SWAMPSCOTT – The Rev. Dr. Andre Bennett, pastor of youth and young adults at Zion Baptist Church in Lynn, said he was not lost when police in several tony North Shore suburbs pulled him over last year.
Bennett was out front with the Black Lives Matter movement, community organizing and racial justice in 2020.
“But I’ve been pulled over in Swampscott. I’ve been pulled over in Marblehead. I’ve been pulled over in Beverly. I’ve been pulled over in Manchester-by-the-Sea in 2020, and asked in all of these incidents one single question: ‘Are you lost?’ OK. I didn’t stop a police officer to ask for directions. I’ve been pulled over and asked these questions: ‘Are you lost? Do you need help with something?’ OK. That’s the reality of the North Shore in 2020.”
His being stopped because he is Black is just one of the examples Bennett gave in talking about racial and social injustice at a local level during the third installment of the virtual speaker series hosted by the Tzedek LaKol: Justice for All initiative at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott.
“We Shall Not Be Silent: Conversations on Race,” previously heard from former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Rav Tiferet Berenbaum of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline.
On April 27, Bennett spoke via Zoom to an audience of 175 about the local impact of racial justice in a nearly hour-long talk moderated by former Vermont lawmaker Jerry Kreitzer of Winthrop, who belongs to Shirat Hayam.
Bennett serves as president of the Essex County Community Organization, which is made up of 39 congregations and the North Shore Labor Council.
Bennett said he gets pulled over because he is told it looks like he is not from the area.
“I don’t know, Jerry,” Bennett said, “what it looks like. I couldn’t look at you and tell you what area you look like you belong to … That’s not the training that I have. And if that is the training that our police department has, then that in and of itself is a major, major issue.”
Bennett outlined for viewers his path to North Shore. He came to the United States 12 years ago from Jamaica. It was supposed to be an 18-month stay after his wife at the time had been recruited by an organization looking for special education teachers. Bennett joined her in the United States with their kids with plans to return to Jamaica.
“Twelve years later I’m having this conversation with you from here in the United States,” Bennett said of his journey. “I didn’t go home.”
It was about two weeks after he arrived that for the first time he was made to feel like a Black man in America after an interaction with a police officer.
“And the way in which I was treated and spoken to, I realized that this could not just be the ordinary,” Bennett said.
The terms of his visa limited his ability to work, but required he be in school and do community service.
He began working at a hospice in Middleton, and became involved in the Follow Hymn interfaith choir, which introduced him to the Lynn community.
Bennett, who has a deep respect for police as his mother was an assistant superintendent of police in Jamaica, came to the U.S. having completed two bachelor’s degrees, in education and business administration, and he was in the first year of a master’s program. But when he came to the U.S., he had to start over.
He registered for classes at North Shore Community College and took a certificate program in developmental disabilities. He won a scholarship from North Shore for an associate’s degree and went on to the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he completed his master’s degree and his Doctor of Education. He was also elected to serve on the board of The American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts.
“And I remember my first meeting, there was a committee that I served on called … Discipleship Development Training Ministry, and I walked in the room in Groton, Mass.,” said Bennett. “I walked in the room and everybody around the table was introducing themselves and they were all reverend doctors, they were all white men.” The youngest person there was about 55.
“And I thought to myself, my God, if I am to stand a chance in the American Baptist Churches, I’ve got to step my game up,” Bennett said. He applied to seminary while he studying at UMass and he completed his doctorate in education, doctorate in theology and doctorate in ministry simultaneously.
He said he came from Jamaica, a deeply conservative, mostly Christian nation, with the notion that politics and ministry shouldn’t mix.
When he started at Zion Baptist Church 10 years ago, the first thing he declared from the pulpit was that he was not going to entertain the race conversation.
“What a fool I was, now that I look back on it,” Bennett said. His son turned 6 shortly after they came to America, and Bennett said his son began having nightmares about some of the interactions he had with police while driving. Mothers at church would talk to him about how their sons would be arrested for what seemed like shoplifting. He started to realize through these “aha moments” that the work of social justice is not political, it’s sacred.
“And I’m thinking to myself … How am I going to be preparing people for heaven when they are living in hell, literal hell here on Earth?” Bennett said.
Kreitzer said Bennett talks about how one needs to have a personal reckoning regarding the inequities of race.
“Without question, we have to look inside before we can look outside,” Kreitzer said.
“It’s a hard thing to do,” Bennett said, “It’s a very hard thing to do. In essence, what I’m asking you to do, Jerry, and those other people who are joining this webinar … what I’m asking you to do is to step outside everything that you know to be true and comfortable to yourself. That’s what I’m asking you to do, and to see the world through the eyes of those who are suffering discrimination, and ‘otherism’ and oppression.”
Tzedek LaKol planned to meet virtually with the congregation on May 3 to seek ways to move from conversation to action.