Wearing a camouflage shirt emblazoned with purple Greek letters spelling out Omega Psi Phi, Ronald Slaughter could have easily been mistaken for a college student volunteering with his fraternity one Saturday this month while picking up garbage with a crew of other civic-minded individuals in Newark’s Central Ward.
His wide smile reveals a set of braces, further reinforcing the impression of Slaughter as a friendly young man yearning to give back to the community.
Yet despite his youthful appearance, Slaughter is in his 20th year in the ministry and recently celebrated five years as pastor of Saint James AME Church on Martin Luther King Blvd. in Newark.
Being pastor of the largest African Methodist Episcopal Church in New Jersey naturally lends itself to playing a leadership role in New Jersey, especially in matters of social justice.
But in the five years since taking the helm of Saint James from the Rev. William Watley, the 40-year old Slaughter is emerging as one of the state’s leading voices on issues of social justice, like fair wages, access to healthcare and racism at a state university.
“Everything I do as pastor of Saint James is for the people and community,” Slaughter said. “When people come to me about injustice, racism, sexism and discrimination on their jobs or communities it cuts me to the core.”
At his fifth anniversary services on June 12, a Who’s Who of state leaders came to pay their respects, including one announced gubernatorial candidate, Phil Murphy, and another likely candidate, Senate President Steve Sweeney. A third likely candidate, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, came a few days earlier, though his political ally and confidant, former Gov. James McGreevey, also attended one of the services on Sunday.
Also in attendance were former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli, former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, State Sen. Sandra Cunningham, Essex County Freeholder Wayne Richardson, Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura, Newark Police and Fire Director Anthony Ambrose, Newark Council President Mildred Crump and Newark Public Schools Superintendent Chris Cerf.
Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer, Newark Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins and Newark Public School Advisory Board member Dashay Carter, who are all members of Saint James, were also there.
The last African-American ministerial leader to command that kind of statewide influence was Reginald Jackson, who as head of the Black Minister’s Council, brought attention to the issue of racial profiling in the State Police in the 1990s.
Jackson, who was the pastor of Saint Matthew AME in Orange, was elected a bishop in the AME church. He is currently assigned to the 20th Episcopal District, serving the countries of Malawi, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, but has kept his eye on Slaughter from afar.
“I see a lot of myself in this young man,” Jackson said. “He is a man of courage and deep conviction. He is filling a much-needed role in New Jersey as a warrior for social justice.”
Already, Slaughter has taken a leading role in saving Saint Michael’s Medical Center in Newark, organizing a coalition of ministers and community members to urge the administration of Gov. Chris Christie to approve the sale of the hospital to Prime Healthcare Services. After a three-year delay, the Christie administration blessed the sale in the spring and the hospital remains open.
Chaneyfield Jenkins credits Slaughter along with Bishop Jethro James, president of the Newark/North Jersey Committee of Black Churchmen, the Rev. Perry Simmons, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church and the Rev. Leslie Ramos, pastor of LHC La Hermosa Church, for getting the community behind Saint Michael’s.
“Pastor Slaughter played a key role in saving 1,400 jobs and preserving healthcare for residents of this city,” Chaneyfield Jenkins said. “And our young pastor is only beginning to feel his oats. As time passes, he will become the leader for social justice that our city and state so desperately need.”
Chaneyfield Jenkins noted that in addition to the dignitaries that were invited to his anniversary service, Slaughter also reached out to her to request the presence of men from GEO Newark Residential Reentry Center on Sussex Avenue, who helped with the cleanup in the Central Ward the Saturday before the anniversary service.
“How many pastors would think about those five gentlemen being there,” Chaneyfield Jenkins said.
Slaughter has also taken on what he calls institutional racism at Kean University and has called for the resignation of Kean President Dawood Farahi, which has put the pastor on the opposite side of the powerful Sen. Raymond Lesniak of Union County, who supports Farahi.
Slaughter has also been critical of Kean’s hiring of Rev. Michael Blackwell, who is African American, to review and evaluate data related to University employment practices, trends and affirmative action procedures. Slaughter called the report Blackwell produced that found no bias at Kean “flimsy” and is awaiting the results of a more thorough investigation by former state Supreme Court Justice John Wallace.
“I got involved in social justice because of a genuine passion to see people free, treated fairly and for a community to reach is fullest potential,” Slaughter said. “America should be better than this. However, America or the person that perpetuates injustice, racism and discrimination will never change unless truth is spoken to them.”
Slaughter knows first hand that picking fights with powerful people has consequences. He’s been the target of an anonymous social media campaign to discredit him after he raised concerns about Blackwell.
“Speaking truth to power is dangerous and can cost you your life or reputation,” he said. “Yet it is necessary if your passion is sincerely seeing people free and communities made whole. You can't do that by preaching alone. Dr. Martin Luther King used the pulpit and his influence to help others and not himself. I seek to do the same in my role as Pastor. When you take care of God's people, God will take care of you.”
Slaughter grew up in inner city Orlando, where his brother now works as an FBI Agent. He said he was taught the importance of family and the power of education. Slaughter attended Paine College on a basketball scholarship, the Interdenominational Theological Center and is currently enrolled at Wesley Theological Center pursuing his doctoral degree.
Slaughter said growing up in the South, he became more than just a casual fan of Dr. King.
“I wanted to emulate him in every aspect of my life,” Slaughter said. “Dr. King once said, ‘A minister cannot preach the glories of heaven while ignoring social conditions in his/her own community that cause men and women an earthly hell’.”
Prior to landing at Saint James, Slaughter spent most of his ministry in the deep south, at churches in Augusta, Haddock and Macon, all in Georgia.
When Slaughter got word from Bishop Richard Franklin Norris, who oversaw New Jersey until 2012, that he was being considered for a position in Newark, he was at first reluctant to take it.
While Slaughter was familiar with New Jersey because he would come on occasion to preach at Saint Matthew’s in Orange at the invitation of the Rev. Jackson, he said he had no reason to leave his home. The church where he was serving as pastor, Saint Paul A.M.E. in Macon, was growing as was his young family. His wife, Kyla Trinette, was pregnant with their son and he was reluctant to uproot his family.
“Bishop Norris said it would be an opportunity of a lifetime and that God personally showed him me,” Slaughter said. “It was a high honor considering the bishop was basically saying out of all the people he could've chosen, God sent him to Macon to choose me. God has a history of choosing the least likely from Moses, to Joshua to David, to Peter to Paul to carry out God’s vision.”
At 34, Slaughter was the youngest pastor to ever lead Saint James. During his time at Saint James, Slaughter said he liquidated more than $600,000 in debt, added over 800 new families to the church, increased the membership of a second location in South Orange and provided scholarships and financial assistance for church members attending college. A separate organization, the Saint James Social Service Corp., feeds homeless and provides after school care for youngsters. The church has also partnered Marion P. Thomas Charter School.
But more than any of those accomplishments, Slaughter is most proud that he has moved the church into social action. His social action ministry meets once a month and has registered more than 1,000 voters.
“The Black Church must be a voice for the voiceless and not some social holy club that gathers twice or three times a week,” Slaughter said. “Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples. But is also our responsibility to treat everyone we come into contact with like family and to assist them by meeting their needs. You cannot do that with a simple Sunday morning get together. It has to become a lifestyle.”
Slaughter’s next big project is to build a new church on Martin Luther King Blvd., across the street from the current church. Saint James has already purchased four parcels for $475,000 valued at more than $700,000, Slaughter said, without borrowing any money.
The 43,000 square foot church was designed by Newark architect Wilson “Chuck” Woodridge, who also worked on the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Like NJPAC, the new church will have a large wall of windows that allow those inside to see the community outside and visa versa. It is a literal interpretation of a portion of Saint James service when the doors are opened to the community as in invitation for anyone outside to come in.
Slaughter sees the church, which is expected to be built by 2020, as a part of the transformation of MLK Blvd. and he is working with the city’s housing authority to accomplish that vision.
“It is my vision to transform this corridor and make it the premier MLK corridor in the country,” Slaughter said. “Saint James wants MLK Blvd. in Newark to be the street people run to rather than away from. The church will not only be a place of worship but a place of refuge, safety and hope for the community. Our willingness to invest in an urban blighted community demonstrates our commitment to Newark and belief that we can build families and meet needs right in the inner city and don't have to run to the suburbs.”