On the evening of February 27, two swastikas and the phrase “race office” were carved into the front doors of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York. On Friday, March 10, that church community hosted an Interfaith Solidarity event in response to the swastika vandalism. Below, senior minister and HDS alumnus Rev. Schuyler Vogel, MDiv ’14, talks about standing together in the face of intolerance.
HDS: How did this event come together, and why is it important particularly for communities of faith to lead the way in standing up against bigotry and racism?
SV: After the vandalism took place we received an outpouring of support from around New York City. People and organizations that our congregation had no relationship with were offering their friendship. It was amazing. We began to wonder how we could make sure these new connections wouldn't fade away. We wanted them to last and be a jumping off point rather than a flash in the pan.
The idea of gathering the community together seemed like one way to do that. Although the acts committed against our congregation were disturbing, we hope that we can use them as a catalyst for deeper connection with our neighbors and allies working for justice. If we emerge better connected, more unified as a community, and more clear in our convictions, then we will not have let the moment pass us by.
Faith communities have a special role in speaking out against hate and for our higher values. Many dark impulses are tied up with some ideology upon which the believer orders their world and their place in it. In many ways, this is the world of religion. But, at least for Unitarian Universalists, religion is ultimately about bringing people together, not dividing them. It's about learning to see the humanity in our differences, rather than encouraging language, policies, and ideologies that dehumanize. Our role, as we see it, is to use our power to create a world where the inherent worth and dignity of all people is celebrated within the bounds of love and justice.
HDS: Why do you think Fourth Universalist was targeted with vandalism? Do you think it has to do with your long-standing commitment to social activism?
SV: We don't know for sure. We suspect it has to do with our justice activities in the community. Several weeks ago, we declared ourselves a sanctuary congregation to protect the undocumented from deportations. This was covered in the press and it is possible the perpetrator saw it and wanted to retaliate. We've been active in working with partners around immigration issues, and we recently formed a rapid response team that can respond quickly in case of crisis.
We have a large Black Lives Matter banner prominently facing Central Park, and Unitarian Universalists have long welcomed LGBT individuals—both stances that have made other congregations targets. Being a Unitarian Universalist congregation, especially on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, also means that we have many people who identify as Jewish, including someone who fled the Nazis and lost their parents in the Holocaust.
We do believe the hate crime was committed by someone who had fairly extensive knowledge of Nazi history and ideology, since they carved the words "Race Office" on the door in addition to two swastikas. We did not know what those words meant until we did research, but they are a direct reference to offices within the Nazi party that enforced racial purity.
On a larger scale, the current cultural climate in our country certainly has contributed to the rise of hate crimes across our country—and within New York City specifically. In NYC alone, anti-Semitic crimes are up 94 percent since last year. That's not coincidence. That's a result of a new permissiveness on the part of our national leadership, from the president on down, and a new toleration of divisive language and the politics of fear. It continues with policies, like mass deportation and refugee bans, which are defensible only if you deny the humanity of others. The result is that fringe beliefs and the individuals who hold them feel empowered to speak and act out. That's how you get hate crimes increasing at such alarming rates.
HDS: What kind of support and encouragement have you received from other parts of the local NYC community—both within and outside faith communities?
SV: We have received remarkable support from the community, ranging from congregations across the faith spectrum, to faith based community organizations like Faith in New York and the Jewish Community Center, to political leaders like our congressman and the mayor's office. Our neighbors in the community have also been extremely supportive, as have local law enforcement.
HDS: For those who cannot attend the solidarity event on March 10, is there anything they can do to help with your cause?
SV: A lot of people have kindly offered to help cover the cost of the repair. Fortunately, we estimate the cost will be fairly low. Instead, we are asking people to consider donating to the social justice work that the perpetrator sought to intimidate and stop. More broadly, we would ask that people do what they can within their own communities.
If you are part of a religious community, start organizing. Get connected with local leaders and justice organizations, find out what the needs are, get people registered to vote, and make sure your religious leader takes justice work seriously. Change only happens when we are willing to build relationships, do the work, and take risks.
—by Jonathan Beasley