After returning in 2017, from a week-long trip visiting numerous historical and contemporary civil rights sites, museums and memorials, twenty-five parishioners and members of Spiritus Christi Anti-Racism Coalition (SPARC) were inspired to create and construct an outdoor civil rights heritage site and a Black Community Focus Fund in Rochester.
“We arrived back in Rochester on Saturday of that week,” said Rev. Myra Brown, Pastor of Spiritus Christi. “I went to bed that night and a couple of days later I woke up just kind of knowing what we needed to do. So, I came to the meeting and said to the team, what we saw throughout our trip were people excavating their history. They were discovering and lifting it up and displaying their findings in tours and museums or by erecting memorials or establishing parks. They were telling their story,” she implied.
“What we’ve noticed is up north, we weren’t telling our story. We were hiding, distorting, and denying our story. We have a story! Every city has stories about social and structural racism. So, I suggested to the team…… what if we created our own outdoor heritage site, so we can tell our story.” The heritage site theme will honor the history of activism around civil rights that was spawned by minorities in the fight for racial justice in Rochester. The site has gotten support from Rochester’s mayor to be developed and featured on the premises of Baden Park, located on Upper Falls Boulevard and Hudson Avenue.
The second project, The Black Community Focus Fund, is to bring attention and resources to the city’s Black communities that had been impacted historically by racism. Rev. Brown came back realizing that history had taken so much from the Black community politically, socially, and economically…in terms of life, years, future, destiny and effort.
“So, I thought…………how can we? If there’s a body of work we can do or project that can give back to the community that had so much taken from it,” she pondered. “So, I proposed to the team………what if we created a Black Community Focus Fund?”
The fund will allow the church to adopt a zip code within the city and work with recruited Black leadership in that zip code, where they can decide how to use that money to bring a level of reparation and attention to that community for Black families residing within it.The fund has been granted 501c status and the group has selected zip code 14605 to be its first designated area. The 14605 community is to the left of the church location at 121 N Fitzhugh Street and spans from the inter-loop back.
“That’s the closest residential community to our church, so that makes sense and the other reason it made sense is that I grew up in 14605 from the age of six to sixteen,” Rev. Brown recalls. “I felt we were creating something that was bringing me back full circle and also it allows our church to be accountable for the community where our church also exist.”
“Every aspect of the work has been a collaboration of Spiritus Christi and partner churches and organizational partners working together that include Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, First Genesis Baptist Church, Conea, Spiritus Christi, Glory House International, First Unversalist Church, Colgate Rochester Divinity School, The Sanctuary Church, and The Last Days Harvest Church,” Rev. Brown notes.
The participants of both projects are scheduled to meet on the third Monday of each month at the church at 5pm. And they now have a new partner church, First Universalist Church, who’ve raised $5,000. Spiritus Christi have raised almost close to $5000, which are split between both projects.
The coalition of churches also have an account at Genesee Co-op Federal Credit Union, who's looking at companies interested in making transactions using the Automated Clearing House (ACH) process.
“In the meantime, we’ve asked our partner churches to be drop-off sites for folks who like to contribute,” Rev. Brown acknowledged. “And what we said to them is……here's what you could do. They might decide to use the funds to buy real estate or create a state-of-the-art nursing home for elders of color. It's owned by Black people and managed by residents living in zip code 14605. It sets them up to tend to the futures of black children and families in that community. They might decide to use it to create scholarships to produce more doctors, lawyers, or scientists or people in other particular jobs and careers that lack meaningful diversity because of the lack of ‘focused’ resources for that kind of mobility, or they might decide to use it to address an addiction crisis in their community,” Rev. Brown continues.
“We’re creating a resource for the Black community that’s devoid of red tape or any structure telling them what they can and cannot do, how long they can and cannot do it, who they can and cannot do it for. It doesn’t tie their hands. That’s the goal of The Black Community Focus Fund. We hope that this fund gives them hope and resources and abilities to address the harm that has been done in the 14605 area,” she insists. “We had to start somewhere, and we hope that we will create a national model. We do this kind of work in foreign countries. So, we want to bring that model home in our own communities and ask those who support these two projects to do the same.”
Extra notes: Rev. Brown is the third African American Woman Roman Catholic Priest and the first to lead a large congregation. She’s been on the staff for twenty years and was ordained a Deacon in 2016. In 2017, she was ordained a Priest and in 2018, she was hired as the new pastor of Spiritus Christi.
The Civil Rights Heritage Site:
The Civil Rights Heritage Site came to fruition in 2017. There were a lot of reports of unarmed Black men across the country being shot and murdered. For approximately fifteen years, the congregation and Rev. Brown have been doing Anti-Racism work. Very early during that span the church created and developed an anti-racism team known as SPARC (Spiritus Christi Anti-Racism Coalition) that involved advocacy, coaching people, protest, letter writing and racial justice and anti-racism training for organizational groups and Spiritus Christi Church.
The week-long trip came into view when one of our members came up to Rev. Brown during Mass and said to her, we have to do something. To put it in context, that member was white, and the church Rev. Brown leads is predominately white. The member went on to say, Black people are always speaking out but we- White people are not doing enough. We got to get White people just as passionate about doing Anti-Racism work as Black people are. She said, I don’t want my daughter and my son to ask me down the road……Mom what did you do when racism was rearing its ugly head? Did you stand on the sideline or did you do something about it? And she said, I don’t want to do that. We got to do something. She suggested the church develop a race convoy composed of black and white people from the church and/or the larger community and organize a week-long trip to historical places throughout several deep and bordering southern states, where hub and contemporary stories of racism had happened.
The group of 25 traveled to Columbus, Tennessee, Alabama and Cincinnati. After visiting each sight Rev. Brown and a co-trainer would help the group unpacked the experiences they were having by doing a racial justice analysis to help deepen their understanding; especially those around structural racism. The group also were able to learn a lot from the people running the sites, museums, memorials and parks, who were eager to share their experiences derived from their continuous fight against racial injustice.
The group’s last stop was Cincinnati.
Instead of only visiting sites, Rev. Brown decided to go out on the street and speak with random people of color about their hopes, dreams and disappointments. And about the political leadership around the issue of race on all levels including city, state and national.
“I wanted to get a read on the street from the average person. “And we talked about the experience as a group and processed it,” she said. “Those conversations were instrumental in helping us as a team, shape and develop The Heritage Site and The Black Community Focus Fund projects.”
For more information on the Black Community Focus Fund and Rochester Civil Rights Park and how to contribute financially visit their website at www.rochesterbcff.org or contact them at [email protected]
Article by Author and Journalist Rodney Brown, executive director of Brown Publishing LLC and Southwest Tribune Newspaper