
- Whatever Happened to Baxtertown’s Zion Pilgrim Church?
- Nyack Sketch Log: Ex-Slaves Harrowing Memoir Now a Hollywood Movie
- Nyack Sketch Log: Underground Railroad
- Nyack Sketch Log: Scholar Puts Local History on the Map
by Bill Batson
February 19 is the birth date of Carson McCullers, who came to Nyack in 1945 to convalesce and create. For 22 years she found a place to do both, completing The Member of the Wedding, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Clock Without Hands. McCullers moved to the village five years after the publication of her acclaimed first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. On September 29, 1967, her heart and vascular system, weakened by a litany of ailments and the strain from the kind of despondency that often afflicts great artists, finally surrendered.
Through the generosity of her physician and friend, the late Dr. Mary Mercer, the literary legend’s legacy in Nyack will endure as her one-time home will soon become a part of Columbus State Universities’ Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians.
The years that McCullers lived a few steps from downtown Nyack were divided between periods of productivity and infirmity. In his forward to Virginia Spencer Carr’s definitive biography of the author, playwright Tennessee Williams wrote, “I hope that with increasing study of Carson McCullers it will be recognized, generally, that despite the early onset of her many illnesses, she was, in her spirit, a person of rare and luminous health.”
Ironically, it was the early onset of illness that both shortened her life and led her to literature. She first considered becoming a writer during a bout of pneumonia, her first serious health scare, when she was 15 years old. McCullers identified with Eugene O’Neill, an author who was himself inspired to become a playwright during his recovery from tuberculosis. Her frail health deprived McCullers of the stamina required to pursue her dream of becoming a concert pianist. In 1936, during another doctor-ordered respite in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, she pieced together the characters and circumstances that would become The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
Richard Wright, author of Native Son, was deeply moved by the transcendent quality of McCullers prose. In a 1940 review in the New Republic, he proclaimed that “the most impressive aspect of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race.” (Wright and Carson would later spend time together in the legendary apartment house in Brooklyn where such important artists as Leonard Bernstein, W. H Auden, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Paul Bowles lived. Frequent visitor writer Anais Nin dubbed the artists haven February House because many of the tenants, like McCullers, were born in the second month of the year.)
McCullers’ Center Inherits Writer’s Home
Columbus State University announced the gift from the estate of Dr. Mary Mercer to the school’s Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. Mercer died on April 23, 2013 at the age of 101. The gift also includes some of McCullers’ possessions and $350,000 for the center’s operating expenses and program development.
McCullers’ three-story, 6,000-square-foot Victorian house overlooks the Hudson River in downtown Nyack, N.Y.
“This acquisition presents a thrilling opportunity for our students to study in a great American city in a famous American author’s home,” Courtney George, the center’s director. “We intend to use the house for lodging for study-away programs in the New York City area, much like CSU’s Spencer House in Oxford, England.”
The center is dedicated to preserving McCullers’ legacy, nurturing American writers and musicians, educating young people and fostering the literary and musical life of Columbus, Georgia and the American South. The center operates a museum in McCullers’ childhood home in Columbus, presents educational and cultural programs, maintains an archive of materials about McCullers and her work, and offers fellowships for writers and composers.
In Hunter, McCullers delves deeper than the murders and riots that are the usual medium for exposing race and class injustice in literature, to plumb the internal landscape of the human soul twisted by prejudice and intolerance. She also manages to dedicate an equal amount of attention to the lives of every inhabitant of the fictional town that she creates: black and white, male and female, young and old.
Marianne Faust, who moved into the house a year after the author’s death, observed that McCullers’ tenants were as diverse and complex as the characters in her first novel. Faust and her husband, illustrator Jan Faust, shared the building from 1968-72 with a Haitian minister, a doctor, an actor and a rock musician. McCullers subdivided her house into apartments to defray the significant cost of her on-going medical expenses, with funding for those renovations provided by her friend Tennessee Williams.
During her life, the writer hosted some of the most famous and talented artists in the world. This photo captures a dinner party that included actor Marilyn Monroe, Monroe’s husband at the time, playwright Arthur Miller and author Isak Denizen.
Each year, students from Columbus State University’s Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians visit Nyack. Jack Dunnigan, owner of Pickwick Book Shop, says the group arrives at his book store to view the portrait of Carson McCullers he proudly displays. During her life, McCullers would wander the stacks at Pickwick, when the store was located across the street.
”I was always homesick for a place I had never seen, and now I have found it,” McCullers wrote about Nyack. ”It is here, this house, this town.”
We should take great comfort in the fact that the author’s lonely heart found some relief in our village. If we were to fail to incorporate, advance and celebrate her legacy in our future plans for the village, that would be down right heartless.
Thanks to Marianne and Jan Faust, Courtney George, Mia Leo, Judith Martin, John Papastathis, John Shields and Diana Wilkins for providing material and inspiration for this column. And special thanks to Jack Dunnigan of Pickwick Books.
by Bill Batson
During his journey from Harlem to Martha’s Vineyard to Nyack, Preston Powell has synthesized a teacup, Karate and a tradition of the African American church from his childhood into a holistic practice that promotes Teagevity.
Tell me about this teacup?
When I was about 19 or 20, I walked into a martial arts dojo on Lexington Ave in New York City and saw a man, who turned out to be the Sensei, holding a cup of tea. The way he held that teacup struck me. It reminded me of my childhood, when women would sit for tea after services at Abyssinian Baptist Church.
When I started my martial arts training everything was about holding a cup of tea; your posture, your movement, you had to defend that teacup.
Only special students received their own teacup. If you were given a cup, it was like you were ordained. For over twenty years, I have protected that cup. It has been my introduction to Asian and other tea drinking cultures. It is a connection to the fellowship of drinking tea after church.
What is your connection to Abyssinian Baptist Church?
My grandmother, Isabel Washington Powell, was a dancer at the Cotton Club when she met and married Adam Clayton Powell. I am in the process of donating some items from my family to The Smithsonian Institute in Washington for their new African American wing. One of the exhibits is going to be on early black residents on Martha’s Vineyard. My grandparents summered and owned a cottage there.
How did you come to Nyack?
As a child, I spent my summers by the water in Martha’s Vineyard. I also spent a lot of time In Sag Harbor. When I came across the Tappan Zee Bridge one day around 1999, and I saw the Village of Nyack and the Hudson River, I instantly knew this was my place.
It helped that it was only 20 minutes from New York City, where I had a music business. My company, Jazzeteria, managed jazz and reggae artists including Reuben Wilson, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Jimmy McGriff, Miri Ben-Ari and Midnite, a reggae band from St. Croix.
When did you open your dojo?
To-te Ueshiro Karate Club opened in 2006. It is organized as a club more than a business. We don’t advertise, we don’t have a neon sign. The focus is on training for personal growth, not for vanity or trophies.
In our tradition, skills are given down through the family. We try to prepare the father to train the daughter and the grandfather to train with the grandson. It’s an activity for the whole family.
Our style of Karate was brought to Okinawa, Japan by men who were taught by Shaolin monks in China. They were in Okinawa as traders and taught their trading partners martial arts to protect themselves from the mainland Japanese. My teacup came from Japan.
When did you launch Teagevity?
I was frustrated with the music business, and I wanted to create something for myself. Tea had been on my mind. I loved the substance of it and the rituals around it.
In the dojo, students would ask what to do when they didn’t feel well. I had become an elder dispensing wisdom about medicinal properties of different teas and herbs.
What’s the best way to make a cup of tea?
“The water you use is very important. The number one beverage in the world is water. The number two is tea. Since a good tea is rich in anti-oxidants and minerals , the water should be pure as well. If you had a free flowing spring, that would be best. If not, use bottled or filtered water. Try not to use water from the tap.”
The temperature depends on the tea; for a green tea, pre-boiling or about 170-175; for black tea, herbal and botanicals bring your water to a 210 – 212 degree full boil.
- Black teas should steep no longer than five minutes. At six minutes, it gets bitter, however, people may like the taste.
- Green tea, after three minutes, it was get bitter.
- White tea, the rarest of teas, picked before the bud comes, at the beginning of spring, steep for one 1 or 2 minutes.
Then one day, when I was driving with my wife and saying how good I felt and how much I loved life, she said the word longevity, and then added the word tea. When I heard “Teagevity,” that was it. I got the domain name that day. That was a year ago.
How many varieties of teas do you offer?
I have 54 teas that I carry at any time. With blends it can be 75 or more.
What is your most popular item?
What is a tea that you want people to learn about?
The tea breaks down cholesterol. It’s good for your blood pressure too. It works as a detoxifier, helping with the liver, because it helps you flush water. And if you are looking to cut weight this is your tea.
Do you offer workshops?
We had a series of talks at the Nyack Library called Talking Tea that will continue this spring. But the lessons from these sessions are drawn from everyone’s experience. There is a fellowship between the participants in these talks; a fellowship that I first saw at the teas after service at my grandfather’s church and that I found in martial arts training with my teacup and that is preserved in Teagevity.
You can peruse Teagevity’s selection of loose tea and tea gear online at teagevity.com or every Thursday from 8a-2p at the Indoor Farmers’ Market in the winter at the Nyack Center, Depew Ave. and South Broadway.
by Bill Batson
My father, William Prime Batson, passed away early Sunday morning, January 19, 2014. As a home hospice patient, he was comfortable and surrounded by those that loved him. He was 92.
Every morning during his 90th year, I created a watercolor portrait of my father. Physically, he was robust almost until the very end, yet cognitively, he progressively declined. He had forgotten my name, and our relationship, but the bond between us remained strong. Despite his dementia, every morning for one year, he seemed to enjoy our 6a portrait painting sessions.
You could interpret his down cast expression in nearly all of my paintings in many ways, but in fact, he fixed his gaze on the breakfast I was serving: hot cereal with apples and prunes, toast and juice. And he’s not frowning…he’s chewing.
Here is a selection of my favorite pieces from the 366-day tribute interposed with his obituary. If you click on the image, you can see the rest of the paintings from that month. Eventually, I would like to find a space to exhibit the paintings side-by-side or publish them as a book to encourage the discussion and consideration of elder care issues and to support the work of the United Hospice of Rockland.
“Prime” as his friends and family called him, was born in Hartford, Connecticut on October 22, 1921.
He was raised in Nyack on Jackson Avenue by his mother Frances Lillian Avery Batson, with his sisters, Frances Adeline Batson and Ruth Batson Bancroft.
He graduated from Nyack High School in 1940 where he lettered in track. He once tried out for the Harlem Globetrotters when they were a professional basketball team.
His 35 year career at Curtiss-Wright Corporation, an engine manufacturer in Woodbridge, New Jersey, was interrupted by three years of military service. During World War II, he fought in France, Italy, and Germany.
After the war, Prime returned to Curtiss-Wright, where he was an active member of the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW).
From 1953 until 1958, Prime and his sister Adeline owned and operated a restaurant in Paterson, New Jersey. Adeline later served as Deputy Village Clerk for Nyack.
While in Paterson he met his future bride, Daisy Pines. Prime and Daisy raised their son, William Reuben Batson in Teaneck, New Jersey.
From 1976 until 1989, Prime worked as a water treatment plant operator for the Nyack Water Company.
In his retirement, he enjoyed gardening, caring for his dogs and reading the New York Times cover-to-cover everyday.
Prime is survived by his son, William Reuben Batson of Nyack; his niece, Sylvia Peterson of Nyack; his nephew, Raymond Bancroft of Miami, Florida, and his great granddaughter, Janae Peterson of Nyack.
Because of the United Hospice of Rockland, he was comfortable till the end and we as a family received the compassionate attention of competent professionals.
We encourage everyone to learn more about end-of-life issues and support organizations like United Hospice of Rockland.
I want to acknowledge my cousin, Sylvia Peterson for her dedication to her uncle Prime for the last 15 years. She and I are grateful for all of our friends and neighbors who have sent condolences and meals during our bereavement.
- Soldier at graveside at Oak Hill Cemetery: Bill Batson
- Watercolor portrait in progress: Janae Peterson
by Bill Batson
Rockland residents don’t need to go to New York City to see the work of great artists because great artists come to Rockland. Operating from a home bequeathed by the family of modernist painter and teacher Vaclav Vytlacil, and an integral part of the prestigious Art Students League, a local artist-in-residence program attracts talent from around the globe. This Saturday, January 25, take a short trip to Sparkill for an open studio tour and reception at this bucolic, historic and vibrant visual arts center.
Every month, Vytlacil (add a “v” sound to wit-la-chill) hosts an open house for the artists that have been living and working there for the proceeding four weeks. The League Residency at the Vyt seamlessly stitches together the central threads of Vaclav’s life: the house where he lived and made art and the school where he studied and eventually became a hugely influential art instructor.
Vaclav Vytlacil was born in New York to Czech immigrant parents in 1892. At 14, he studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago on a scholarship from the school where he would hold court for decades, the Art Students League.
Located on 57th Street in Manahttan, The Art Students League was founded in 1875 and has played a pivotal role in shaping America’s fine arts tradition. The aroma and atmosphere of the building have changed little during the last 139 years. The smell of linseed oil hangs in the air, emanating from classrooms where students in stained smocks stare intently at nude models or still lifes, manipulating the tools of sculpture, painting or drawing.
During Vaclav’s tenure, his students included Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Cy Twombly and Tony Smith. In his 2010 obituary in the New York Times, Louise Bourgeois cited her studies with Vytlacil as a singular event in her eduction as an artist.
Vaclav was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists in 1936. His work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Detroit Museum of Fine Arts.
The League Residency at the Vyt sits on a fifteen-acre estate set on the west side of Clausland Mountain and was built around the turn of the 20th century. The complex accommodates seven artists. Three residents are housed on the 2nd floor of the Vytlacil House in private rooms, with a shared kitchen, shared bath, and laundry facilities, and four more are housed in a recently constructed residence hall.
What Vyt Artists Get
- Single private bedroom
- $2,800 for a 4-week residency session
- Communal lunch provided weekly
- Specialized equipment such as a bronze furnace, ceramic kilns, forging, and welding equipment
- An extensive art library and reading room
- Campus-wde Wi-Fi internet
- Mentoring & critiques by professional, working artists and League instructors
- Open Studio event
- Group Museum trip to Dia:Beacon or Storm King Art Center
Vaclav’s north-lit barn has been transformed into the Trudy and Henry Gillette Studio for Painting. A “GreenShop” (Greenhouse+Workshop) provides flexible workspace with areas for a foundry, metal-smithing, ceramics, woodworking and welding, and a large walk-in kiln. The grounds double as a sculpture park, with site-specific and donated works on display.
Sohos and Williamburgs come and go, but for over a century, great artists from every discipline have found their way to eastern Rockland County. Some, like Edward Hopper were born here, others like Helen Hayes and Carson McCullers, moved here, and now, thanks to the legacy of Vaclav Vytlacil, a new group of creatives get to call our culturally fertile soil their temporary home each month.
Visit Vytlacil’s next open studio event on Saturday, January 25, from 5-7 p. Here is a digital preview of the work of the artists that you can meet in their studios on Saturday.
Charmaine Ortiz, Drawing, North Carolina.
Charmaine works with graphite and seeks to challenge its capabilities through new fields and applications, including object making and painting. Her current series of drawings conceptually explores the history of graphite while using geometric designs specific to her cultural identity.
Todd Stong, Painter, based in Providence, RI
His playful psychedelic paintings attempt to reconcile a visual approach to autobiography with the thoughts of Plato and Erich Auerbach. “I can incite a color-spattered battle between the organic and the geometric, liquid and solid, foreground and background, organism and robot, play and foul play.”
Cameron Shojaei, Painter (watercolor, acylic, oil), Baltimore Maryland.
“Art is all about speed now, like the bullet that pierced Chris Burden’s arm in 1971. As a young painter interested in rendering faces, hands and believable space there are times when I feel like a member of an endangered tribe. I’m from Baltimore Maryland and I don’t like abstract art.”
Frazer Salter, Sculptor, Edinburgh, Scotland
His new work relates to the topic of human augmentation, the ethical debates it raises in culture and the further development of the relationship between sculpture and the body.
The League Residency at the Vyt is located at 241 Kings Highway, Sparkill (When programming your GPS, use Orangeburg) Vyt is located just south of the Rockland Cemetery.
The work of the Fellowship of Reconciliation has transformed this home in Upper Nyack into Martin Luther King Jr.’s dreamcatcher. This January, as we approach the 28th observance of King’s national holiday, we should also acknowledge the centennial of the founding of this global peace organization that has become a custodian of the slain civil rights leader’s philosophies and practices. Through teachings, advocacy and publications that include a special comic book that has stayed in circulation for nearly fifty years, FOR is a leading international proponent of nonviolent solutions to some of today’s most intractable conflicts.
Fellowship of Reconciliation
A brief History
Since its founding in 1914, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) has been a global emissary for peace among people and nations. The organization was founded on a handshake between two men, Henry Hodgkin, an English Quaker, and Friedrich Sigmund-Schultze, a German Lutheran, whose countries had just declared war on each other.
Hogkins and Sigmund-Schultze were attending a conference of religious leaders that had sought to prevent the spread of the conflict that would engulf the planet, the first world war. They vowed to work together for peace even though their countries were in armed conflict. Succeeding generations of FOR members have kept that pledge.
FOR-USA was founded in Garden City, NY in 1915, and then was headquartered in New York City until moving to Nyack in 1957 . Prominent social justice figures who have been associated with FOR include: Jane Addams, Joan Baez, Dorothy Day, Thich Nhat Hanh,Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., James Lawson, Rep. John Lewis Thomas Merton, A.J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, Pete Seeger and Norman Thomas, .
Allow me to introduce FOR’s new Executive Director, Rev. Kristin Stoneking, who will lead the anniversary celebration and help chart the group’s future. This interview includes her reflections on her role as a mediator in the aftermath of the pepper-spray incident at the University of California at Davis during the Occupy movement and the moral and political influence of her parents, one of whom marched with Dr. King in Selma, Alabama in 1965.
When did you first learn about the work of FOR?
I learned about FOR while in seminary in Chicago. I was attracted to their interfaith approach and their work in nonviolence. My partner, Elizabeth Campi, who was involved in activism work in Central America, decided to go to seminary, where we met, to work with an organization like FOR. We laugh that I was the one that got this job.
Both of my parents were activists. My dad is a United Methodist pastor. Both are from Kansas City. My father marched in Selma, Alabama with Dr. King.
My mom is constantly engaged on an issue. She is one of the people you need to make things happen. I remember being taken out of school in the fifth grade to get in a bus to go to the state capital of Missouri to advocate for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
What are some of your plans to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the founding of FOR?
We are planning a traveling exhibition, a documentary, a national conference in Atlanta in June 2015, and a celebration gala dinner in Manhattan 2015.
Has the mission of FOR changed over the last 100 years?
The mission statement has gone through many iterations, but at the core, FOR is dedicated to ending structures of violence and war though nonviolent activism and a commitment to pacifism.
What are some of your current programs that you are excited about?
We just finished a nine-week residential training program with four FOR fellows at our headquarters in Upper Nyack. The program coordinator and all the participants were young people under 25. The fellows came from Mexico/U.S., Azerbaijan, Rwanda, and Romania/Moldova.
Montgomery Bus Boycott Comic becomes global non-violence playbook
A year after FOR moved from New York City to Upper Nyack, they published a comic book that chronicled the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott that led to the eventual collapse of Jim Crow laws in the South and helped introduce our country to a relatively unknown, 26-year-old Minister named Martin Luther King Jr.
The illustrated morality play and organizing manual was produced by a bullpen of artists under the supervision of popular cartoonist Al Capp.
Dalia Ziada, formerly the Cairo Based North Africa Director of the American Islamic Congress translated the comic into Arabic and Farsi several years ago and distributed thousands of copies from Yemen to Morocco.
Copies of the comic were circulated in Tahrir Square in Egypt in February, 2011. The legacy of King, delivered through the medium of visual art and story telling, helped inform the Arab spring.
Copies are available at FOR’s online bookstore.
The goal of the training was to introduce the FOR method of nonviolence and to connect these young adults to the FOR global network. Each fellow has a project that they worked on and will bring back to their home country. Each week they worked with a different trainer. My workshop was about the interfaith and interreligious dimension of organizing.
What international issue is of greatest concern to FOR?
What is on our mind today, is the work of our North East coordinator, Leila Zand. She held a press conference on Friday, Jan. 11 at the United Nations to build support of a rolling fast and hunger strike that started before Christmas to end the starvation sieges in Syria. Certain communities, targeted by the Assad regime, are having their food supplies blocked. Most of our staff are taking a day of the rolling fast. My day was last Thursday.
What national issue is of greatest concern for FOR?
We are organized regionally. In the southeast, we are focusing on mass incarceration and racial and economic inequality; in the northeast, drones and Islamophobia and in the southwest and west, immigration and hyper-militarization
You played a role as a mediator in the aftermath of the pepper-spray incident at the University of California at Davis during the Occupy movement demonstrations. What were some of the outcomes?
I was the Campus minister at UC Davis but I wasn’t on campus the day of the pepper spraying incident.
We worked really hard to get the university to adopt a process for restorative justice and healing. Even though we had a lot of supporters including the chair of the reviewing task force, California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, the University didn’t adopt what we were advocating for. Interestingly, the City of Davis and the Yolo County did. The DA and a group of citizens created a Restorative Justice process that was rolled out last April.
Restorative justice is a process that recognizes that when harm happens it is understood that the harm is inflicted on the victim, the perpetrator and the community. All of those players have to be a part of bring restoration and restoring harmony. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by Nelson Mandela in South Africa is an example of Restorative Justice.
There are some similarities between the early methods of the Occupy movement and the vision that Martin Luther King had for the Poor People’s Campaign to occupy the Washington Mall in 1968 that was forestalled by his assassination. Do you think Occupy organizers drew any inspiration from the tactics and philosophies of the southern civil rights movement?
King’s approach to nonviolence had four steps; the collection of facts, negotiation self-purification and direct action. (and is laid out in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail). The Occupy Movement resisted negotiation because they resisted setting goals.
I understand why they resisted. Occupy had more of an anarchist heart. I don’t think that anarchy is the way forward. There was never any consensus on the necessity of nonviolence. There was always a big debate in local general assemblies about that issue.
The majority of people were nonviolent. But when the Occupy movement resorted to violence, that prevented a mass sympathy. You can never really have change without converting the middle. The reason that King was successful is that he was able to keep his actions nonviolent
What are some of the enduring lessons that can be drawn from the Occupy Movement?
The Occupy movement gave our entire nation a language to talk about incomce inequality: 1% and the 99%. They raised consciousness and started a discourse about wealth disparity.
Is there a leader/and or a movement today that could be the subject of a new FOR comic and that would be as relevant 5o years from now?
No, not exactly. Martin Luther King and Gandhi were spirtual and justice leaders. I don’t think we have any one at the same level, who can beautifully combine the spiritual with the call for justice.
What we do have today are flash heroes. People who raise up in a news cycle and ground their action in a moral authority that inspires people.
Was Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a US solider killed Iraq who camped outside of George Bush’s ranch in protest of the war, an example of a flash hero?
I understand that your headquarters, known as Shadowcliff, was nominated last month to the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Are there opportunities for people to visit and tour the property?
Yes. We recently had a solstice concert that was open to the public. One of our staff members is starting up a weekly group called an introduction to nonviolence.
Are there any upcoming events when your neighbors could make your acquaintance?
I will be present at the weekly Buddhist gathering on Wed., January 15. (Which is also Dr. King’s birthday)
FOR is really really proud to be a part of the Rockland County and Nyack community. We are grateful for the support we have found in this historic and welcoming community.