Alexie Torres-Fleming’s mother had a dream at the turn of the millennium.
In the dream, her mother was sitting in church, and people were lined outside, pleading for help and crying out, “Lord, when are you coming?” God was silent. The people kept shouting louder and louder until God asked the crowd, “When are you coming?”
Torres-Fleming, founder of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice in the Bronx, delivered her lecture, “The Spirit of Justice in Beloved Community,” at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy. She addressed the role of the church in current issues of changing livable communities.
After generations of abject poverty, Torres-Fleming’s parents came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico only to find themselves in the poorest congressional district in the country: the South Bronx in New York City.
There, Torres-Fleming witnessed the implementation of urban renewal and planned shrinkage that forced residents out of their communities, including her own. Though fires ravaged her neighborhoods — acts of arson to collect insurance money from properties — she felt a deeper connection to her community as it crumbled around her.
“There’s a tremendous amount of power, love and community there that many people don’t quite understand because you haven’t seen it or lived it,” Torres-Fleming said.
She structured her life around the backbone of family in a poor, neglected community to strive to figure out what it means to be incarnate, she said.
Torres-Fleming recounted a story of her grandfather, who only ate food around the edge of the plate because he wanted to be able to offer the rest to anyone who came to his door.
“I was taught very, very young that the virtue of poverty is generosity,” she said. “Nowhere is that more true than amongst the poor folks in the South Bronx.”
As a child, Torres-Fleming responded to such nicknames as “negrita” or “la princesa” — endearing words of hope in her native Spanish language. As she grew older, she became another at-risk statistic in her downtrodden neighborhood, one pegged with the potential of becoming pregnant, dropping out of school, taking drugs or engaging in violence, she said.
“People saw me by my potential problems and pathologies and not by my potential,” Torres-Fleming said.
She was told to get as far away from the South Bronx as possible, to disconnect with and escape from her community to become successful. When she made it in the outside world, she would then have the opportunity to give back.
It was only after she had taken a job under David Rockefeller that she had noticed she had “everything to live with, but nothing to live for.” Torres-Fleming questioned whether she had become a true follower in the eyes of God, and she returned to the South Bronx to be with her congregation as they marched through the crime-riddled streets.
Following her return, a group associated with the local drug culture vandalized and burned her church. Torres-Fleming, her father and 1,200 others again took to the streets of the South Bronx to defend their community.
“ ‘This, Alexie — this is what power is,’ ” Torres-Fleming recalled her father saying that day.
Marginalized people were able to reclaim the power that had been revealed to them, she said, and they set aside their differences to fight for their dignity.
Soon after the march, Torres-Fleming founded the Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice and called for a larger shift of momentum at the church level, regardless of faith.
“We must, as a people of faith, reimagine and reshape and reclaim the power as we truly understand it, as it is truly revealed to us in our sacred text, whatever our texts are,” Torres-Fleming said. “It does not look like the power that we have assumed and have tried to buy into as a people of faith in the United States.”
A livable community does not exclude those of basis of racial, gender or economic status, and the ability to connect, to belong and account for value and success is right around us, Torres-Fleming said. She quoted Martin Luther King Jr., urging people to reassess how the church addresses current issues and how it has fallen into the past.
“The church has to be reminded that it is not a master or servant of the state, but it is the conscious of the state,” Torres-Fleming said. “How are we serving as the conscience of our leaders here in this country? We must be a guide and a critic of the state and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become no more than an irrelevant social club without any moral or spiritual authority.”
With news of racial intolerance, issues of gender and sexual orientation and economic inequality dominating national headlines, Torres-Fleming called for the church to re-evaluate how it addresses these issues.
“If the church will free itself from the shackles of the deadening status quo and recover its greatest historic mission and speak and act fearlessly and insistently it terms of justice and peace, it will kindle the imagination of mankind and set fire to the souls of men,” she said.