By Clyde Hughes
The issue of legalizing marijuana in New Jersey is not one that many would not expect to find the pastor of a church, but Rev. Charles Boyer, a third-general African Methodist Episcopal minister, is determined to see beyond the murky politics of the issue and embrace social justice cause behind it.
If one knows anything about Boyer and his unflinching commitment to social justice in the state over the past several years, then it is not a surprise that he has become one of the leading voices in the crusade in the legalization fight.
The pastor of Bethel AME Woodbury Church and founder of the organization Salvation and Social Justice, Boyer has seen how African-Americans, particularly men, have had their lives ruined by arrest records from small amounts of marijuana. Those records limits their prospects on jobs, along with their participation in the legal, educational and political arenas.
As the state prepares (possibly) to legalize the social use of marijuana, Boyer has stepped forward to make sure that those people are not forgotten and are no longer punished for something that could now be legal.
“The fact is that I was not really out there fighting for marijuana legalization until a bill was out,” Boyer told FrontRunnerNewJersey.com this month. “Marijuana prohibition is still fairly new. It’s only been illegal over the past several decades. The whole reason it was made illegal was to control blacks and Mexicans. The laws were very racialized.
“When you linked that with the War on Drugs, the Nixon administration and the linkage to the prison industrial complex, it became a mechanism to continue the enslavement of black people,” he added. … Hardly any other faith leader who would step into that space because they are afraid of the taboos.
“Who’s going to speak up for the people in prison and people whose lives have been destroyed? Who will speak for those whose records have been tainted for the rest of their lives and can’t be employed? Who’s going to look beyond their own self-interest and look beyond the cultural taboos and social stigmas? I felt it was important to be in that fight to lift the morale voice,” he said, sounding every bit like the AME preacher he is.
While marijuana legalization is one of Boyer’s major issues, it’s hardly the only one taken on by Salvation and Social Justice. His group was one of the leading voice in requiring bills and regulations related to criminal justice to project their impact on communities of color. The campaign lead to then Republican Gov. Chris Christie signing the racial impact statement bill before he left office in January 2018.
“Most people thought that was not an issue and that we could never get it done in New Jersey, especially with Christie as governor,” Boyer said. “We were able to make the case and he signed it while he was going out the door.”
Boyer led campaigns to have the AME church formally recognize mass incarceration as a major priority and represented the church in several capacities including, the United States Senate regarding solitary confinement and the House of Representatives for gun violence. Salvation and Social Justice continues to hold community forums around the state giving residents a chance to speak on police brutality, gun violence and other issues. He has been recognized by NAACP, ACLU, Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey, New Jersey Black Issues Conference, Fair Share Housing Center, among other groups for his work.
More recently, Salvation and Social Justice has pushed for the abolition of youth prisons and the expansion of healthcare for all children. He has put his feeling in the book he co-authored “The Covenant Project to Eradicate Mass Incarceration an AME Strategic Response to Mass Incarceration.”
Boyer said his interested in social justice has been with him since attending the Payne Theological Seminary, the oldest free standing African-American seminary in the United States, started by the AME church in Wilberforce, Ohio in 1894.
“It helped me understand what God had called me to do,” Boyer said. “I realized my call was to be an abolitionist for the slavery of our day, which is incarceration and structural racism. I’ve never been amazed in the way God breaks chains and opens doors for you.
“A lot of what we do is coalition building. We’ve come to work with some really great black organizations and leaders. We’ve been able to fill that theological and moral space working along side various civil rights organizations to fight for rights and lift people up,” he continued.
Boyer said, though, that he believes the black church has been missing in many of the critical issues facing African-Americans today. It was the black church that led the charge to strike down segregationist laws in the South and the United States during the Civil Rights movement, even in face of intimidation and domestic terrorism.
“I really believe many of the things we are doing through today because so many of the black clergy has left the fight and aligned themselves with the power structure instead of taking a prophetic stands,” Boyer said.
“The rise of the prosperity gospel has been detrimental to the black community as a whole. It has really undermined the influence of the black community and the black church as an institution. History has proved it out that there is power (in issues) when a black preacher is involved,” he added.
Salvation and Social Justice organization seeks looks at public policy through theology, by building faith-rooted communication strategies, advocacy, and perspectives, to lift up poor, underserved and traditionally oppressed communities with a particular focus on racial justice through abolition, restoration, transformation and coalition.
Boyer said the Salvation and Social Justice is a little over a year old but actually started as a blog he started to voice his view about public issues about five years ago. From there, it has morphed into its own organization and has become a statewide force on racial issues.
“If you would have asked me five years ago if we would accomplish what we have, I would not have been so confident,” Boyer said. “It’s absolutely critical to be involved, especially the black faith community. Without the black faith community, we would not have emancipation, the NAACP or the Civil Rights Movement. We are called to do this work.”
As New Jersey moves to green light marijuana use, Boyer said while some companies and others in the statehouse see the issue as a money grab, he cares more about justice for those who have used and been jailed.
“We know that there are some major corporation interest involved,” Boyer said. “I want to make sure the justice element is part of it. I don’t want us to look 20 to 30 years later and say they legalized marijuana and kept all of those people in prison. I wanted to do everything I can to keep that from happen.”
Boyer said he could not do what he does at Bethel AME or with Salvation and Social Justice without the support of his wife Rosalee Boyer. He calls her his partner and a force in her own right.
“I can’t express enough how blessed I am,” Boyer said. “It is not like my wife does her thing and I do my thing. This is two of us working together. She does a tremendous amount of the background work to keep this moving.
“I cannot overstate how she keep these things moving. Whether in social justice or the sanctuary, God has brought us together,” he added.s Boyer said while Salvation and Social Justice “does a lot with a little,” he would not turn down help and to hear from those who want to help. He said he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 856-318-4529.
Photos courtesy of Rev. Charles & Rosalee Boyer, Bethel AME Woodbury.