With the New York Police Department facing mounting criticism following the brutal attack on Abner Louima and the fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo, a diverse group of city religious leaders came together last year to express their concern to city government officials.
The prominent priests, ministers, rabbis and imams met with Police Commissioner Howard Safir last June at One Police Plaza to discuss problems between police and minority groups. It marked the first time in about 15 years that such a broad interdenominational group had joined forces in this manner, participants said.
"We felt we needed to impress on the Police Department the need to be more sensitive to the community," recalled Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the New York Board of Rabbis.
But the clerics realized they shouldn’t stop there.
"As we looked around the table and found ourselves together again we said, ‘why don’t we do this on a formal basis?’" said Archdeacon Michael Kendall of the Episcopal Church’s New York Diocese.
In recent weeks the new religious group (formally the Commission of Religious Leaders of New York City) has jumped into the fray of public discourse.
In October it denounced as anti-religious a controversial painting at the Brooklyn Museum of the Virgin Mary that many (most vocally Mayor Rudolph Giuliani) considered blasphemous. And just last week, the group challenged Giuliani over his welfare and homeless policies during a 90-minute closed-door meeting at City Hall.
Some religious leaders said they used the words "heartless" and "ruthless" when they told Giuliani and his deputies what they thought of his policies to arrest homeless people refusing to go to shelters and separating children from their parents who would not work.
"We got really exercised about it," said Rev. John Hiemstra, executive director of the Council of Churches.
Rev. Kendall says the group is building on the foundation of a decade-long close working relationship between the Board of Rabbis and Council of Churches. It has the support of the city’s major religious institutions including: the Roman Catholic Church’s Archdiocese of New York and Diocese of Brooklyn; the Council of Churches of the City of New York, which represents Protestant, Orthodox and Anglicans; the New York Board of Rabbis; and the Islamic Leadership Council of the New York City Metropolitan Area.
And Rev. Kendall said unlike its predecessor (the Committee of Religious Leaders, which was formed under Mayor Robert Wagner and met regularly until it died during the Koch administration around 1985) the new group is intended to be independent of the mayor and city government.
"In the past bodies like this have been called together by the mayor," he explained. "This is something we put together ourselves so we can speak to whoever we want on things we need to."
The new group’s mission, according to a charter drafted Nov. 17, is to "to play a strong and pivotal role in the life of our city by joining together and speaking for the voiceless, seeking racial and economic justice, and serving as an advocacy body to affect society, including government, for the good of all.
"As if to underscore the message of that charter, Rev. Hiemstra said he sent a letter to the mayor, dated Dec. 9, asking for a meeting to discuss alternatives to Giuliani’s homeless policies, and for the mayor to suspend the plan during the winter months.
But Giuliani told The New York Times last Friday that he had organized the meeting. The mayor also said the meeting had given him "a chance to dispel some of the false information about our programs regarding workfare, work and homelessness."
But Rev. Kendall said the mayor’s remarks were "not true."
"A lot of us simply don’t agree with those sanctions. I think they’re inhuman and cruel: a lot of us do," he said. "We did say in the meeting that one of the problems we felt in his administration was the attitude. It came across as hostile and uncaring."
"I pointed out to him that people perceive him as heartless and ruthless," said Rabbi Schneier, who nonetheless credited the mayor with giving an "authentic presentation" of his vision of welfare reform.
Giuliani’s press office did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
Nevertheless, the clergymen said they and the mayor did agree on one thing: Growing numbers of people going from welfare to work still cannot afford housing in New York City.
"Most people don’t realize that people on workfare still can’t afford a place to live," Rabbi Schneier said. "For the first time in eight years, a group of religious leaders has sat down with the mayor and challenged him about the issue of a shortage of affordable housing."
Several religious leaders suggested that Giuliani direct funds from the city’s surplus from the booming economy, and from money saved from welfare payments, to build affordable housing.
Rev. Hiemstra said the mayor suggested they meet with Deputy Mayors Joseph Lhota and Rudy Washington to continue the dialogue.
Bishop Demetrius of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese said the meeting with Giuliani shows the influence religious groups can have when they band together.
He said individually they have "had difficulties in reaching the mayor," but as a unified group "we’re impossible to ignore."
"I think it’s about time religious leaders from different faith groups got together to confront the problems and issues facing the people in New York here, particularly the poor," he said.
The commission already is planning to address other social problems.
Rev. Kendall said the group is drafting a letter to Gov. George Pataki requesting he rescind the tough mandatory prison sentences for certain drug offenses legislated 20 years ago under former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
"These are examples of issues that transcend religious theological and ideological differences," Rabbi Schneier said. "We view this commission as becoming an important religious voice in the policy of this and future administrations."