Celebrating Justice and Diversity in Western NY


The Rev. Dr. Chloe Breyer, Executive Director of the Interfaith Center of New York, shared her experience at November's Justice Celebration at Grace! in Lyons, NY.

By Gittel Evangelist

They call it the Justice Celebration, and for good reason. Each month, Rural & Migrant Ministry partners with Grace! to host the Justice Celebration in Lyons, in New York’s Finger Lakes region. The Justice Celebration welcomes people from near and far who are committed to working for justice and want to affirm and inspire one another.

Grace! is an interfaith gathering of people dedicated to building community and ensuring that grass-roots voices are heard and honored. A unique partnership between RMM and the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, Grace! has oversight of the grounds of a former Episcopal Church which also houses RMM’s Liturgia Rural Worker Education Center. (“Liturgia” is Latin for “honoring the public work of the people.”)

Like any great gathering, the Justice Celebration is centered around hospitality. Chairs arranged in rows of semi-circles in the Parish Hall of Grace! encourage folks to converse before an invited guest storyteller shares their experience. MoonFlower, a band composed of students from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, warms up the crowd with everything from ’70s rock and roll to Spanish ballads. Long tables draped in colorful tablecloths hold the promise of a feast afterward, catered by the women-owned cooking cooperative Las Chefs Latinas. Large boxes of donated food are offered for the taking, procured by Grace! committee member and RMM volunteer Rodney Jones.

RMM Executive Director Richard Witt beams at the crowd. “We are so fortunate and so blessed to be here together,” Witt says. “You need food? Take a box of food. There are chickens in the freezer; if you need a chicken, take one.”

“The Justice Celebration is like being at your grandma’s house,” says Ana Mendez, RMM’s Associate Regional Coordinator for Western New York. “It’s just so warm and inviting.”

The Justice Celebration frequently includes presentations by RMM’s Justice Organization of Youth, known as JOY for short. The youth group, made up of high school students in Wayne County, explores themes of justice through the study and performance of Theatre of the Oppressed.

Grace! chairperson Antonio Cruz, a farmworker who labors long hours in the apple orchards, welcomes the crowd in Spanish, with simultaneous interpretation in English and Spanish provided by Esperanza Roncero.

Many travel long distances to join the celebration, because they believe it’s important to gather in person to do the work of justice. More than 60 people turned out for November’s gathering, to hear storytelling by the Rev. Dr. Chloe Breyer, Executive Director of the Interfaith Center of New York. ICNY works with grass-roots and immigrant faith leaders from across New York City, “with the conviction that we make our civil society stronger, our democracy stronger, when people of different faith traditions work together,” she said.

Breyer spoke about her journey of learning “to love interfaith work as an instrument of justice.” As the daughter of an Anglican British mother who was a child psychologist, and a Jewish American father — the law professor and judge Stephen Breyer, who was later confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice — she was raised in Cambridge, Mass., in a home where “reasonableness” was encouraged.

As a result of her spiritual quest growing up and a pivotal moment of conversion during her college years, Breyer went on to study for the Episcopal priesthood.

“Seminary was just the weirdest thing, because I expected to go to a place where justice was central,” she said. “And there didn’t seem to be any sign of that work.”

Breyer noted with irony that on the steps of the chapel at the Church of the Good Shepherd in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, was inscribed the phrase, “The Gates to Heaven Are Through the City.”

“I remember looking at that and thinking, ‘No one in this place goes outside the gate. No one in this place goes into the city. We’re located in the city and yet we don’t even know what is going on here.’”

This experience in part triggered Breyer’s vulnerability to depression. “It really kind of brought me into that wilderness space, where you don’t feel like you fit in the world. And sometimes, that’s the experience that — because I also believe that God works through our vulnerabilities — that sense of feeling unfit and not fitting in the world … increases my capacity for people who actually come from another place and genuinely are strangers in the place where they’ve arrived.”

When the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, it was another pivotal time for Breyer, who was by then working as a chaplain at the school of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. In the months following the attack, after President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech and the United States’ descent into war in Iraq, “It became clear our government was not going to be the engine of enlightenment or awareness,” she said.

Her first real interfaith justice effort was a cooperative undertaking between the Diocese and the Afghan Muslim community to rebuild a mosque in Afghanistan.

A job change that brought Breyer to the Interfaith Center of New York confirmed her life’s work to seek justice at the grass-roots level; at ICNY, Breyer has worked on behalf of people of color and immigrants, particularly Muslims, through accountability in the NYPD and ICE. Breyer and her organization have since worked to assist immigrants through rapid response and accompaniment in finding their way in New York.

Following Breyer’s talk, Beth Ares, RMM’s Community Liaison for Western New York and a Grace! committee member, asked about the likelihood of immigrants arriving in Wayne County from New York City.

“Is there a long-range plan?” Ares asked. “Is there anything tangible that you’re aware of, regarding the future of these folks?”

Breyer answered, straight to the point. “There’s no one out there with any plan, as far as I can tell, and that means it’s us. It’s us in this room. We have the potential to be a welcoming community, and we know that in the long run, that’s how we’ll survive. That’s how we’ll live. And there’s no one who’s going to do it for us, or tell us how to do it. So, you all have an incredible opportunity, if you want it.”

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We welcome folks to join us at the Justice Celebration, on the third Sunday of each month at 6 pm. The Justice Celebration will be on hiatus for the month of December due to the holidays, but will resume in January. For more information, contact Ana by email at ana@rmmny.org.

The Rev. Dr. Chloe Breyer, Executive Director of the Interfaith Center of New York, shared her experience at November's Justice Celebration at Grace! in Lyons, NY.

Gittel Evangelist is Communications Coordinator for Rural & Migrant Ministry, Inc. Reach her at gittel@rmmny.org