Pastor Kenneth Flowers and I met one day in 1991 at a meeting of African American pastors and rabbis convened by my late colleague, Rabbi Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. Harvey called the meeting after several years of widening alienation between the religious leadership of the Los Angeles African American and Jewish communities that resulted in part after a disturbing appearance in Los Angeles by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan at the Los Angeles Forum where he spoke before 15,000 of his faithful. Farrakhan angrily made blatantly disparaging remarks about Jews, the Holocaust, and the State of Israel. Mayor Tom Bradley, the first African American Mayor of Los Angeles, called Farrakhan out and charged his remarks as antisemitic.
Despite the mayor’s close friendship with the leadership of the Los Angeles Jewish community, the former civil rights alliance during the years of Dr. King had diminished. This meeting was meant to help restore friendship amongst Black and Jewish clergy and, hopefully, between Los Angeles’ African American churches and synagogues.
Pastor Ken Flowers was by far the youngest person in the room at the time (about 32 years-old). I was ten years his senior, but also among the youngest clergy present. We gravitated towards each other after the meeting, felt an easy affinity, and agreed to bring our two congregations (Messiah Baptist Church on West Adams in South Los Angeles and Temple Israel of Hollywood on Hollywood Blvd.) together so our respective congregants could come to know one another. It was a wonderful shidduch (match) between Ken and me personally and between our two congregations.
Ken preached at Temple Israel on Martin Luther King’s birthday weekend and I preached annually at Messiah Baptist Church. Ken lit one of six candles each year on Yom HaShoah representing righteous non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust alongside our synagogue’s survivors and children of survivors. Following the 1994 Los Angeles Earthquake, I opened our synagogue chapel to his congregation for Sunday worship when his church building was orange-tagged (i.e. unsafe until it could be retro-fitted according to city code). We shared cultural events, our respective musical traditions, and ethnic food as one but diverse community of culture and faith. Our respective congregants were inspired by Ken’s and my friendship and many made friendships of their own. It was a model of what could be, but it was cut short when Ken took a new position in Detroit, Michigan and the leaders of Messiah Baptist Church backed away from what Ken and I called our “covenant relationship.”
This past week, journalist Robin Washington, who wrote about our relationship in 1992 following the acquittal of four members of the LAPD who brutally beat black motorist Rodney King and the riots that spread throughout Los Angeles, contacted both Ken and me for a “follow-up” article – 30 years later!
As Robin notes, Ken’s and my memories of our time together are surprisingly similar despite the passage of time, and our enduring affection for one another and our affinity for what’s important in each other’s communities continues.
This blog appears also at the Times of Israel – https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-light-still-shines-after-30-years-a-story-of-a-black-jewish-friendship/
Robin’s article appears in The Forward this week: https://forward.com/news/501109/john-rosove-kenneth-flowers-l-a-1992-rodney-king/