JEWS, CHRISTIANS, MUSLIMS, UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS: San Francisco Peninsula Clergy standing in solidarity for the sacredness of all humans

USGS Satellite photo of the San Francisco Bay Area. The San Francisco peninsula protrudes northward. San Francisco is at its tip, public domain
Public domain USGS Satellite photo of the San Francisco Bay Area. The San Francisco peninsula protrudes northward. San Francisco is at its tip.

As you might suspect, there was a reason for featuring Emma Lazarus and her poem, The New Colossus, as part of the American She-Poets series this a.m. … the reason being a reminder of our American ideals in the face an unreasonable ban, free-flowing hostilitities, and the fear vulnerable people have given the ramped-up deportation policies finding support and stride under the current Republican administration. Almost all immigrants to this country are refugees even if they are not formally declared so. Formally or informally they seek refuge from violence, poverty, joblessness, hunger and environmental degradation.

“Now ‘refugees’ are those of us who have been so unfortunate as to arrive in a new country without means and have to be helped by refugee committees …. We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. . . . ” We Refugees, an essay by Hannah Arendt in the 1943 issue of Menorah

The lack of empathy and compassion for and the fear of and prejudice toward immigrants is not new in American history and, as better people than me have said, unless you are a Native American, you are an immigrant, no matter how far back your roots go in these United States. It is likely that your own progenitors felt the sting of prejudice, might have suffered greatly and even died at its hands.

Here I report on the programs and practices that are being implemented by our interfaith community with the help of a number of organizations including Faith In Action, which is integral to the design of a Rapid Response Program. My hope is that in reading this more people in our own community will become involved and that other communities that don’t have programs and collaborations will be inspired to create them.

The Peninsula Solidarity Network of clergy representing diverse faiths was originally initiated to discuss and address the shortage of housing and affordable rents throughout the San Francisco Peninsula and South Bay area and is now taking on another crisis: creating sanctuary and building a Rapid Response Network to witness, accompany and advocate for immigrants facing deportation. On Wednesday, February 8th, it hosted a training by Faith In Action Bay Area. The training was on the Sanctuary Movement and The Rapid Response Network, a project of Faith In Action Bay Area, PICO and the Archdiocese of San Francisco in collaboration with Pangea Legal Services and California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance.

Please note: I do not speak for or represent the Peninsula Solidarity Network or its clergy and lay-leader members, Faith In Action or the Rapid Response Network, but  I was a butterfly on the wall with the good fortune to listen in and report back to you. This is what I learned. Any mistakes or mistaken assumptions are my own. If you are clergy or a professional journalist interested in the Peninsula Solidarity Network, the Sanctuary Movement, and/or Rapid Response email J.D.

While deportation is not a new problem, these efforts by the federal government are escalating and Faith In Action is working to bring our congregations together to foster the bigger scale of action and involvement that is necessary now . . . and we need everyone. Our job is to facilitate support among the races. Everyone has a role to play: diverse immigrant communities supporting one another and the greater community showing presence. Vulnerable ethnic and religious groups need special help and American citizens have responsibility to be present for victims and involved in this work.

Within the immigrant community congregations are the center for hope. Faith organizations can offer training to help families to defend themselves, to know their rights, and to get deportation defense through community campaigns, solidarity networks and for advocacy at local, state and federal levels.

Each city needs RAPID RESPONSE TEAMS of at least forty people. First responders verify raids, are moral and legal observers and connect families with legal services, social and economic services, advocacy and accompaniment services.

Victims of immigration raids can’t leave home or work to find sanctuary in a congregation. With rapid response, the congregation goes to the people.

In California, clergy and congregation members can also help by supporting the proposed California Values Act (SB 54) of California Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León. Here is the short link to info about SB 54:

Donate to Faith In Action Bay Area, 1336 Arroyo Ave, San Carlos, CA 94070-3913 (510) 234-8983

OUR PENINSULA RESIDENTS ARE INVITED TO attend the Faith In Practicing Solidarity During Immigration Raids Training (Rapid Response Network: Witness, Accompany and Advocate) to be offered on February 12, 4 p.m. –  6 p.m. at the First Congregational Church, 225 Tilton Ave., San Mateo, CA (Parking on Catalpa). You will learn how to witness (be a legal observer), accompany (provide moral support) and advocate (prepare for opportunity to pass new protections). There will be a second training offered on February 28, 6:30 – 8:30pm, 2266 California St, San Francisco.

For more information on the training call  415 867 6279. REGISTER HERE or RSVP at … Faith In Action Bay Area website is in the development stage.

What follows  is a short film (about 20 min.), which tells the history of immigration in the United States. If you are reading this feature from an email subscription, you’ll likely have to link through to watch the video.

The following Q & A on the Sanctuary Movement was shared with me by Rev. Ben Meyers (Unitarian Universalists of San Mateo) and was developed by Rev. Dr. Penny Nixon (Congregational Church of San Mateo) with minor adaptions for use here.

  • Why a revival of the Sanctuary Movement?

Too many people are deported – or “returned” – many of them are long-term residents woven into the fabric of our communities and congregations, including our neighbors. Often this results in splitting up families with children who are U.S. citizens.

Time after time Congress has refused to address our broken immigration system. Donald Trump launched his campaign for president pledging to build a wall and deport immigrants. During his first two weeks in office he issued orders intended to begin implementing his vision for America. An order establishing a travel ban on Muslims from seven majority Muslim nations has had a chilling effect on nearly all foreign nationals living among us as friends, neighbors, classmates, coworkers or family in communities nationwide. Consequently, a New Sanctuary Movement is rapidly gaining momentum among people of faith and moral conscience.

  • Why get involved as a Faith Community?

Our shared religious ideals call us to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people; to seek justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, and to create world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. We commit our values to action as we work together to transform ourselves while creating congruence between our ideals and our actions. Deportation of our neighbors and the breaking up of immigrant families in our communities are among the most compelling social justice issues of our time. Our congregations can make a difference. We can get involved in the New Sanctuary Movement by taking the National Sanctuary Pledge and becoming a Sanctuary Congregation, joining hundreds of others from all faith traditions across the country

  • What does it mean to be a Sanctuary Congregation?

Principally, it means helping prevent deportation of persons facing an order of deportation, on a case-by-case basis, one at a time, in concert with their legal representation. Participation varies from joining Networks of Protection and Rapid Response teams; Advocating for due process and policies; Accompanying Immigrant families and youth for protection and providing a safe haven.  This latter role means hosting or otherwise supporting a person in your facility and possibly their family too, while the person is engaged in legal proceedings intended to prevent them from being deported. We expect the duration of a person’s stay in Sanctuary would be from three weeks to three months. As part of growing coalitions of congregations you would not be doing this alone.

  • Is a house of worship a safe place?

Historically, churches, schools and hospitals have been classified as “sensitive locations” under the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Sensitive Locations Policy. ICE has not entered any of those venues to take custody of a person facing an order of deportation. However, we should be aware that this could change as the current administration implements its plans. [ICE officials can make entry with a warrant. / J.D.]

  • How are candidates for Sanctuary vetted?

As a Sanctuary Congregation, you will have a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with one or more not-for-profit organizations providing legal services for immigrants in or around your area. That organization, in concert with a person’s lawyer, will decide that the person would be the right candidate for Sanctuary: (1) ICE would not likely consider them a priority for deportation; (2) they are a good candidate for prosecutorial discretion, winning a stay of removal or an order of supervision or some other form of legal relief from deportation; and (3) they would satisfy any other requirements specified in our MOU. Where a candidate meets the requirements, the organization presents the case to the Sanctuary Congregations’ rabbi, minister or Iman and a “Vetting Team.”

  • What are the risks?

During the last forty years, no congregation has been prosecuted for allowing undocumented people to find shelter in their Church; no person associated with a Church Sanctuary Program has been convicted for offering Sanctuary; and no Church’s tax-exempt status has been affected. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “There comes a time when a moral man [sic] can’t obey a law which his conscience tells him is unjust. And the important thing is that when he does that he willingly accepts the penalty – because if he refuses to accept the penalty he becomes reckless, and he becomes an anarchist.”


Thousands Expected to Participate in SF Peninsula Inauguration Protest, inspired by the Philippine People Power Revolution






I stood in the office of a friend who happens to be Filipino-American and he said, “we need to have a protest along the El Camino Real. We did it in the Philippines – The People Power Revolution – and it was a success.”

My friend was referring to a revolt (some may remember) in the Philippines in 1986, a nonviolent protest that to took place largely along the stretch of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA). This avenue is a highway around Manila and the main thoroughfare in Metro Manila, which passes through six capitol regions.

The protest was implemented from February 22–25, 1986, a revolt against violence, electorial fraud and President Marcos. It reportedly involved over two million Filipino civilians, as well as several political and military groups and included religious organizations too. (Do you remember the news features on the “kleptocrat” Imelda Marcos – then first lady – and all her shoes?)

The protest resulted in the ouster of Marcos from Malacañang Palace to Hawaii. It culminated in a free election and the installation of Corazon Aquino (the widow of the assassinated Benigno Aquino, Jr., a former Senator who stood in opposition to Marcos)  as President of the Philippines. So, yes! This peaceful protest was a success … and an inspiration …


Now we are not comparing the current situation in the United States with the violent and traumatic events that lead to the People Power Revolution initiated by our Filipino brothers and sisters. It did birth the idea though for our Inauguration Day Protest to be held on the 20th from noon to 1 p.m., the time of the inauguration.

13550802017232“[Nonviolence] is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil.” Martin Luther King Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story

El Camino Real (ECR) (Spanish for The Royal Road, also known as The King’s Highway), spans the historic 600-mile road connecting the twenty-one Spanish missions in California ), along with a number of sub-missions, four presidios, and three pueblos. It travels from the southern end San Diego area Mission, San Diego de Alcalá, to the trail’s northern terminus at Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma, just above San Francisco Bay. Relative to the EDSA and the greater length of El Camino Real, our effort is relatively modest spanning just the cities from San Jose to San Francisco.

The action call went out on December 31 when UUSM Minister Rev. Ben Meyers invited area residents and workers to stand in solidarity for peace, sustainability and social justice. “If you too are concerned about the rhetoric and proposed policies of the incoming administration,” Rev. Meyers said, “you are encouraged to come out and show that as a community we will stand our ground and fight for tolerance, decency, economic justice and democracy in our country.”

A site was set up – – as an invitation/call to action. It details the event and some rules of behavior. There’s a link to the American Civil Liberties’ legal guidance for protest.  The invitation is translated into Tagalog, Spanish, Chinese and Simple Chinese, respecting the diversity of our communities. It can be printed out as flyers to be distributed.

We’ve been gratified with the response: 13,000 visits to the site as of this afternoon … Hence, we look forward to thousands of participants.  If you live and/or work in on the Peninsula and relate to the mission, we hope you’ll join us.

This “Sidewalk Protest”  is coordinated by the Unitarian Universalists in concert with Faith in Action and Suite Up! Action Network Mid-Peninsula-SF Bay Area.

We have set up a Facebook Group to facilitate meet-ups.

– Jamie Dedes

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1928)
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1928)

“I left India more convinced than ever before that nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. It was a marvelous thing to see the amazing results of a nonviolent campaign. India won her independence, but without violence on the part of Indians. The aftermath of hatred and bitterness that usually follows a violent campaign was found nowhere in India. The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But the way of nonviolence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community”.The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. chapter 13, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”


UU San Mateo
UU San Mateo

Editorial Note: In discussion with other members of the congregation to which I belong, I learned that folks would like our minister’s sermons posted to the new church website, which I am helping to build and which may take a couple of months. (Learning curve!) I’m posting Ben’s sermons here for my fellow congregants. For other readers who might be interested or curious, I’ve put Ben’s bio and a short explanation of Unitarian Universalism below the sermon. J.D.

Unitarian Universalism: A Theodicy of Love*, by the Rev. Ben Meyers, Unitarian Universalists of San Mateo, Sermon 12/11/16



Rev. Benjamin Walker Meyers

“A college student once told me how he asked questions about God in his childhood church and the leaders did not know how to answer. He decided that God must not be real.

Rev. Ben Meyers of San Mateo, California
Rev. Ben Meyers of San Mateo, California

A woman told me that all she knew about God was the passages that her mother would quote from Leviticus and Romans—passages meant to shame her for being a lesbian.

My neighbors’ parents survived years in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. He could never fully answer:  How could there be a God who would allow this to happen to my family and millions of others?

I feel confident that these or similar wounds are real for many of us in this room and I would never encourage someone to ignore such wounds.” (SM*)”

“Western theologians have a concept for how we human beings make sense of the evil which we experience and which exists in the world. The word is THEODICY. Theodicy asks and tries to answer eternal questions as: “Why does evil exist and what is its origin? How can a good Ultimate/God/Source allow for needless and undeserved suffering and pain? How shall WE face the real complexities of life, which include destructive emotions and impulses, wrong and harmful choices, and the inevitable reality of sickness and death? The rabbi Harold Kushner famously addressed this in the question that is also the title of his book: ‘Why Bad Things Happen To Good People.’

“Consider this famous and challenging koan from the Zen Buddhist tradition:

Once, when the great teacher Dongshan was washing his bowls with his pupils by the river, two large crows contended over a squirming frog for their meal. Another monk nearby asked, rhetorically, “Why does it come to this?” Dongshan said, “It is only for YOUR benefit, Honored One.”

“‘Dongshan’s answer is shocking. Pain and suffering is “for your benefit, Honored One.’ The ancient Chinese is vague enough that his response is often translated to mean: ‘It is because of you, Honored One!’

“Wait…that doesn’t seem fair! How could it be because of ME when it’s been going on for eons and ages before I even got here?

“Of course, that “Honored One” doesn’t refer just to the individuated monk, although it includes him, and you, and me, and all of us.

“It refers to the Honored ONENESS of all who partake in the gift of life. It refers to the completeness of being…you know…the Great Big Idea/Thing/Verb/Word that has been going on for eons. It pertains to the notion of God and this idea of evil, what we think about it…and how we respond.” (CB*)

Before I go further, let me just make it clear, that, whether we have a direct understanding of God or not, we all have the right to a religious life, to developing our spiritual growth.  That is why I am a Unitarian Universalist minister, because I know that religious life is bigger than any one scripture, any one culture and certainly bigger than any one word.

“So, consider this: Almost all of us, even if we DON’T believe in G*D, have a mental image of what that word means. It might be a mysterious figure in heaven keeping track of good and bad behavior (but, I’m wagering, probably not…)

It might be an image from scripture, or art: the caring shepherd, or the voice in a whirlwind. It might be a feeling, based upon a direct experience: the lifting of burdens, the gentle touch of love, or the pricking of conscience.

Our word/picture/idea might be quite abstract: Great Spirit, Higher Power, Holy Source of All Being, Nature, Science, Love.

We may believe our image of God exists, and so we are theists, or doesn’t exist, and so we are atheists, OR…is not possible to know, and so we are agnostics…but, we ALL have a picture/idea/words for God in our minds.

For some, the description of God is beyond words. For instance, Orthodox Jews, do not use the word G-o-d. When speaking aloud, they use a description like, Adonai, ‘the holy one,’ and when writing, they write G _ d. Or, YHWH (yod-hay-vod-hay), which is sometimes referred to as Yah-Weh, although, written without vowels, it remains a word that signifies more than a mere word can signify—and that we can never completely understand the nature of…it is, in essence, a sign of humility before the great “I AM.”

Then, why use the word “God” at all, (you might be asking) if it is such a slippery thing as to need warnings and explanations?

Well…I believe it is because without words, we can’t even think, much less communicate. An example of this phenomenon is found in an isolated culture of hunter-gathers in New Zealand that uses the same word for the colors BLUE and GREEN. Because of this, they have great difficulty when presented with the task of sorting blue and green objects by color.

They are born with eyes like ours, capable of seeing blue and green as different colors. But without words for the different colors, they don’t really “see” them. It is the same for us. As difficult as this word G-_-D is, if we don’t use it (or an understandable substitute), we’ll not be able to think about a part of our lives that most people intuit as existing.

If the word God is spoiled beyond redemption for us, we can substitute other words, such as Goddess, Higher Power, Spirit of Life, Great Spirit, the Divine, Holy One, Whom-It-May-Concern, or ‘whatever’, even. Some people use the word Goddess in conversation, as in: “We’ll have to leave that up to the Goddess.” This is not simply a matter of cherishing the feminine connotations of the word, which are often lacking in our “god” words; it is also a way of alerting listeners to the possibility that theological creativity is allowed in our conversations.

It is so very important to remember that our images of God, while useful and necessary, are at best only partial truths and will lead us astray and divided if taken too literally or set too concretely in our minds.

And again, the same is true if the word/concept/image is too vague.

We must each find the definitions, images, and poetry that make sense to us if we are to participate in the critical issues of our times. So we must remain open to the many ways G*D is thought about by many religious people in the world…and they are many:

  • Including pagan ideas of divinity, in which “God” is the sum total of everything, material and immaterial, in our universe, so EVERYTHING is holy, even things we might think are not good, such as the lightning that strikes our favorite tree…
  • Or, the notion of a Higher Power used in 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, in an attempt to bring spirituality into a meaningful place in people’s recoveries, without entangling people in theological arguments…
  • Or, the God present in Liberation Theology, which desires that each person have the maximum possible opportunity for a fully human life, beyond the oppression of poverty and tyranny. This is a God who sides with the poor and oppressed wherever they are found and nudges people toward acting for justice and making peace and equity real in the lives of all.
  • Or, the Humanist belief that the highest and the best we can know in this world is HUMANITY, with our grand ideals, marvelous minds, and great creative potential. Humanists say that divinity is within the human being and nowhere else. Most humanists don’t really like to use the word GOD, but they still have a theology, which is a theory or a belief about the highest and best, of which we are a part. (CR*)

And, then there is a movement in the liberal religious circles of Process Theology, which considers how God is a force that is ever-present, that evolves, grows, mourns and even suffers losses. It teaches that God can honor all that we know to be true…about modern science, about protecting the earth, and the right to equality for all people—no matter their orientation, culture, beliefs or practices. It is like the Unfinished God: not a force that controls the world like a puppet on a string, but rather a God who is and has the power to call us toward Love, in partnership with God—even as part of God. It is the notion that God only has our hands to do good in the world.

That is it. Without our partnership, without our agreement, God is powerless. If we do not respond to the call and walk in the ways of Love, God is waiting and calling and waiting and calling.

These are just some of the images and understandings of divinity which can be found within Unitarian Universalism. In our poetry and songs and in what we consider as scripture: Each representing a wide theology beyond mere acceptance. It helps with our desire to learn how we can all get along, both within and beyond these walls.

How can we talk to each other when the meanings behind our words seem so different? We do that by being always mindfully challenged and aware that our images and understandings are at best approximations of an infinite truth that simply cannot be captured by finite beings.

When we remember that fact, and strive to live and ENGAGE in it, beyond comfortable complacency, apathy, or worse, a disrespect of other’s beliefs, OUR faith and our regard for persons with visions and words that differ from ours is NOT a grudging tolerance, but an open-hearted curiosity about yet another way of understanding the God, the universe, and everything.

I believe this is what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of when he said:It is not where we stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where we stand at times of challenge and controversy that marks the ultimate measure of a person and a people.”

These words represent and inspire me to take risks for the sake of promoting and extending this partnership with ‘all Gods who are love.’

In closing you may be wondering, ‘What do I mean by God?’OK, That’s fair. For me, God is Love—all acts of Love are the stuff of God and all acts of bigotry and violence have nothing to do with God. I believe in striving to live in service to all Gods who are love—and this is a powerful God for it is the power of many lives, working together to bring more love and life and justice into the world. It empowers to me to believe in a power at work in the universe. It is the power of our capacity to return to JOY, once our sorrow and grief have been honored, in times of loss;It is the power of our audacity to live with hope, again and again, even within the legacy of despair and hopelessness that has been with us always in the shape of injustice and bondage of all kinds.

My God is the power of our courage to stand in resistance to hate. For my friends, in the days in which we live, Resistance is what love looks like in the presence of hate.This power, I believe, works through human hands, but it was not made by human hands—we are a part of the universe—we are not its most important part, but an important part all the same. This power is creative, sustaining, and transforming and we can trust this power with our lives. It will sustain us whenever we take a stand on the side of love;
whenever we take a stand for peace and justice; whenever we take a risk for its sake. Trust in that power. We are, together, held by this power. And it will not let us go, as long as we hold on to one another, O Honored Ones. Amen. —

*Acknowledgements to the Rev. Susan .Maginn, the Rev. Chris Bell and the Rev. Christine Robinson for inspiration and some content, where noted

13095886_10153410525720997_4513143742898577448_nREV. BEN MEYERS was born into a family with a Catholic father and a Baptist mother. He grew up in the Disciples of Christ Church, but hung out with friends from other progressive religions. During his childhood and youth, he was engaged in exploring various world religions and active in social movements during the 1980’s. He later discovered he was a UU while attending the UU Fellowship in Chico. Rev. Ben was ordained in 1995. He has a: BMusic from California State Univ., Sacramento, 1990 and a MDiv, Starr King School for the Ministry, 1994,  He is the devoted and much appreciated minister of UUSM, where he provides inspiration, spiritual guidance and also leadership in grassroots social justice initiatives and interfaith collaborations. Rev. Ben is a gifted singer and musician.

colorsplasheffectUNITARIAN UNIVERSALISM (UU) is a noncreedal liberal religion characterized by a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”  UUs are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth. The roots of UU are in liberal Christianity, specifically Unitarianism and Universalism, traditions that express a deep regard for intellectual freedom and inclusive love (respect) for the diverse ways in which people seek to understand life and spirit. UU Members seek inspiration and derive insight from all major world religions. The beliefs of individual Unitarian Universalists range widely, including atheism, agnosticism, pantheism, deism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity (including Eastern and Roman Catholicism), neopaganism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Humanism, and many more.

© sermon and personal photographs, Ben Meyers, 2016, please feel free to share the sermon with attribution to Ben and link to the Unitarian Universalists of San Mateo.; 

An Editorial by UU Minister, Ben Meyers: SHOTS HEARD, HEARTS BROKEN, VIGILS HELD

Rev. Ben Meyers of San Mateo, California
Rev. Ben Meyers of San Mateo, California

There’s something happening here,
What it is aint exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there,
Tellin’ me I’ve got to beware …
I think it’s time we stop, Children, What’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s goin’ down …
Stephen Stills (Crosby, Stills & Nash)

UU San Mateo
Unitarian Universalists (UU) of San Mateo, CA

On June 12, 49 people were murdered at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida and 53 were injured and hospitalized, four critically. People of good conscience gathered and mourned with victims and families at vigils held across the country and around the world. We grieved for lives lost. We grieved another mass shooting, the largest in U.S. history.

Congregational Church
Congregational Church, San Mateo, CA

Here in San Mateo, we joined in a interfaith vigil held at the Congregational Church. We joined in sadness, shock and solidarity, both for Orlando, and for those in our own community, our country, our world who are of a minority sexual orientation: gay men, lesbians, bisexual persons, transgender persons, persons uncertain of their gender identity or sexual orientation, victims of senseless hate in some quarters.

The community we must hold vigil for in our hearts is even larger. It includes all our Muslim brothers and sisters here and around the world who have and will suffer from the kind of religious bigotry that cannot separate the actions of one radically disturbed individual from the peace- loving behaviors of millions of religious people.


Torah Center, Peninsula Temple Sholom, Burlingame, CA
Torah Center, Peninsula Temple Sholom, Burlingame, CA

Recently, Unitarian Universalists of San Mateo (UUSM) joined over 200 people and broke the month long period of daily fasting for Muslims known as Ramadan. The event, which I had never participated in before, was made even more remarkable to me because of its location. It was not held in a Mosque or even a Muslim Cultural Center, rather, it was hosted, and well attended, by the Jewish congregation of Peninsula Temple Shalom, in Burlingame. Muslims and Jews, Christians, UUs and others came together to learn more about this most holy ritual of Islam, and to stand against the violence of Islamaphobia and hate, which currently, the majority of U.S. citizens embrace and promote.

We hold vigil for people, especially black and brown people, who continue to be the targets of racial profiling and the oppression and violence that comes with it. Acts of systemic hatred and violence which we can not even imagine but which they face every day just because of the color of their skin.

Here, in this religious community, we are striving to embody and live out a life-long vigilance to building the beloved community that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of when he encouraged all people of good conscience, especially white people of privilege and power, to look at and dismantle the pervasiveness of white supremacy, lessons learned at a tender age and never truly unlearned without a committed effort and willingness to change and be changed—from the inside-out.

IMG_4365Our Black Lives Matter banner hangs outside our sanctuary, a reminder to be conscious of our complicity in the legacy of violence and hatred that is not yet overcome. We must hold in our hearts and move in our hands ALL of us here in our country who might at any time be the victims of violence of the highest order, violence inflicted by high-powered weapons that kill indiscriminately in every corner of this country: in our churches, mosques, temples and shrines…in our schools and workplaces, in our coffee houses and dance houses and our very homes.

Since the Orlando shooting on June 12th there have been 31 other mass shootings in the U.S. involving 4 or more victims, including the death of 5 in Las Vegas and 5 police officers in Dallas, Texas. More shootings. More vigils. So, what exactly do we mean by vigil?

A vigil is a SACRED kind of watchfulness, a call to be attentive and aware with devotion for the emotions that are sure to surge up within us— emotions of anger, even rage; emotions surrounding loss and shock; emotions steeped in frustration and fear. These emotions can convince us, if we are not careful, that rage justifies the kind of outrage that lashes out, repaying violence with violence, seeking a life for a life, an eye for an eye, the kind of rage that would turn the whole world into an unending whirl of violence and vengeance.

Inevitably,we must come to the question: “What WILL we do?” Because, now awakened, now alert, now vigilant…We know we are called to respond, to act, to engage in change that makes a difference.

Our first question is, “What do we need to make sure we do not do?” How do we honor the memory of those who were victimized by hate? How do we stand with those who are still victimized by hate? How do we keep from falling into the pattern of hate ourselves? Given the size and complexity of the problem, how do we remain vigilant and not acquiesce back into silence, numbness, complacency? How do we do more than pray?

We know that a culture that marginalizes and stigmatizes persons for any reason creates an environment that says violence towards those persons is acceptable because they are the “other,” that are not like us. But we who believe in a better way know that an eye for an eye only leaves us all blind.

We also know that a culture of violence such as ours also creates an environment of numbness and distance and silent complicity, which can be and has been part of what perpetuates the continuance of the dominant culture. We have now heard enough shots to know that silence is inadequate to the task of countering the culture violence. We must employ the power of love and peaceful engagement for we know that moments of silence and prayer are no longer enough. That they have never been enough…

Congresswoman Jackie Speier, our District 14 representative who, out of frustration to the impotence of her Congressional colleagues and out of vigilance and commitment to bringing real change to the culture of gun violence in our country, no longer participates in the moments of silence that have become the only response of our congress to these ceaseless mass shootings that are a plague upon our nation.

Jackie Speier
Jackie Speier

This is what our moments of silence have bought us. A silent nightclub, the only sound the frantic ringing of phones that would never be answered. Silent bodies, where there should be life and love and pride. And here, a silent Congress. Mere words cannot describe the depth of my grief and rage. Forty-nine lives lost, in the middle of Pride Month when they should have been safe and celebrated. Forty-nine families devastated by the loss of their loved ones. Forty-nine phones ringing, and ringing, and ringing. There were also frantic texts, like Eddie Justice’s final messages to his mother: “Mommy, I love you. He’s coming. I’m going to die.

“If you can hear these words without your heart breaking, if you can think of those little children gunned down in Newtown without grieving, if you can think of empty pews in Charleston without mourning, then truly you have lost your humanity.

“Hateful people like to compare LGBTQ equality to the sin-filled Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. But we in Congress are the real Sodom and Gomorrah. Are there 218 righteous members here to stand against this bloody tide? Increasingly, I doubt it.

“So I ask you today, how many lives must be destroyed before Congress acts?

Nine lives? Charleston showed us nine is not enough.

Thirteen lives? Columbine showed us that 13 is not enough.

Certainly 27 small children killed in their classrooms at Newtown? No.

The 32 lives lost at Virginia Tech? Again, not enough lives.

The more than 33,000 Americans killed each year by guns? Still not enough.

“And now 49 people have been murdered in Orlando.

“Yet even this historic tragedy hasn’t been deemed big enough, horrific enough, or insidious enough to break Congress’ silence.

“Congress is happy to debate for hours about bathrooms, but bring up the gun violence killing thousands? Absolutely not.

“Radical Islam, or home-grown American homophobia, or a toxic stew of both may have inspired the Orlando shooter. No doubt we will learn more about his disgusting motivations in the coming weeks.

“But there are simple actions we can take now, actions that would have reduced the deaths in Orlando as well as Aurora, Newtown, San Bernardino, and at Umpqua Community College…

“I urge you – I beg you – to make America better than this. We must be better than this. “ –Congresswoman Jackie Speier, California’s 14th District.

There exists among us a variety of responses to the NRA, more interested in the rights of those who sell guns than in the lives of innocent victims of gun violence.  The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ-rights organization in the country suggests that we work to limit access to all assault weapons: That we move to expand background checks: that we limit access to firearms for suspected terrorists and for people with a history of domestic abuse. Common sense. Yes! In every other “civilized” country in the world, these are understood as common-sense regulations. But, here in our country, while the NRA owns the people’s Congress, these are seen as unreasonable restrictions. This has to stop. We must rise and turn the tide towards peace and justice when it comes to public safety. The best way to honor those who were senselessly slaughtered in Orlando and everywhere else is to act, NOW. We may BEGIN with prayers and with songs and with vigils…but let’s not stop there.

We can do better. We are better than this.


May it be so.

– Rev. Ben Meyers

Essay posted under CC NoDerivatives (nd) license. You may copy, distribute, display only original copies of this work with attribution; © portrait, Ben Meyers; Jackie Spear’s portrait is her official one; UUSM photograph is in the public domain; Temple Sholom courtesy of PTseducation under CC SA-BY 3.0, other photographs, Jamie Dedes