Religious Terrorism in New Orleans: The Day Fear Entered Our Sanctuary, and How We Drove It Out with Love

Hate and Fear came into our sacred space this weekend at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans (FUUNO). They wore the clothes of people they had already overtaken, and spoke in eloquently twisted bits of Scripture. They tried to commandeer our worship service, usurp our prayers of mourning for those we lost last week, divert attention from the youth leaders we were honoring at the end of the National Youth Justice Training of the UU College of Social Justice.  

Tried, I said. 

They did not succeed.  

They did not succeed because those same brilliant youth leaders, in their infinite wisdom and riding the wave of justice and solidarity from the week before, joined hands with the congregation and led them in a mantra of “Circle ‘Round for Freedom,” a social justice anthem beloved in UU churches. They encircled the sanctuary as Rev. Deanna Vandiver spoke compassion and light and unity from the pulpit, drowning out the proselytizers not by matching their anger and vitriol, but by loving the hell out of them.  They continued while a few of us peacefully escorted the insurgents outside. Meanwhile, I escorted three quieter members of the infringing group (whose version of the events can be found here) back to their seats, agreeing to engage in civil dialogue with them after the service on the condition that they remain respectful for the remainder of it. This tide of Love – which is so much more powerful than fear, so much stronger than hatred – firmly and gently pushed the disturbance out onto the sidewalk, where it continued its demonstration safely out of our worship space. We shut the doors and picked up where we left off, not missing a beat in the order of service, not diverting any time from Rev. Deanna’s message on mission and putting our faith in action – a sermon which, as she said, “preached itself” in the wake of that demonstration. 

They did not succeed because our youth leaders, who had come from across the country, got a prime opportunity to practice what they had learned in their training to be agents of justice and peace. After the service, they engaged in respectful dialogue with those three who remained, and practiced their principles of love and nonviolence in word and deed. Once the three were eventually escorted out for becoming passively violent with their Scriptural references, these youth held each other through the tears and pain. They then took the protesters’ propaganda out into the courtyard and burned them in a pot, not to add angry fuel to the fire, but to release the hate and fear into the air and the earth.  The rains came as they concluded their ritual, finishing the job and driving away the demonstrators who remained outside the church.  

They did not succeed because the congregation – members and visitors alike – came together in the face of hate and protected each other with love. A good friend of mine who was visiting acted as a safe escort until the entire congregation had left the building; he stayed at the church in that capacity long after the protesters left to ensure that all of the youth were on their way to the airport before he let his guard down to go home. Others helped in similar capacities; no one had to walk alone through the wall of hate and fear.  Bart Frost, the Director of Religious Education, took the initiative of calling the police during the service to monitor the outdoor demonstration. Representatives from the Rapid Response Team of Planned Parenthood also came to debrief and guide in the aftermath, encouraging people not to engage with the protesters because, in their words, “You cannot reason with a belief.”  

And while this is true – beliefs are based in abstract faith, and reason is based in concrete fact – it is also true that you can be a reasonable person and a believer. And on a personal level, these religious terrorists did not succeed because I came away from the experience more rooted than ever in my own faith – including those parts of it that come from Christianity.  

In Matthew 22:34-40, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  This tells me that the core of Christianity is Love – and, by that token, that anyone who pushes hatred and fear in the name of the Law is a false prophet. Love is the be-all and end-all, the Alpha and the Omega, the source from which we come and that to which we shall return. This is the core principle of the Way of Jesus, and if that is the case, then I will continue to claim Christianity in the face of those who call my church a “synagogue of Satan.” If Love is the basis, then everything else is up for debate, and God is big enough to contain me and everyone else in the sanctuary this weekend – regardless of whether each of us believes in the same (or any) version of God. 


For more information on this past Sunday’s events and the aftermath (in which the Mayor of New Orleans, adding insult to injury, awarded the demonstrators for “service to the city”), see these articles: 

http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/benham-group-disrupts-synagogue-satan-unitarian-universalist-worship-services-receives-procl 

http://uptownmessenger.com/2014/07/mayors-office-issues-certificate-recognizing-abortion-protest-group-for-service-to-city/

To sign a petition to the Mayor to rescind his highly inappropriate award, click here.  

To attend a pro-choice rally and vigil in front of City Hall in New Orleans, show up at Duncan Plaza Thursday at 6pm.  Event details here

For ongoing coverage of the aftermath, follow me on Facebook. I’ll be posting articles and sharing statuses with more information. 

Namaste, 

Steven

My Summer in New Orleans: Initial Reflections on the Journey

Hello, friends!

I am three weeks into my 8-week practicum in urban ministry at the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. I have been digesting many experiences and pieces of information, and am only now at a point where I can start articulating them to others.

So far, the guiding questions of my time here have been:

These are living questions for me, and I will not attempt to answer them at this moment. I am hoping to “live my way into the answers,” in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke. I am doing this by: 

  1. Observing. I am taking in as much information as I can. I am watching and listening to my mentors at CELSJR. I am watching the way meetings are run at Justice and Beyond, a community coalition I’m attending weekly, and noting what works in facilitating dialogue. For my coursework, I am reading two books about the shadow side of charity: Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) and When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself. Both give practical insights on the cycles of dependency created by traditional models of charity, be they at the missionary or governmental level, and offer alternative ways of working for equity and empowerment. The latter book is posing some theological problems for me, as it is written from a conservative evangelical perspective; however, this is challenging me to lean into the second thing I’m doing in this process of living the questions, which is… 
  2. Listening more than I speak. It is easy to listen when I expect to agree or be compassionate to someone’s position; it is much more difficult when I encounter a person or ideology with which I am in conflict. In these situations – be they reading a book written by an evangelical missionary, or engaging with a white workshop participant who believes that the way to alleviate racism is to be “colorblind” – I am challenged to lean into the discomfort rather than defending myself against it, to listen more deeply so that I can more deeply engage with the person or subject matter. In intercultural settings, I am listening more than I speak as a means of being aware of and responsible with my privilege, rather than acting as if I can “give it up.” 
  3. Asking lots of questions. I’m asking questions of my professor, my site supervisor and staff, members of my local UU church, members of other churches, people at Justice and Beyond, friends, colleagues, fellow students, people I meet at Fourth of July barbecues, myself, my Higher Power… And I am doing so, to the best of my ability, after I have listened deeply and identified exactly what information or nuance I am missing so that I can question with respect and intention.  

I will continue to update this blog as I live my way into more answers. I am shooting for once a week from here on out; some weeks may produce more, others less. This is not only to document my process for myself and those I serve, but also to create accountability to those of you who are donating to my GoFundMe campaign, which I have set up to help pay my living expenses for the month of August and part of September while I finish this practicum and transition into my student ministry position at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville.  Please feel free to share the page with your networks and/or donate what you can to support my learning process, through which I am gaining valuable skills to bring back to my community in Tulsa and beyond. 

Thank you for reading, my beloved community! 

Namaste, 

Steven