Tree of Life

Saturday morning I attended a board meeting in Pittsburgh, for a public health ministry in Nicaragua.  We chose Pittsburgh because of civil unrest in Nicaragua,  It wasn’t safe for us to travel.   Our board’s focus was on how to provide access to health care, in the midst of growing violence and uncertainty in that country.  We chose Pittsburgh because it was easy to get to and considered safe.

As we met, several miles down the road, a man with an assault rifle entered Tree of Life Synagogue and murdered eleven Jews gathered for worship.   They were the ‘minyans’ mainly older faithful Jews, who gather early, to begin the Saturday morning Shabbat services.   Others, such as busy parents, would  join them as their schedules allowed.  The role of the minyan is to hold the sacred space, for others to join them.

It was a typical Shabbat, until a white male with a history of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant rhetoric, broke in and murdered eleven…wounded several others, including four police officers.

We all thought Pittsburgh was safe.

The reality is we live in a volatile time.  Barack Obama as the first African-American elected president, led to a dramatic increase in white supremacist organizations.  Donald Trump’s political ascendency and presidency is based in part, on  promoting an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.  A focus on division rather than unity.

This week that division was evident:  Pipe bombs mailed to over 14 leaders within the Democratic Party; two African-Americans murdered at a grocery store, after the assailant was turned away from an African-American Church; eleven Jews murdered while worshiping.  Each act of violence by a white supremacist.  An ideology which finds encouragement (intentional or not), in the freewheeling rhetoric of our highest elected official.

So what is the antidote to hate and division?

The answer is simple yet profound:  Building relationships.  It’s hard to label a person or be indifferent to their plight, once you know their name, their story.

Sunday night, we gathered as a community at Temple B’nai Abraham.  My friend Rabbi Alison Adler, on only several hours of notice, gathered together 300 neighbors, from ten different faith communities, to grieve the atrocity visited upon Tree of Life Synagogue. We gathered too, in response to the nationwide increase in anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant violence.

Passover at the home of Rabbi Alison.

We came together to remember that we belong to one another.  At the Temple I said: ” I am here tonight because Rabbi Alison is my friend.  Her family and my family have been in each other’s home.  We have broken bread, played and prayed together.  And, because we are friends, when someone messes with my friend (anti-Semitism) they are messing with me.  I am responsible to and accountable for the well-being of my friend (s).”

The antidote to hate and violence is found in relationship building.  I challenge myself and you, to get to know those who are different from you. Get to know neighbors of different religions, ethnicities, race, nation of origin, sexual orientation, political perspective, languages.  Listen to one another’s story.  Let the other get to know you.

If you don’t have enough diversity in your life, then get out of your zip code.  Reach out. Find ways to rub elbows.  Break bread, sip wine, play games, talk with… someone who is different than you.

As relationships are built, prejudices based on ignorance, melt away.  The rhetoric of fear and the house of cards it is built upon, collapses.

The poet William Stafford, writes ‘the real enemy, is the one who whispers in your ear, telling you who to hate’.  As citizens, as neighbors, may we be wary of those who sow division.

On Sunday night, Temple B’nai Abraham was a beautiful mosaic of faiths and backgrounds.  We gathered to grieve with and draw strength from the company of one another.

Jesus said, ‘perfect love, casts out fear’.  May it be so.  For all of us.

 

 

 

 

 

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?

Breaking Bread

A common denominator for the human condition is eating. Everybody has to eat and the act of breaking bread creates space for relationships to be formed. Some recent memorable meals include: Enjoying home-made potato soup with neighbors of the church I serve. Three times each week volunteers provide simple, delicious food for neighbors with tight budgets or living on the streets. I’ve gotten to know neighbors by name and those new friendships go beyond the dinner table. We bemoan another slow start by the Red Sox and sometimes go deeper by sharing our struggles. While the circumstances of life may differ we find that we have so much in common.

photo of shared meal

This past week I enjoyed gayo pinto and fried plantain in Nicaragua. I serve on the board of an organization called AMOS which empowers rural communities to improve their health care practices. Board meetings by definition are intensive and include looking at important but mundane topics like budgets and personnel policies. It is over a lunch that we renew, refuel and build relationships so essential for a healthy functioning organization.

This Friday my wife and I are invited to a table for Passover. Alison is a rabbi and our friend. Her husband Chuck is an amazing chef. Their son Leo is a wonderfully creative little boy. Rabbi Alison and family will host an eclectic group of 21 in their home. Over the Seder Meal we will tell the ancient story of Israel’s journey from slavery to freedom. In the breaking of the bread we remember our shared need and the opportunity it provides for the common good.

In my Christian tradition the Eucharist is a ritual for communing with God and with each other. When we ‘break bread’ together we remember who we are as we remember ‘the One and the ones’ to whom we each belong.

Breaking bread reminds us that too often people are excluded intentionally or unintentionally from the table by prejudice. Prejudice means we ‘pre-judge’ others without getting to know their story, learn their name and let them know who we are. Some in our political climate seek to build walls of fear and intolerance. They would have us judge and fear those we don’t know.

phot of table

The antidote to fear and prejudice is simple. All we need do is invite those we don’t yet know, to sit at our table or to look for an unfamiliar table and draw up a chair. It’s amazing what happens when we choose to break bread with others.