Clergy take to pulpits to decry religious and racial hate

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Brattleboro’s Centre Congregational Church is one of nearly 50 spiritual congregations in the social justice coalition Vermont Interfaith Action, which sponsored a “Sabbath of Listening and Healing” over the weekend. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Churches, synagogues and mosques usually focus on love. But recently, many are fending off hate.

“Some people are using the current political climate to justify anti-Semitic or Islamophobic beliefs or degrade human beings,” Vermont Episcopal Bishop Thomas Ely says. “That’s not acceptable, and religious people need to say that.”

To do so, Vermont Interfaith Action — a nonpartisan coalition of more than 40 spiritual communities encompassing 10,000 members from Brattleboro to Burlington — spoke out over the weekend through a “Sabbath of Listening and Healing.”

“The intention,” the coalition said in a statement, “is for our member congregations throughout Vermont to spend time in prayer and preaching at their worship services listening to the voices of the vulnerable in our midst, listening to the concerns for safety and inclusion, listening in a deep way beyond our normal political posturing and to initiate the actions of healing that will enable our congregations to continue to seek justice for their communities.”

Organizers began seeing problems last summer, when Democratic state Rep. Kiah Morris, of Bennington, one of a few black members of the Vermont Legislature, received several racially charged emails and tweets.

Then last fall, just after the presidential election, swastikas appeared at two Jewish congregations: Middlebury’s Havurah House and the University of Vermont’s Hillel center, where the symbol was spray-painted on a Donald Trump lawn sign.

And this winter, the Islamic Society of Vermont received a letter expressing intolerance for its faith.

“This letter can only be characterized as hate mail,” the coalition informed members in an email. “We find the sentiments expressed in this letter completely unacceptable.”

In response, the clergy group called for a “Sabbath of Listening and Healing” this weekend against “hate speech or actions directed toward any Vermonters on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political beliefs.”

“We know this can only begin if we first bear witness to one another’s pain and listen with love and respect,” the Rev. Joan Javier-Duval of the Unitarian Church of Montpelier said upon the event’s announcement.

The program began during Islamic prayers Friday, continued with Jewish Shabbat on Saturday and concluded with Christian services Sunday.

Each participating spiritual community observed the event in its own way, organizers said. The Jewish calendar called for the reading of Genesis and its story about the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers, while Christian congregations were gathering just after Friday’s Feast of the Epiphany.

Ely spoke Sunday during services at Barre’s Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd.

“I’m sensing a loss of understanding that every human being is worthy,” the bishop summed up his remarks. “We can have differences, but we cannot violate the dignity of one another. To me, this Sabbath is a wonderful time for Christians, Jews and Muslims to be holding each other in prayer.”

Kevin O'Connor

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  • Patricia Goodrich

    Thank you, Bishop Ely, Rev. Javier-Duval, and Vermont Interfaith Action for standing up to those who would divide us on defending the religious choices of all Vermonters.

  • Neil Johnson

    Does this seems like clergy and churches getting into politics? The whole jist of this is political climate, aren’t we supposed to be dealing with the spiritual realm? Isn’t there a separation of church and state? I’m all for developing and building faith, I’m all for groups of churches/synagogues coming together to aid our brothers and sisters. Faith can manifest itself to spur those to do good works, based upon acceptable society norms today we all have much faith building and educating to do.

  • Samuel Shultis

    This concern for safety, inclusion, healing and seeking justice for communities, could be a direct result of the lack content coming from today’s pulpits with liberal/secularized, watered down gospel message. Replaced by sexual immorality and the absence of absolute truth, where tolerance is celebrated as an ideology, politics is all that remains. When politics becomes a religion it also becomes incredibly anti-democratic and ‘non-believers’ must be punished.
    Fundamentally, liberals and conservatives are divided not only by issues, but increasingly by the intensity of their political beliefs. Political liberals believe they simply have to push their ideology, and push it aggressively, even shutting down all debate or dissent, because they have banked their entire worldview on political promises, and on a political worldview that is increasingly secular and has no more fundamental worldview beneath it, or for that matter, able to check it.
    h/t to David Gelernter

  • Nancy Case

    Kevin, thank you for this uplifting article, showing the weight Vermonters are throwing on the side of love and truth–the truth of the inherent unity of all mankind.

  • Winnie McCormick

    We have religious freedom in America. I think this was a response to that. The same people are often the target of hate. These religious leaders were speaking of love not politics in my mind. It is good that so many united in defending religious liberty and man’s common humanity.

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