It turns out a courtroom isn’t the only place where one can find civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein and Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Streicher Jr. together. Both men spoke Oct. 27 at the 40th anniversary celebration for the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati (MARCC).
“It’s only MARCC that can say, ‘We’re going to throw a party in a church basement’ and all these people show up,” Gerhardstein said. “The city manager was just here saying, ‘Thanks for helping us out.’ I just sued the city again last week, and we’re both here.”
MARCC’s ability to bring together people who disagree on social and political issues has enabled it to influence the resolution of some of the most difficult conflicts in the city during the past 40 years. That power comes from the group’s commitment to finding consensus in the face of seemingly intractable theological differences.
The anniversary party, held at Saint Peter in Chains Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church, included prayers led by a rabbi, a Baptist minister and a Muslim imam.
MARCC’s strength comes from its decision, when it was founded, to “forgo the luxury of separate ways when a common path could be found,” said retired Methodist Bishop C. Joseph Sprague, the keynote speaker at the celebration.
Closing the dungeon
Ecumenism — collaboration among members of differing faiths — was a new concept in 1968. The local effort was put to the test from the start, when MARCC pressured city leaders to resolve a strike by sanitation workers.
Strikes by municipal employees were illegal then, and the city jailed the union’s leader in an effort to break the strike. MARCC warned that the city’s hard line risked provoking more of the rioting that had recently broken out in Cincinnati and other parts of the country.
MARCC later championed the effort to close the old Cincinnati Workhouse — a dungeon-like fortress built in 1865, where as late as 1981 prisoners relied on coffee cans to serve as toilets in their cells and shivered in the cavernous lock-up during winter.
“We sent so many postcards to Tom Luken when he was mayor that he wouldn’t talk to me for a month,” Sprague said.
Determined to increase the number of African- American police officers and firefighters in Cincinnati, MARCC donated $30,000 for sensitivity training for the two departments. A lengthy negotiating session with city officials inadvertently led to a lesson on urban realities.
“We were in this meeting behind closed doors all night, talking about safety, inclusivity,” Sprague said. “When we came out, every coat on the coat rack had been lifted.”
When outrage over police killings of unarmed African-American men led to an uprising in Over-the-Rhine in 2001, the city settled a lawsuit that created the collaborative agreement on police reform. MARCC played a crucial role in the seven-year process that changed police policies on use of force, according to Gerhardstein, one of the attorneys who filed the suit.
“It’s really been helpful to have reinforcement on these issues from a party that has no agenda aside from doing what’s right,” he said. “MARCC has no self-interest. Over the last seven years as partners in the collaborative agreement, MARCC has been a real ally.”
The guiding principles established by the organization — a coalition of 17 judicatories, or governing bodies, for local denominations of various faiths — limit its work to “a few concerns that are capable of local resolution, where there is a moral, religious concern and where we can do our own research and fact-finding. We make major decisions by consensus of the member judicatories. (If any one judicatory says no, the coalition of judicatories does not work on it together.) We work on the concerns that are most important, urgent, and doable by the religious community. We try to work with decision makers when we can, and give them the credit. We try to leave the civic discourse at least a little better than we found it.”
‘God’s overwhelming agenda’
Sprague, who served as MARCC’s first executive director from 1968 to 1973, later served as a bishop in Chicago. Five years ago his book, Affirmations of a Dissenter, which questioned the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, led to heresy charges against him. But the United Methodist Church exonerated him.
In a lively address at MARCC’s anniversary celebration, Sprague introduced himself by saying, “I’m Joe the Preacher,” mocking the “Joe the Plumber” issue in the recent presidential campaign.
Sprague said Margaret Fox, MARCC’s new executive director, recently told him that Cincinnati’s problems haven’t gone away in the 40 years since the group organized.
“She said, ‘This is a very different city than the one we left, Joe. That city was poor; this city is really, really poor. People here are suffering immeasurably,’ ” Sprague said.
Looking to the national political scene, he lamented the damage caused in recent years by “neocon politics” and religious fundamentalists.
“Intentional manipulation for political gain, coupled with our own cowardice, have divided us on wedge issues like abortion, sexual orientation, gay marriage, gun control and complex scientific matters such as stem cell research,” Sprague said, “while the scriptures and our various traditions broadcast clearly that God’s overwhelming agenda is justice for the poor and our demonstrated love for the Holy One and neighbor, with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.”
He urged MARCC to continue working for practical ways to further the cause of economic justice, including affordable health care, improved public education and a public-works program.
“If this nation can waste $5,000 a minute in Iraq,” he said, “we can invest a fraction of this amount to attend to the infrastructure of urban America and provide the dignity of a paycheck for families in Cincinnati, across Ohio and throughout the Rust Belt.” ©