#ThePopeinNYC: 'Let Us Be Prophets of Peace'

By Onleilove Alston 9-29-2015
Image via Onleilove Alston

Pope Francis touched down at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Sept. 24, but New Yorkers of all faith traditions eagerly awaited his prophetic message of justice for months.

As the Executive Director of Faith in New York, an interfaith community organizing federation of over 70 congregations representing 80,000 families of faith throughout New York City, I believe the pope’s message is an exclamation point to our justice work. Faith in New York is a part of the PICO National Network and as a network we are undergoing A Year of Encounter with Pope Francis, inviting congregations to host small group discussions using our 7-week curriculum focused on immigration, mass incarceration, climate justice, and race and inspired by The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation. The small groups remind me of the Christian base communities that gave birth to liberation theology in South America. Through these small, interactive groups we hope to remind people of faith throughout America that social justice is not an afterthought to our faith but an integral part of expressing it.

In New York City, Pope Francis took his prophetic message from St. Patrick’s Cathedral to the United Nations, Our Lady Queen of Angels School in El Barrio (East Harlem), Central Park, Madison Square Garden, and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Hundreds of our Faith in New York members attended papal visit events in New York City and a delegation of us joined hundreds PICO clergy, lay-leaders, and staff at the Faith Matters in America Summit in Philadelphia to reflect and act on the prophetic message of Pope Francis. We were excited to have one of the world’s most recognized religious leaders discussing “the economy of exclusion” and recognizing the important role women play in our churches.

But now that Pope Francis has left America, what do we do with his message? As Jesus’ brother James stated: “faith without works in dead” (James 2:17). Following Pope Francis’ visit to America, Faith in New York and PICO affiliates across the nation are participating in 40 Days of Faithful Action where we will host prophetic public actions around climate change, mass incarceration, Black and Brown unity, and economic justice. This is a very special season for many people of faith because in addition to Pope Francis’ historic visit to America, our Jewish brothers and sisters are preparing for a Jubilee Year, a special Hebrew Bible slaves were freed and debts forgiven; it seems almost providential that we have a pope focused on the “economy of exclusion” while also beginning a biblical holiday that resets the economy so that it is just. My colleague Bishop Dwayne Royster, Executive Director of POWER our sister federation in Philadelphia, challenges us by asking: “what does it mean to have a WHOLE and HOLY economy?

On Sept. 25 as I attended A Witness to Peace: A Multi-Religious Gathering with Pope Francis to commemorate the lives lost in 9/11, I was challenged by his call to be “prophets of peace.” For me, prophetic acts and acts of justice are one and the same, but often prophetic work can rob us of peace. In this season, my prayer is that we will be peacemakers through courageous, just actions. Or as Fr. Darrell Da Costa, a priest and fellow organizer, shared when reflecting on Pope Francis’ visit to America: “The coming of Pope Francis to the United States is important because of who he is, his message and example. Pope Francis is the representative of Christ who is calling the people of the world to change our ways that we may care more about one another and put that care into action. This change needs to take place at all levels and places of society so that all members of society whether they be rich, poor, powerful, or disadvantaged may experience the love of God. Christ’s love is just, merciful, true, and faithful. It calls people and government to make the changes necessary so that all may live in dignity as God’s beloved creation.”

Onleilove Alston lives in Harlem and serves as the executive director of PiCO Faith in NY an affiliate of 70 congregations dedicated to building the beloved city. She also serves on the Sojourners Board of Directors and founded Prophetic Whirlwind: Uncovering the Black Biblical Destiny. She tweets @Wholeness4ALL. 

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