Recently, the University AME Zion Church in Palo Alto was vandalized. It is on a block that’s full of churches. It’s the only black church among those churches, and it was the only one vandalized, so … you can do the math.
Rev. Kaloma Smith invited community members to join his congregation this past Sunday as a show of solidarity, so I went, as a neighbor and citizen.
Smith’s call was answered resoundingly. At least 200 of us showed up, joining some 40 regular churchgoers. It’s a small church and it was beyond standing room only — people were spilling out in every direction.
I am sure church congregants were hurting from this attack, and the show of support lifted their spirits. Being together actually lifted everyone’s spirits. The sense of human solidarity was contagious, and in many ways the mood at the service was celebratory — celebrating the fellowship among all of us. Christians, Jews and Muslims, of all races, came together against hate.
Bishop Staccato Powell, representing the African Methodist Episcopal Church movement, said it well: “The attackers intended to place a stumbling block, but thanks to [the outpouring of support], it instead became a steppingstone.”
The members of the church were not the only ones hurting. While this “Solidarity Sunday” was taking place in Palo Alto, about 25,000 people were marching in New York City the same day to show solidarity against anti-Semitism in a “No Hate No Fear” rally organized by the New York Jewish community. Eighteen anti-Semitic attacks against Jews were recorded in New York State in just two weeks, including the murderous rampage at a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York.
Standing up for someone else often strengthens our own courage and resolve.
“Look for the helpers,” Fred Rogers’ mom told him when bad events frightened him. I won’t soon forget the Christian, Muslim and Hindu supporters who joined with us after the Tree of Life massacre to remind us that we were not alone. Later, after the attacks on mosques in New Zealand, Jews went to offer their support at Muslim places of worship. In a sign of the times, the Muslims going inside to pray remarked how much safer they felt with their Jewish neighbors standing guard outside.
All of these attacks are an ugly curse. When they occur, the opportunity arises for any of us to respond, to act as a blessing. And when we do, it can be blindingly beautiful.
At least half of the solidarity supporters at the church on Sunday morning were Jews, and many of them wore kippot on their heads. It was striking — we’ve entered a time when many Jews are feeling sufficiently threatened that they are hiding their kippot and other external signs of Jewishness in public. Yet many went out of their way to publicly signify their Jewishness on this day. I think it was because they wanted the church parishioners to know that Jews stood with them against racism.
But it is also true that standing up for someone else often strengthens our own courage and resolve. After Jews walked into the church wearing their kippot and Jewish stars in an act of solidarity with churchgoers, I think many left feeling more proud and defiant in exerting their Jewish identities. The event was about more than just the attack on University AME Zion Church — it was about Charleston, and Charlottesville, and Pittsburgh and Monsey. It was about all of the attacks on people who look different or pray differently. It was about the power and comfort and love that comes from us coming together and supporting one another.
This is why Bishop Powell said a stumbling block became a steppingstone. I think most of us showed up carrying anger, fear, anxiety, sorrow. I think everyone left inspired and with full hearts. “This story started as someone defiling our sacred space,” Rev. Smith told us all. “Your presence is changing the story.”