Communal leaders from various faiths and regions shared thoughts and strategies on combating hate during last week’s “Unifying our Communities in Response to Hate Conference” at the August Wilson Center. For three hours, the presenters implored attendees to embrace neighbors, offer forgiveness and find courage to change.
Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha reiterated a months-old pledge to refrain from uttering the word “hate.”
“‘H’ speech leads to ‘h’ crime,” said Myers, whose congregation’s home was the target of the Oct. 27 anti-Semitic attack that killed 11 worshippers. By rejecting the word, we can “tone down the rhetoric.”
Personal transformation will impact society, noted Rev. Eric S.C. Manning of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., target of a fatal 2015 mass shooting. “We all breathe, we all have goals, we all have dreams, we all have aspirations,” said Manning. “And I think realistically for a community to change, we have to have the courage to look in to see what really unites us, because when we come together, then we begin to understand that we can change the impact. … We can change the trajectory of where we are and what we’re doing.”
In the aftermath of his congregation losing nine African-American worshippers, the Mother Emanuel community has attempted to heal, said Manning. “Charleston still has a long way to go, and I don’t stand here … saying that Charleston has figured it out, but we are on the path of working together.”
Pardeep Singh Kaleka and Arno Michaelis explored the road ahead by sharing histories and current actions in a discussion with Robert Reed, Pennsylvania’s executive deputy attorney general. Kaleka’s father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, was one of six people killed by a white supremacist in a 2012 shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. Michaelis is a former white supremacist, who as a teenager in the late 1980s helped start a gang which eventually produced the 2012 shooter. Kaleka and Michaelis, Wisconsinites who co-authored “The Gift of Our Wounds: A Sikh and a Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate,” created Serve2Unite, an organization “that diverts young people from violent extremist ideologies, gun violence, school shootings, bullying and substance abuse, along with other forms of self-harm” by instilling “a healthy sense of identity, purpose and belonging.”
Our work is driven by a sense that “people are just exhausted of not being interconnected,” said Kaleka. “We are more alike than we are different. The problem is the stuff that makes us different is becoming cancerous.”
“I believe that the shooter behind the Tree of Life and [Mother] Emanuel and the [Sikh temple] in all those cases, and more than any other attacks of that nature, the shooter is really looking to destroy your faith in humanity. And I refuse to give up my faith in humanity,” echoed Michaelis.
Myers, Manning, Kaleka, the Rev. Paul Abernathy and Wasi Mohamed, former executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, shared a panel with Esther Bush, the Urban League of Pittsburgh’s president and CEO. Also there was Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who invoked the Mishnaic teaching of Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work,” he said, “but neither are you free to desist from it.”
“I believe that is my calling to public service, to do my part to get off the sidelines, get in the game and make a difference,” said Shapiro. “And so I would say to you, no matter what faith you are, no matter what your background is, you come here tonight, those words I think, apply to all of us. We each have a responsibility to do our part, and so yes, if you see something, say something, and let us collectively encourage others to turn down the temperature of our rhetoric, not reward the politicians and the so called leaders who appeal to tribal instincts and to the lowest common denominator.”
Mohammed encouraged people to look to historical fissures as a way to heal the past. More effort must be made to understand how slavery, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II truly shifted communal narratives, he said.
Abernathy, who directs FOCUS Pittsburgh and pastors St. Moses Orthodox Christian Mission, agreed. “We can perhaps imagine, or perhaps not, what it was to labor in those cotton fields of the South, to be beaten, to be torn apart from your family, to be ridiculed, to be deprived of every good thing,” said Abernathy. “We can imagine perhaps not what it must have been like, but I will tell you that if we read the slave narratives and we familiarize ourselves with that spirituality, we can see that even though they were persecuted in that particular time they were free.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.