The news on the other end of the phone was horrific. Rev. Kenneth Flowers, my friend and co-director at the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, called to share that his 27-year-old stepson had been killed in a jet ski accident in Chicago. He was devastated. He loved his stepson, whom he lovingly referred to as his bonus son.
The next day, my wife Linda and I — along with Rabbi Asher Lopatin from the JCRC/AJC and a few other Jewish friends of Rev. Flowers — visited his home to offer our condolences to him and his wife Terri.
We all tearfully hugged and, I hope, brought a small measure of comfort to them for a moment. They seemed touched that some of their Jewish friends were there at such a dark time, and it warmed my heart to witness their brief smiles during this nightmare. As we were about to leave, Rev. Flowers asked Rabbi Lopatin to recite a prayer. So right there, standing in their foyer, Rev. Flowers, Terri, a few close family members and a few Jewish guests held hands and formed a prayer circle.
There have been many other moments within the Coalition where, in a time of need, members of one community have provided moral support for someone from the other. Funerals, illnesses and setbacks that left someone with a particularly heavy heart that needed lifting up. And on many joyous occasions — weddings, engagements, recognitions, new babies — we have gathered in celebration.
And yet while all of that is nice, it should not be considered extraordinary. It’s just friendship. It’s what friends do when they genuinely care for their friends and want to be there for them in both the good times and the bad.
I have been with the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity since the beginning. For years, I have also been active in other groups that engage in interracial and interfaith relations. I have had the good fortune of forming lifelong friends with many people I might never have met, some of whom I have come to genuinely love. There have been countless programs promoting Black and Jewish solidarity. Many of those events have been excellent and inspirational, and I’m certain the attendees got something positive out of it.
But after decades of doing this work, I’ve come to realize that memories of programs or events — even the best ones — fade over time, and that only one-on-one friendships have true lasting power. The seemingly small moments in life — a Shiva visit, a timely phone call, bringing lunch to an ill friend, recognizing a life event — are when real and lasting friendships are formed. And once established, friends can tackle anything — including highly-charged issues like racial, religious and political divides. Friendship trumps everything, and true friends can have honest, respectful and constructive dialogues about anything.
But friendships require listening, which is also critical to fostering good interracial and interfaith relations. After George Floyd was murdered, when the wounds in the Black community were fresh, the Coalition hosted a Zoom event called Dear White People, Please Listen. Only the Black members of the Executive Committee were allowed to speak to the virtual audience of 600 people. Each had an opportunity to explain, without interruption, the raw emotions they were experiencing.
I have learned the realistic limitations on what can and cannot be accomplished by groups like the Coalition. We cannot eliminate racism or antisemitism; we cannot stop the alarming spike in the number of hate groups in America. But we can touch a small corner of the universe here in metropolitan Detroit. And I have come to accept that that’s good enough.
The Coalition is deliberately designed to foster balance and respect — essential pieces of true friendship. We have four partners, two Black and two Jewish: the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity and the Urban League, and the JCRC/AJC and the ADL. The officers, Board and Advisory Council members are 50% Black and 50% Jewish. This is a joint effort. Everything must always be truly equal.
In 2021, despite being another pandemic year, the Coalition had a full schedule of programming. We will do the same for 2022. But the most important — and rewarding — work we will do will come without fanfare, when no one is looking, because it is in those quiet and private moments that nurture true friendships.