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Region faith leaders share goals, vision in social justice fight

Racism and social justice issues are part of the fabric of religious organizations, local faith leaders said during a panel discussion Wednesday evening.

The panel discussion was part of a series put on by La Grua Center, a nonprofit cultural center based in Stonington, and the Jewish Federation of Eastern CT, a nonprofit organization supporting the Jewish community. The first panel featured three local Black leaders and focused on growing up during the Jim Crow era; the second featured members of a younger generation of community leaders. The panel series is in conjunction with the ongoing exhibit, now at the La Grua Center, Stories of Resilience: Encountering Racism, which was developed from the Strochlitz Holocaust Resource Center of the JFEC's Encountering Differences program.

Wednesday’s panelists were the Rev. Lloyd McKenzie Jr. of the Walls Clarke Temple AME Zion Church in New London, Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz of Temple Bnai Israel in Willimantic and the Rev. Carolyn Patierno of the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London. The discussion was moderated by Lisa McGinley, a current member of The Day’s Editorial Board and a former deputy managing editor at the paper.

The conversation centered on compassion and trying to find ways to combat racism and divisiveness in the U.S. and in Connecticut. All three panelists spoke of the importance of interfaith dialogue as a way of practicing what they preach: To bring disparate groups of Americans together, everyone must exit their silos.

Schwartz characterized the issue in response to a question from McGinley about words from sacred texts the clergy might cite to “inspire your congregants and our country to a more perfect world.”

“In 2015 and '16 leading up to that (presidential) election, there was so much toxic talk in our society about others — this us and them thing, as if we weren’t one human family,” Schwartz said. He described how a phrase from Leviticus, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” informed what he told congregants following the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police.

“It’s a long process. We might be angry, we might be hurt, but it’s a process to move away from hatred toward love,” Schwartz added.

McKenzie, Schwartz and Patierno all highlighted a tradition of social justice activism and community outreach in their respective faiths. McKenzie shared the origin of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which, he said, began as a way to practice faith equitably, since New York City’s John Street Methodist Church segregated basic church functions between white and Black congregants.

“So it was decided that the people of color would withdraw from the John Street Methodist Church and establish what was then called Zion Chapel, what is now called Mother Zion, which is the first and original church of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion connection, in Harlem,” McKenzie said. “That is our roots and it is based on moving toward justice from injustice, moving toward equity from inequity. It is clearly a part of our DNA.”

Patierno comes from a background of activism and has brought that to her faith. She said activism, but more specifically, democracy, compassion, peace, liberty and justice for all, are indivisible from the values of Unitarian Universalism.

“It is something that we are not shy about, it’s something that we feel committed to and proud of,” Patierno said. “Of course what is then important is to act, to not just feel good about these principles but to do things that change systems.”

For example, she said, the Unitarian Universalist Association began to speak and encourage speaking forcefully and particularly about dismantling white supremacy in recent years.

“Many of us have come to understand that white supremacy is in the air we breathe. It’s deep in the systems that built our country, and it remains in those systems today,” Patierno said.

In speaking about the roles of their places of worship in the community, the faith leaders emphasized building relationships with secular groups, with religious groups and welcoming people into their respective faiths.

Still, McGinley asked, what about Dr. Martin Luther King’s enduring quote: “Sunday morning in America is our most segregated hour”?

“That is absolutely true. I think all three of us on this panel serve congregations that are pretty homogeneous,” Patierno said. She talked about working to make people of color more comfortable at All Souls.

“We have to build relationships with people and therefore build trust and mutual respect, that we can be in each other’s company without being always nervous about either saying the wrong thing or being the recipient of something hurtful,” she said.

In the spirit of connecting communities, Schwartz said he was inspired by Pope Francis’s Nov. 26 op-ed in the New York Times about the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Pope ends his article talking about solidarity, and you don’t build it just by saying the words, you build it by meeting each other,” Schwartz said.

McKenzie said events like Wednesday’s panel discussion are a good way to start reaching out.

“There is a pursuit for truth among us this evening, and that warms my heart and encourages me ... let’s keep on doing this, whatever venue we have, so that we can gain ground in that,” McKenzie said.

McGinley later raised the topic of 2020’s summer protests against police brutality and renewed will to combat racism at large.

“I’m reminded of the universal pain we all experienced, and I’m sure as congregational leaders, you felt it. Yet, how this pain has galvanized all of us to a point of coming together,” McKenzie said. “As people of faith, we have a spiritual obligation not to remove ourselves from the mess but to engage in reparations and increasing understanding.”

Schwartz recalled his congregation and community coming together after the shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. He said despite obstacles to progress, he does see incremental change in attitudes.

“Somehow, we’ve been learning through the pain, and our faith forces us to turn pain to love,” he said.

Patierno was reminded of a protest in New London following Floyd’s death, which drew at least 1,000 people, and the power in solidarity she felt, as well as her appreciation for the leadership of a younger generation of activists.

“It was heartening to see so many people decide the risk was important enough to show up,” Patierno said. “We were being led by young people, by Hearing Youth Voices. Grown-ups were wise enough to get out of their way and just do what was asked of us, and they did a beautiful job. It was inspiring to see what they did.”

The panelists all agreed that the battle for a more harmonious existence, for human rights, does not stop because of COVID-19 or because society is months removed from any given tragedy. When answering McGinley’s inquiry about how the leaders use scripture to help illuminate the modern world, McKenzie turned to the word “compassion,” which he said is used 71 times in the Bible.

“I find that (Christ) was driven by compassion, allowing him to administer to anybody, regardless of status, condition, everybody. That kind of compassion, I believe, has, does and will make the kind of difference we need to make in our world today,” he said. “Romans 12:16 tells us: ‘Live in harmony with one another.’ Plain and simple. If we could make it a reality, we could make huge strides in this. Between compassion and harmony, we can stay very busy.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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