They emerged together as if from nowhere and crossed Northeast Second Avenue wearing purple and green, collars and yarmulkes, crosses and cloaks, heading for a shared destination and carrying a common purpose. The stage was already set for them when the group of local religious leaders, ranging in faith from Judaism to Christianity to Buddhism to Islam, arrived moments later at Gainesville City Hall.
The 20 members of the Alachua County Faith Leaders Alliance joined voices Monday afternoon to address white nationalist Richard Spencer’s upcoming speech in Gainesville. The group stood on the Gainesville City Hall steps as, one by one, 13 of them delivered remarks praising inclusivity, diversity and acceptance.
“We are all called to love one another,” said opening speaker the Rev. Shelly Wilson of the United Church of Gainesville.
“We are committed to the conviction that we are one human family,” added the Rev. Chad Fair of Gethsemane Lutheran Church.
“And we hope that you will stand with us,” concluded Dennis Shuman of P’nai Or-Jewish Renewal Congregation, Gainesville.
They were united by concern that Spencer’s speech, which will take place Thursday afternoon at 2:30, will result in violence similar to what happened in Charlottesville, VA, in August. The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville resulted in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer when a Nazi sympathizer rammed his car into a group of counter protesters.
The group of religious leaders was also united by a view of Spencer’s ideas as hateful and divisive. For some of the speakers, those hateful ideas are deeply personal.
The Rev. Lenora Rousseau, a minister at Trinity United Methodist Church, grew up Jewish. Despite converting to Christianity as a teenager, she comes from a family of holocaust survivors including two of grandparents.
“It’s very near to my heart,” Rousseau said, “and knowing that my children are Jewish, and that these people that are coming in, the Nazis and others, and the rhetoric they’re sharing, it’s not toward someone else. It’s towards me … So it’s very real.”
She has tried to explain how the event is affecting her 5- and 14-year-old kids, and what Spencer’s “identitarian” ideas represent. Rousseau expressed that she wants her children to understand, but sometimes she can’t find the right words.
“It’s been amazing to me how difficult it is to find words to articulate the overwhelming sense of — I hate to use the word ‘awe,’ but I don’t know what else to call it,” she said. “I’m so stunned by the level of hatred.”
Shuman offered a different perspective and said he believes no person is a “bad person.” Just misguided. “People do bad things,” he said, “but we’re all the same. We could go either way.”
Shuman feels that Spencer has gone the wrong way and was concerned when Gainesville event was announced. Nevertheless, he suggested that the best approach is to try and understand their anger and stand united in ideologies — regardless of faith — that promote tolerance. He couldn’t stand the divisiveness of the situation and still can’t, which is why he participated in Monday’s assembly.
“This is much healthier,” he said after the presentation. “A recognition that there’s something that binds us all together that’s bigger than any one of us. That’s my belief.”
Many in attendance wore white signs around their necks painted with red hearts and the words “Love is Stronger.” Mary Bahr, an attendee, displayed a pair signs that read “Love your neighbor,” and “Diversity is strength.” She agreed with Shuman on the importance of the event and of embracing diversity.
“I think this is wonderful,” Bahr said. “This is the community that I love, and that’s why I’m here. Because of this kind of community.”
But she added that she is afraid and feels too many resources are being funneled to the university and that non-university-affiliated residents are being forgotten. But regardless, she wants to stand against Spencer and his supporters.
“I think it’s really important for us to state what our values are clearly,” she said. “You can’t just let the other side express values of hate and fear. We need to also have a say.”
Religious leaders tried to make that happen on Monday, and many of them will also try to do so during Spencer’s speech. Five local churches will offer alternatives, including Temple Shir Shalom and the Gainesville Quaker Meeting. Shuman said that’s exactly what needs to happen, and referred to a familiar example as proof.
Gainesville pastor Terry Jones made worldwide headlines in 2010 when he announced he was planning to burn a copy of the Quran, Islam’s holy book. The Alachua County Faith Leaders Alliance already existed at the time, but Shuman said Jones’ threat made it much more active.
“Terry Jones was like the grain of sand that gets into an oyster and creates a pearl,” he said. “Because it’s such an irritant.”
But out of that irritant, Shuman said, good can result.
“When something negative happens, it brings people together in response,” he said. “So that’s the good side of bad things. It wakes people up.”
Gainesville Churches Holding Alternate Events On Thursday:
- Gainesville Quaker meeting, 2-6 p.m., worship in the library. All are welcome.
- Temple Shir Shalom gathering for peace 1-5 p.m. All are welcome and are asked to bring canned food for the poor
- Trinity United Methodist Church, 2-5 p.m., open chapel for prayer and meditation. All are welcome.
- United Church of Gainesville, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Also a labyrinth walk from 5-7 p.m. for prayers and meditation. All are welcome.
- Transgender gathering: A gathering for transgender people, their families, friends and allies. The location is not being disclosed for safety reasons, but if interested, contact the Rev. Maureen Killoran at email@example.com