African-American churches are a powerful force in Jersey City, especially in southern end of town. In apparent recognition of this fact, Gov. Phil Murphy made his first official visit to Hudson County for a ceremonial swearing-in of local officials at Mount Calvary Missionary Church on Ocean Avenue on Jan. 18.
Church organizers developed the event as a way to recognize local officials recently elected. But the event took on larger implications for Murphy, who is the midst of making major changes to the philosophy and direction of state government.
This also gave him an opportunity to witness a re-enactment of the swearing in of Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop since Murphy missed the official event on Jan. 1.
A co-coordinator of the vent, Alma Boyd of Calvary Church, said she brought the idea of a second swearing in to the church’s pastor Rev. T.L Staggers, saying that while the council had already been officially sworn in, “We wanted to do it again under God.”
Coordinated by Rev. Staggers and Boyd, and mistress of ceremony Priscilla Joyner, the church seemed more like a classic revival meeting than a political ceremony, with chanted prayer and songs filled with hope and faith.
Even the National Anthem performed by Evangelist Ethel Pope resounded in that holy chamber like a hymn, followed by a mass choir, and then a prayer for unity by Rev. Paul Bellan Bayer.
The event was also an opportunity for Democratic leadership. Divided going into last June’s Democratic primary, the event was a chance to heal old wounds and unify at a time when the party on the national level is extremely fractured.
Along with city officials, the event brought out an array of other officials from the state and county, including state Sen. Sandra Cunningham, Council President Rolando Lavarro, assembly members Angela McKnight and Nicholas Chiaravalloti, council members Joyce Watterman, Jermaine Robinson, Mira Prinz-Arey, and Denise Ridley, and singled out by the governor from the podium, Jersey City/Hoboken Freeholder Anthony Romanno.
Bringing the churches together
Equally important was the array of ministers and parishioners from other churches that came together to greet the new governor, including a joint choir that nearly raised the roof with hymns and prayer, and prompted even Murphy to spout some Biblical verse.
Late last year, Councilwoman Watterman, who also serves as a pastor in Jersey City, said church unity is key to helping solve many of the most serious problems in the area, especially gun violence and murder.
The gathering in Calvary appears to be the first step in a Watterman plan to bring together African-American churches as part of an initiative to build a community base that can help solve problems.
Baptist churches tend to be devoid of the icons typically found in Catholic and Protestant churches, but the church for this occasion as a mass of red, white and blue balloons and dozens of small American flags.
A line of seats faced out from behind the altar where ministers from the various congregations sat. Behind them sat the chorus. Murphy and the other officials sat out in the audience in the front row. A piano and drum provided musical accompaniment for the chorus as well as a background for some of the speeches.
“We are doing this to have God bear witness on our public officials,” Boyd told the assembly.
This was in the belief that these leaders will maintain the trust of the people they lead, she added.
“We all need each other. We will be supportive of you, and you will be supportive of us.”
Robinson, who is the councilman for Ward F, said he’s maintained a close relationship with the churches and the people of this community.
Rev. Staggers said they have a lot to pray for, alluding to issues emanating from the current administration in Washington D.C.
“It’s easy to tear down, and we’re asking for you to help in finding a different way,” he said, calling the election of Murphy “a changing of the guard.”
Murphy during his turn at the podium said he will seek to find common ground.
“It will no longer be a matter of ‘us vs. them’” he said, noting that he’d already pushed for equal pay for women and woman of color.
“It’s easy to tear down, and we’re asking for you to help in finding a different way.” – Rev. T.L Staggers.
Jersey City and Murphy – perfect together?
Murphy also acknowledged his political debt to the strong Democratic base in Hudson County.
“Hudson County and Jersey City have been good to me,” he said. “How Hudson County or Jersey goes, so does our country. But I don’t want to be here because I need you. I’ll be there when you need me. As this city goes, so does Hudson County and the state. We need to push back against the ill wind that blows from Washington. They still seek to divide us.”
He promised to stand on the side of immigrants against the fear and anxiety caused by policies from the White House.
Senator Cunningham said she originally did not intend to come to the event because she had a number of things to do. But she chose to become because she did not wish to miss out on an opportunity for prayer.
“I’m so happy I came,” she said. “I am feeling wonderful. This is a caring kind of environment. Sometimes we need to get away. We need to pray more and get things the way they need to be. Prayer is everything and it works.”
Fulop expressed gratitude to the church and to those who voted for him, saying that being mayor has been “a humbling experience,” but he promised that he would continue to do his best for the “best city in America.”
In a tip of hat to Murphy, Fulop said there is great hope for Jersey City and the state.
“For the first time in eight years we will have a governor who is working with us,” he said. “Jersey City will be a friend to Gov. Murphy.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.