A middle-aged man shared with me that as a bitter, young man he vandalized a building with swastikas and racial slurs. Now he is a member of a church in our Oak Park community. He shared this with me shortly before the prayer vigil that Community of Congregations hosted on behalf of Pilgrim Congregational Church, which was vandalized in the same way on August 19. He said that he understands how racial hatred can grow in a person’s heart—and that he thinks it important that people recognize that those who engage in hateful acts are hurting and isolated. He wants his story known. He also is a living example that we human beings are capable of growth and change, that we are not defined by a terrible action but by how we acknowledge our hurtful behavior, seek amends, and learn how to be in responsible relationship with others.
It was only a day earlier that I learned of the vandalism at Pilgrim. I was heartened that without even 24 hours notice, over 200 people attended our prayer vigil. It speaks to the commitment of our community to our collective well being—and our shared outrage at how the white nationalist movement that tacitly condones violence.
Six weeks ago I agreed to attend the 1,000 Minister March in Washington D.C. as part of a delegation of colleagues primarily from Chicago’s westside. The march on Monday August 28 was on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The aim of the march was to mobilize faith leaders to speak out more clearly and directly about the immorality of white supremacy and to change the moral conversation within politics and our public life.
The National Action Network, led by Rev. Al Sharpton, hoped to mobilize 1,000 religious leaders. Over 3,000 showed up, including 300 rabbis who organized the previous two weeks. I was honored to go and represent both my congregation at Unity Temple and the Community of Congregations.
After the white nationalist gathering and violence in Charlottesville, the march took on much greater significance. It’s scary. The fear and hatred of people who are “other” has always been with us but kept in check by our social mores. Several public leaders have been normalizing the rhetoric of the Ku Klux Klan, and thus normalizing the call to violence.
The moral conversation in our public life is eroding. Over the last few years, so many in our congregations have come to recognize that there is still a lot of work to do to achieve racial equity, even in Oak Park. And yet there is a growing movement to draw close and stand together to make a moral stand. I believe the majority of religious leaders in this nation share the conviction that hate-based perspectives do not reflect either our faith traditions or the core values of this nation.
We gathered near the Martin Luther King Memorial and marched to the Department of Justice. Several speeches were given before and after Protestant, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim and Catholic leaders. And then we marched to the Department of Justice, where further speeches were given, with Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Martin Luther King III, and Rev. Michael Eric Dyson providing the final statements.
The most cited reference to Dr. King was his declaration, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Several speakers noted that we must know what we value so that we are know we are willing to make sacrifices for what is right. And there was a call to resistance, to resist with love. It’s worthwhile to ponder what it means that “Love resists” especially in the way Dr. King lived out his commitments.
Rev. Marshall Hatch of New Mt Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago said to the crowd in front of the Department of Justice: “We are all in this together. We may have come on different ships—the Mayflower, the slave ship, the immigration ship, or across the Rio Grande, but we are now all in this together. Now is the time to lift the voice of the faith. Someone has to accept the assignment to halt our nation’s descent on the slippery slope of fascism and racism. This is not normal.”
Rabbi Jonah Pesner ended his powerful remarks saying, “We know we have the power as people of faith to act together and transform our society. We know when we stand together, when we love one another as neighbors, then we can hold our leaders accountable to a higher moral vision that transcends any one political party and any one administration, and that we can redeem the soul of our nation.”
One of the Jewish woman rabbis spoke of the upcoming High Holy Days and their Jewish prayer that at this time God will open the gates of righteousness. Then she said, “We are here to open the gates of righteousness, to open the gates of justice. We are here because it doesn’t look like our justice department is trying to do that. Lately it seems that our justice department is working overtime to close those gates and barricade them shut. To lock the gates to the voting booth, to lock the gates of private prisons after they have filling them to capacity, they want to lock the gates to this country, to lock the gates of our hospitals and our clinics. Today I stand with my bothers and sisters of faith to say that when our justice department closes the gates, together we will push them back open.”
However the words that stay with me the most came after the prayer vigil here in Oak Park. One of the attendees asked me, “What is the next step? I’m ready. What’s next?” I hope to have a clear answer in the near future. That’s the question we religious leaders need to be asking of ourselves and discussing with each other.