By Rev. Marcos A. Miranda
Special to the Eagle
“Justice, justice you shall pursue,” the scripture tells us in Deuteronomy 16:20. We in America endeavor to justice – to equality under the law, unbiased policing, a court system that favors neither rich nor poor, and fairness that extends not just to those on trial, but also to victims and convicted criminals. We may fail more often than we succeed, but only through falling short of the mark can we be reminded of all the work that needs to be done.
The pursuit of justice is an obsession of mine, as a member of the clergy, a board-certified chaplain, and currently the president of the largest interfaith crisis spiritual care organization in New York State. A group that currently represents no less than eleven different faith groups. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Shinto clergy are all members, plus plenty of others.
When Betty Lugo, currently a candidate for Queens District Attorney, called me within hours of her announcing her run, I picked up the phone with both enthusiasm and skepticism. For sure, my organization is involved with criminal justice, with members counseling victims, those accused of crimes, as well as police and those in the court system. But I would have expected to hear from her after Election Day, not long before.
It turned out she was calling to ask questions. She’d heard about our work at the Riker’s Island Prison Complex, where we provide Interfaith mentors to inmates, in the hopes of decreasing rates of recidivism. We’ve seen a non-trivial percentage of Riker’s Island prisoners respond positive to our work there. It’s no panacea, but nothing is.
She’d also heard of our support for the new Discovery for Justice Reform Act, which repealed the laws that blocked criminal defendants from gaining access to their case evidence. This law’s goal is to reduce the rate of wrongful convictions, and it is hard to imagine anyone who supports the concept of justice who would oppose that goal. Just as the guilty must face judgment, the innocent should have every opportunity to clear their names. The new Act makes that easier.
And she’d heard of the rest of our support services – the counseling we do with families of fallen first responders, the substance abuse work, and the services we offer to veterans, the homeless, victims of domestic violence, and so many other people whose paths cross with the criminal justice system, or just need our help.
And she wanted to know more. Much, much more. Most of all, she wanted to know how we work in such an ecumenical way, because the borough that she hoped to serve could justifiably claim to be the most diverse borough in New York City. If a faith community, ethnicity, or racial group exists, it can be found in Queens. And it would be her duty to participate in the administration of justice for that community.
This was impressive to me, as was Lugo’s focus. Not only was she cognizant of the importance of spiritual counseling and equal justice in a multiethnic environment, but she also initiated a conversation about interfaith dialogue. It was her belief that the travails of our time, the seemingly intractable polarization and demonizing of the “other,” and tensions that too often result in criminal conduct, have their roots in interpersonal distrust. If we spiritual leaders could work together in an interfaith organization with such success, perhaps we could foster similar interfaith dialogue within the community at large.
This was good stuff, and something of a first for me: not just because a candidate was so interested in what we were doing, but because that candidate saw how our model could lead to a better living environment for over 2.4 million people who call the borough of Queens “home.”
To tell the truth, I knew little about Betty Lugo when the phone rang. Afterward, I did my homework, and was pleased to find a woman with significant experience both in the legal profession and in the quest for justice. She’s worked more than half of her life in the effort to ensure that every person on American soil is treated fairly according to the law, no matter that person’s race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender identity or socioeconomic status. It sounds like it should be a straightforward thing. Her goal is not just that we fall short of the mark less often, but that equality under the law means just that, equality under the law. Nothing more, nothing less.
No one knows their communities better than religious leaders and faith-based organizations. Too often, we’re overlooked by those who seek to serve the people in elected office, save for the votes that they erroneously believe we might deliver. We can’t deliver votes, and would not even want to do that. What we want is to use our skills, foci, and modeling to help shape our faith communities, and the larger community in which we serve, into places that are truly worthy of the Scripture. Betty Lugo’s interest in us, and on making a faith-based initiative a priority in her campaign for Queens borough District Attorney, is very promising; very promising indeed.
Rev. Marcos A. Miranda, M.Div., BCC is an author, lecturer and the founder and president of the New York State Chaplain Task Force.