Hate Crime in the Neighborhood

We live in an increasingly polarized society. The hate speech in this presidential election season seems to have ginned up talking at and about one another, rather than talking with one another. It’s been said that prejudice comes when we ‘pre-judge’ without getting to know another’s story and perspective.

Here in Beverly, Massachusetts my friend Alison and I recently hosted an evening of conversation entitled: ‘A Rabbi and a Baptist Minister walk into a bar…’ It was intended as a light-hearted way to enter into the serious work of building bridges of understanding. Alison is the rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham and I’m on the pastoral staff at First Baptist Church.

Over a glass of beer or wine we invited members of our congregations to write down questions that we’d both respond to and then open up for wider conversation. We gathered to understand and respect our differences. We also quickly found that we have much in common. After an hour or so we said, ‘let’s do this again’!

At the end of the evening it seemed like a modest step in the long journey of building understanding, respect and friendship.

A week later I saw on the news (myfoxboston.com) that Temple B’nai Abraham had been vandalized. A dollar sign and the words ‘Merry Christmas’ were spray-painted in large letters on the exterior walls near the back door of the temple.

Temple B'nai Abraham

“It’s probably a seven on the Richter scale of stupid,” said temple president Alan Pierce. “It’s hateful, it’s hurtful, and it’s something that needs to wake up the community as to why this happens.”

Rabbi Alison Adler said, with other recent incidents of anti-Semitism occurring locally and globally, she was not surprised by the incident.

“Even if it was a stupid decision by someone, I think what we want to talk about… are the underlying things it might cause,” Adler said. “I think the conversation isn’t just going to be about the vandalism, but really about what propels concerns or fears.”

The temple was targeted once before, in 1989, when a swastika was painted on the front of the building, Mr.Pierce said. “We made the decision to cover it over, but not cover it up. Acts of anti-Semitism or racial intolerance or bigotry or gay bashing are happening in the schools and happening in people’s homes and it’s affecting all of us.”

This is personal for Rabbi Alison and her community at Temple B’nai Abraham. It’s personal for me too.

Vandalism has defiled the walls of the beautiful temple just one block from my house. Hate speech has been inflicted upon friends with whom I broke bread and shared a beer just a week ago. It grieves me that Alison and her family who welcomed my wife and me into their home for Passover, are the victims of hate speech with a Christian subtext. This is personal.

passover with Rabbi Alison

What is the antidote to intolerance? I think it begins with moving outside our own circle and recognizing that there is no ‘them’, there is only ‘us’. The antidote to prejudice is getting to know someone from a different circle, with a different perspective.

The antidote is as simple as sharing a meal.

It’s not about building walls it’s about tearing them down. It’s about building friendships. It’s about coming together.  Who are you planning on getting to know?

Martin of the Poor

The last major speech Dr. King delivered, four days before his assassination, was on poverty at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968. Dr. King´s sermon was entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” containing the quote below:

“There is another thing closely related to racism that I would like to mention as another challenge. We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen this poverty in Asia; I see this poverty in the United States.”

Poverty is a reality in Massachusetts where I live: According to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless http://www.mahomeless.org/advocacy/basic-facts 728,514 people live below the poverty line; in 2013 19,209 people experienced homelessness; in the 2012-2013 academic year 15,812 students were homeless; on Nov. 25, 2014 4800 families with children were living in shelters. The level of poverty in this state is double what it was in 1990.

In the face of these daunting statistics, on this anniversary of Dr. King’s birthday what would Martin have us do?

photo Dr King marching

I think he’d encourage us to get involved in local initiatives like Family Promise. In my community Christians and Jews partner to house three homeless families at a time in our places of worship.

He’d encourage interfaith worship gatherings that reminds us to work together. In the town I live we will conclude our interfaith worship with a candlelight procession to a corner of our main street (Cabot Street). We will stand in solidarity with our neighbors who are homeless. For a few moments we will feel the bitter weather that accompanies those who camp in doorways and alleys.

Dr. King would remind us that beyond offering kindness to our neighbors we are to understand and confront the political, economic and social factors that push so many into homelessness and poverty.

He’d invite us to wrestle with these words: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Dr. King’s dream of a world governed by equality and compassion remains compelling and elusive. His words are rooted in the wisdom of Jesus who said, ‘whatever you do (or don’t do) to the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers, you do (or don’t do) unto me.’

The dream continues to capture our heart and imagination. The opportunities to serve are on our very doorstep. Let’s get to work.

Note: If you live in Beverly, MA join us for interfaith worship January 19 2015 7 p.m. St Peter’s Episcopal Church 4 Ocean Street; First Parish and First Baptist Beverly partner to house 3 families with Family Promise January 25 – Feb 1 contact either church if you’d like to help. Beyond Beverly, find partners in your local community, religious and secular to make a difference.