Featured Ads

Speak up, stand with, show love: Interfaith gathering brings together people who want to stand up to hate

The Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff and The Rev. Adam Hamilton hold hands during the benediction of Sunday night’s ‘Stand Togther KC’ program.

When I left “Stand Together KC: We Are America’s Heart” Sunday night at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection (COR) in Leawood, I wondered whether the event was a news story or an emotional story. For me it is both. How to combat and overcome hate has been an emotional way of life for Jews throughout our history. Certainly, it has been emotional for us in Kansas City since that tragic day in 2014 when Dr. William Corporon and Reat Underwood were killed outside the Jewish Community Campus and Terri LaManno was killed in the parking lot of Village Shalom. All three of those innocent souls were not Jewish but were killed by an avowed neo-Nazi who set out to kill Jewish people.

That’s not all. Within the last year, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who hailed from India and was here on a work visa, was killed in a senseless shooting outside a bar in Olathe. The accused killer thought he was Iranian. In December of 2014, a Somali teen was intentionally run over in front of a Kansas City mosque in yet another hate crime. 

We were inspired to overcome hate this time following the violent events involving neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, anti-Semites and other white supremacist groups in Charlottesville this summer. Those events spurred COR’s senior pastor, The Rev. Adam Hamilton, into action and he, along with Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff of The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah and The Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III from St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, determined Sunday night’s event was the best way to begin talking with our neighbors. Prepublicity billed the event as “standing up for our neighbors and against hate and intimidation.” In this case, the neighbors included Jews, Methodists, blacks and whites.

No doubt the night was personal and emotional for members of COR, who lost two fellow members of their congregation to that madman in 2014. I suspect by the story Rev. Cleaver told that evening that standing up against hate is emotional for him and his congregation, as well.

The theme of the evening was standing together. It started with a conversation via Skype between Rev. Hamilton and Rabbi Rachel Schemelkin from Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville. She reported that clergy in Charlottesville began discussing how to respond to the white supremacists, in what she said the community now calls “The Summer of Hate,” early in the summer because the KKK first showed up in their city in July. Among the things the interfaith clergy discussed was surrounding the synagogue to help protect it that day, but in the end the congregation chose to hire “security who knew what they were doing.” 

Rabbi Schemelkin was not inside the synagogue that day, choosing to be with other clergy at a nearby church. On more than one occasion, the church they were in was in lockdown mode because police did not feel it was safe.

“It was really scary, nothing I ever imagined I would experience,” she said.

Rabbi Schemelkin said congregants at the synagogue felt the same way as neo-Nazis marched past, shouting anti-Semitic slurs. Although the synagogue was not damaged that day, its beloved Holocaust Torah had been moved to a safe place as a precaution before the march.

At one point in the evening, the audience — the attendance inside COR’s new sanctuary was estimated at 1,800, not to mention those who watched it as it was live streamed online — was reminded of a time when Kansas Citians came together against hate, both following those tragic deaths in April 2014. First hundreds came together — an overflow crowd of all races and religions, including clergy from all over the city — at a memorial service at the Jewish Community Campus.

The very next day, people came together again, this time lining the streets surrounding COR — the site of the funeral for Dr. Corporon and Reat — to turn their backs on the hateful speech being spewed by protesters from Westboro Baptist Church.

It was Mary Sanchez’s duty to explain who these hate groups are. Sanchez is a member of The Kansas City Star’s editorial board and a Kansas City native with Mexican roots (that’s important because she has faced some discrimination because of her Mexican heritage). She has spent years covering a wide variety of topics, including hate groups. Sanchez talked a bit about who they are and who they hate, saying they are all somewhat similar, with hatred centered on race, anti-Semitism or anti-government. She said the most important thing is to remember that these hate groups still exist.

“Don’t think that it’s all in the past. When you hear Klan, you think oh that’s in the past,” she said. “There’s more of them now. The internet has been a game changer for them, because they can stay in touch with each other.”

Then the three clergymen took the stage, with Rev. Hamilton reminding us that so much hate comes from not knowing people. They each talked a little scripture and provided us with quotes such as only love can conquer hate. And they had stories about how each of them has been affected by hate, bullies or both.

Rev. Cleaver told the group he first came face to face with racism when he was 9 years old. The KKK burned a cross in his yard and threw a brick into the window of his family’s home. 

“I thought that stuff was in the past,” he said. “So, I grew up knowing that stuff is out there, and that’s why I believe in bringing people together.”

After Rabbi Nemitoff told his story about being bullied for being Jewish while he was mourning the death of his father and wearing the customary torn black ribbon, he said, “If we can keep telling those stories, when people stand up for us, then we will be successful with what we are trying to do tonight.”

After the event, a close friend told me the biggest thing she took away from the three stories told by the clergy is that when they were bullied, someone stood up to the bullies and basically said, “Don’t touch them again or you’ll answer to me.” Then Rev. Hamilton asked the congregation if they would be that person who would stand up for someone else being bullied.

That is the point of the “pledge” cards that people received when they entered the sanctuary. On it are suggestions on how to stand together and stand up for hate (See graphic). Rev. Hamilton urged the crowd to keep those cards close and look at them often.

“Eighteen hundred people can do a lot,” he said.

“When you hear somebody being picked on, you see something that is not right, speak up. Stand with. Stand up. Make your voice be heard. “

In his closing thoughts, Rev. Cleaver stated, “The conversation really does matter. It just takes us to get to know each other, and once we get to know each other it really does break down those barriers. I would encourage us to continue the conversation.”

Rabbi Nemitoff was charged with the closing benediction.

“Jews throughout the world recently observed the holiday of Yom Kippur. It is our holiest day of the year. It is known in English as the Day of Atonement, the day where we ask God, communally and individually, to forgive us of our sins. But if you think about the word atonement, it also means at onement. It is our obligation as children of God to be at one, to be at one with this earth, to be at one with our community, to be at one with one another. To not be afraid of the other just because they are different than us. Let us pledge ourselves to be at one with each other, with each who is other, wherever we may find them in this world.”

Then Rabbi Nemitoff asked everyone to join hands, and 1,800 people did just that, going across aisles in the sanctuary to make sure no one stood alone. He concluded with some English and Hebrew words the Jews in the audience have often heard, but with a new twist added just for that evening.

“May God bless us and may God keep us. May God’s face shine upon us and be gracious to us. May God walk with us and grant us the ability to extinguish hate, to extinguish ignorance. And that while there is still hate, while there is still ignorance, we stand together. We do not let any light go beyond us. We stand in front of those who are challenged. We stand in front of those who are attacked. As a result may we, those we protect, and God willing those who confront us, may all of us experience shalom, peace.”

There is so much more I didn’t mention. If you missed it, you can watch it for yourself at cor.org/standtogether. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the evening, this one from Rev. Cleaver.

“Ignorance is contagious. It’s an airborne disease.”

Finally, here’s a thought from another friend, who is a co-founder of Strangers No More, a group of Christian and Jewish women affiliated with COR and the Jewish Community Relations Bureau|American Jewish Committee who got together following the April 2014 tragedy to do what Rev. Cleaver, Rev. Hamilton and Rabbi Nemitoff believe is the first defense against hate: Getting to know others whose beliefs are a little different than your own. She signs her emails, “With prayers for a world of understanding.”

While doing that, send an extra prayer or two to the families who are mourning today because of the senseless shooting in Las Vegas. As I write this, we still don’t know why the shooter did what he did, and we may never know, but it certainly wasn’t out of love and tolerance.