Talking to: Willie J. Keaton, Jr.

 

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Pastor Keaton at his ordination

 

I first met Pastor Willie J. Keaton, Jr., a few weeks ago, and was immediately impressed with his passion and commitment to his congregation at Claremont Lafayette United Presbyterian Church, located in Jersey City’s Ward F. I was eager to sit down and chat with him about his impressions of his community, and his hopes and concerns for its future.

 


I know you previously served in North Philly and Chester, PA – both of which are communities that face a lot of challenges. Can you com pare what you see in Ward F with your experiences there?

Yes. In many ways the circumstances are almost identical. I started my pastoral ministry in Chester PA, in 2008 and at the time I was an ordained Baptist Minister. I only came to Chester to help start a after-school program and I was paid by a suburban church to work in a urban church, but soon after I arrived there were some difficulties in the pastoral relationship and the congregation that could not be resolved and I was asked to preach. This left me preaching every Sunday and the only service I did not provide was communion. I was in seminary full-time – Westminster Theological Seminary – and I was allowed by the Presbytery of Philadelphia to serve as the pastor [at the same time]. I taught Bible study every Wednesday and preached every Sunday. I also was involved in the community affairs and the community events and there was this issue with the school system and its inability to pay the teachers and this made national news; Ellen Degeneres even donated financial support (if I remember correctly) to the teachers. Also, just as Jersey City, Chester was under the management of the State. But I remember being so perplexed and I just couldn’t understand how in Chester city the school system was so poor and was ranked last in terms of performance and right next-door was Swarthmore and Media – which was the county seat – and the school system was so rich. In Chester City the value of the homes was so, so low and the value of the homes in Swarthmore and Media where so high, I mean there were extravagant and beautiful homes, and the quality of life was so different, dainty shops and a Trader Joe’s.

Think about this, I was being paid by Media Presbyterian Church and working with some of their young people in teaching a class and and preaching in this “high steeple” congregation, but part of my responsibilities was working in this urban neighborhood. By the way they loved me like I had been birthed on their pulpit. I was born in Brooklyn but spiritually I was shaped in Chester PA. But any way some days I would drive from Media Presbyterian Church through Media, through Swarthmore, through the back roads of million dollar homes with manicured lawns and within five minutes I was in an area where prostitution was a problem, where drugs were being sold heavily; there were murders, there were police shootings. And like pouring salt on a wound, A lot of the murders went unsolved. Even now there is national news being made in Chester about the murder rate and the unsolved murders – for such a small city there was and still is lot of violence and crime. During this time, I noticed the political way in which problems were solved.

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Keaton as a pastor in Chester, leading youth on a trip to Washington, DC

 

I’ll never forget the events leading up to the soccer stadium being opened in Chester for the first time. The grand opening was being touted as the beginning of economic development and opportunity [in this] otherwise economically depressed urban city with blocks of boarded up homes, high unemployment and the blight was thick as the fog in Los Angeles.. The soccer stadium and the political hoopla around the state-of- the-art center dominated the news in Chester and Philadelphia which the team was representing during the week leading up to the opening of the stadium, realizing that the stadium was going to to attract suburbanites The mayor and the police commissioner called a curfew which was very suspicious to a lot of people [in the community] because it sent the wrong message: Now we’re going to do something about the crime because we want to protect those who are coming down for the soccer events. The mindset of our leaders should be: The time to crack down on crime should be all the time, not just when it’s economically or politically advantageous. So it’s OK if the violence is poverty on poverty but to make outsiders feel safe, we’re going to try a new tactic? It sends a bad message. When it’s trendy we want a piece of it, but when it’s tragic – out of sight out of mind.

I see similarities in Jersey City to be frank. Example,I was invited to the Midnight Market downtown and I really was enjoying myself sampling the different foods soaking in the ambience of the waterfront. Then, within a ten to fifteen minute drive back to my residence, I felt like I was in a third world country as I drove through Ward F. The contrast of the two cities, really was that much more noticeable. The trash, the prostitutes, the dark streets, the liquor store on every corner, the poverty and suffering on MLK.

Here is a rhetorical question for you: If we allow our children to grow up in trash then what should our expectations be of the developing mindset and their dreams? Have we stopped to think that if a child grows up in trash, surrounded by trash, then maybe subconsciously they begin to wonder “maybe my life is worthless.” Or maybe they begin to believe, the kid down the street his life is worthless so I can shoot him down. Even though they played hide-and-seek together as kids.

In North Philly, where we did marches and rallies against gun violence, in the worse neighborhoods, on the worse corners, the trash you see walking that you do not see as you drive through is remarkably staggering. I see that here in Ward F, coincidentally on Martin Luther King Drive. In fact, I saw a shooting this past Christmas Day, which incidentally was a Sunday after I led worship – I was with my daughter and granddaughter in the car and the shots rang out. Children and the elderly running and ducking for cover together. Broad daylight. On Sunday, Christmas Day, on Martin Luther King Drive. Nothing is Sacred. Felt like I had ventured into a war zone. Very different vibe than that of the festive, exuberant and joyous atmosphere of the Midnight Market. Certainly a tale of two cities

I heard you once describe the atmosphere of Ward F as embodying a sense of hopelessness. To what do you attribute this? Can you describe what you meant by that?

Poverty breeds hopelessness and I think that prolonged periods of poverty saturate a person’s mind from the time that they are children, and can leave a permanent stain until the day they die. I think when you have generations stacked upon generations of suffering and oppression, there is this sense of apathy as if nothing is going to change.

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Listening session on re-entry

There is this feeling – and I’m just being honest – in Ward F, that City Hall does not care or has forgotten about Ward F, or has simply decided that, that area Ward F is not worth developing and the people are not worth developing. If Ward F could fund mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns, would it look that much different than downtown? The abatements end up downtown for a reason. Again, this is not me giving an assessment after a month or two, but after a year and a half of being in the neighborhood mingling with some of the ministries and with participants in a organization, that leases space in our building, and the listening sessions we have had.

The overwhelming sentiment is that no one cares about Ward F. The F stands for forgotten. Or the F, stands for the grade City Hall receives for letting one area be disproportionately be developed while other portions of the City deteriorate physically and spiritually. Many people in Ward F act as if no one cares that our public schools are under-funded; no one cares that drugs are being sold openly and aggressively in schools and on the corners as latch-key kids walk home from school. I just heard recently from someone who really was saddened by the fact that most of the children were not being fed or properly nurtured in the homes and they were coming to school hungry. Now if the children are coming to school hungry, then how are we expecting them to perform? If the children are hungry in Ward F, will they have the energy to sidestep the school to prison pipeline? The narrative that I’m hearing as a leader with Jersey City Together is that this has been an ongoing issue and no one cares – or at least that’s how it feels, that no one cares. Because if you cared, action speaks louder than words. Think about this, if you say “Jersey City is a safer city” and you tout this as an achievement, but the people in Ward F do not feel safer, then what is the subliminal message?

Ward F does not matter.

So if Ward F does not matter, than what emotion should I expect to overtake me? Hopelesness. If you tout, low unemployment and the establishment of 650 new businesses and that is not my reality in Ward F, then I am convinced that this part of the city has been left to fend for itself. In addition, if our leaders stand by and are silent as the truth is being stretched then I might begin to die spiritually. We really need to go back and read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s thoughts on tokenism and how tokenism stands in the way of true freedom and justice for all.

What kind of help do you need – from the city, law enforcement, the community, anyone – to help make Ward F a better place?

We need quality and authenticity. If a problem issue is identified then we should not rest until a quality, authentic solution has been identified. Too many times “shell” programs are inserted as a means to quiet the masses that feel disenfranchised. But after the crowd has dispersed, the ribbon been cut, the checks get cashed the doors get closed and we are left holding the bag. There are several programs that simply are not providing the services in a manner consistent with their claims. Again, as a person who is in Ward F, hearing the stories, we need quality and authentic programs providing measurable results in a transparent way. This is important because of the connectedness of the events in areas such as Ward F. If we do not provide quality re-entry and recidivism reducing programs should we be focusing on a persons record when someone is shot? [Ed. Note, see article: Should Fulop Have Publicly Discussed Slain 17-Year-Old’s Criminal Record?] Victim-blaming will not get us anywhere. In fact, the blame game is tricky because fingers get pointed in every direction. We have to take responsibility and work harder on solutions as opposed to justifying or rationalizing violence when it’s poor on poor.

What gives you hope for the neighborhood? What bright spots or success stories have you witnessed?

At Claremont Lafayette United Presbyterian Church I am proud of where we are now. We have worked hard to provide for the community not because of politics but because of the

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Claremont Lafayette and turkey dinners, 2015

Gospel. We have fed the needy the last two years giving away over 250 turkey meals. We have worked side-by-side with Jersey City Together with youth and education issues. We have promoted plays, started a re-entry program and raised $50k to go toward assisting ex-offenders and with the assistance of other leaders I am in the process of starting a Civic Trust in Jersey City. We are doing our part in the neighborhood paying for CCTV’s to monitor our property and make the community safer.

What gives me hope? I leave you with the words of a famous hymn, a hymn that has inspired hope for close to 150 years.

My hope is built on nothing less

Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand