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 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 Aug. 19.
He said he understands how racial hatred can grow in a person’s heart — and that people are able to change and grow. 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 hate is not best met with hate but with love.
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 to our shared outrage toward 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 West Side. The aim of the march, which took place on Monday, Aug. 28, the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, 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.
After the white nationalist gathering and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, 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. Just as there is a growing movement of white nationalists and neo-Nazis, so there is a growing movement of people of faith and people of goodwill willing to stand together to resist hateful bigotry and bullying. 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.
The National Action Network, led by Rev. Al Sharpton, hoped to mobilize 1,000 religious leaders to come together in D.C. Over 3,000 showed up on Aug. 28, including 300 rabbis who organized just in the previous two weeks. I was honored to go and represent both my congregation at Unity Temple and the Community of Congregations.
We gathered near the Martin Luther King Memorial and marched to the Department of Justice. Speeches were delivered by Protestant, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim and Catholic leaders. Then we marched to the Justice Department, where further speeches were given, with Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Martin Luther King III, and Rev. Michael Eric Dyson providing 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 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 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 with, “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, when Jews pray that God will open the gates of righteousness. “We are here to open the gates of righteousness,” she said, “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 filled 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 brothers 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, “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 grappling with.
Alan Taylor is president of the Community of Congregations and the senior minister at Unity Temple.