Speaking out against a rising tide of intolerance

By the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Faith Work Director

Rev. Rebecca Voelkel

Rev. Rebecca Voelkel

In 1946, while addressing the Confessing Church in Germany about the Holocaust, Pastor Martin Niemoller famously said:

“They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

Niemoller was addressing the widespread lack of protest by many in Germany against the growing storm of fascism. Now, I realize that some might call me an extremist to make the comparison between what the Nazis did in Germany and across Europe with the reaction of many to the possibility of a Islamic community center being built near the site of the 9/11 tragedy. But I am growing more concerned by the unholy union of several recent events: the reaction to the community center, the plans of a pastor in Florida to burn Qurans on Saturday — the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks — the anti-immigration law in Arizona, the disruption of the health care debates last summer, the questioning of Obama’s country of birth and the Proposition 8 battle in California. Using race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and national origin as benchmarks for who are the “real” Americans gets us dangerously close to a place we dare not go.

As a Christian, I am compelled by Niemoller’s words. And, so, I am speaking up. A community center near Ground Zero (that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf describes as like a YMCA with space for interfaith prayer) will, I pray, add one more place of peace and meditation and prayer — in much the same way the Christian chapel across the street from the site does. And in a world as broken by violence as ours we ought to be grateful such places exist. But more deeply than this, those of us who are religious persons — and in my case those of us who are both religious and LGBT — need to speak to the highest values of both our religious traditions and our country. How many Americans are reacting to the proposed Islamic community center — even to the point of burning Qurans — is, unfortunately, nothing new. We have seen it before with Catholic immigrants — especially those who were Irish, with Jewish immigrants, with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and with untold communities of color. But we have also seen the reality that when people speak up and organize against the tides of fear (whether they be dressed as racism, homophobia or xenophobia) things can change.

And so I speak — and invite those whose vision of this country is one of extravagant welcome, freedom and justice for all — to do the same.

Read more about the LGBT opposition to Fla. church’s plan to burn Qurans here.

The Rev. Rebecca Voelkel is the faith work director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the director of its Institute for Welcoming Resources, which works with the welcoming church movement.

Upcoming faith events include the Believe Out Loud Power Summit, an advanced training for leaders and activists in the welcoming church movement, in Oct. 9─11 in Orlando, Fla. Get more details here.