Jewish Congregation Among Faith Groups in Solidarity As Sacramento LGBT Community Is Shaken by Hate Murder

Anti-gay Slavic Christian community suspected of harboring killer

by, July 25, 2007

Last month interfaith clergy groups marched in the lead of gay pride parades in several cities, sending a message of tolerance to haters and disparagers. Only days after their show of solidarity, the interfaith group in one of those cities, Sacramento, came together again in sadness to celebrate a life cut short by hatred of gays.

On July 1st a Russian-speaking group harassed a group of Fijians, as both groups picnicked at a local lake. The Russian speakers reportedly hurled anti-gay epithets at the Fijians and one of them punched 26-year-old Satender Singh, who fell and sustained a brain injury. His family took him off life support the following week.

At last year's Pride event, Sacramento's LGBT community suffered intimidating harassment by fundamentalist Slavic Christians. So this year, Dr. Darrick Lawson, president emeritus of the Stonewall Democrats of Greater Sacramento, told JewsOnFirst that Pride organizers asked the many local congregations that support gay rights to be a strong presence in the parade. He said they wanted the clergy presence "so as we went marching down the street the protestors would see that."

Lawson said that when the protestors saw the clergy, they looked "shell-shocked." They had been told that people of faith condemned homosexuality, he said, "and then all of a sudden there's all these people in their vestments walking down the road in support." Hear our conversation with Dr. Lawson here.

Local Jewish congregation takes an active role
The Friday before the parade, Lawson said, he participated in a Pride Shabbat service and panel discussion at Congregation B'nai Israel.

The congregation, and its rabbi, Mona Alfi, have been very active in supporting the Sacramento LGBT community.

Rabbi Alfi discussed the congregation's activism in a conversation with JewsOnFirst. She said: "The reason we took on the issue of gay rights was because over the previous year there had been a series of attacks by another faith group on the gay community in Sacramento and we felt it was important to speak up as a faith group, to show another perspective on what religion has to say, and to show another perspective of tolerance, respect, and protecting people."

Alfi continued: "Our synagogue has a long history of social action and being involved in the Sacramento community. As a result of a Simhat Torah [the holiday celebrating the conclusion and then beginning of the annual Torah cycle] seminar called Torah in Action, we wanted to see how we could become more engaged [and] take the Torah out into the world."

She said: "We decided to take on three issues: sustainable living, adopting a local neighborhood school, and gay rights," said Alfi.

"During the Pride Shabbat service we talked about Jewish values and the variety of values in the Jewish community. We had an educational seminar on the diversity of our community. We had a booth the next day," Alfi said. "We believe in having a presence."

Alfi said the congregation's response was "overwhelmingly proud, a pride not only as individuals, but as a community." She attributes that to members' roots in the Reform movement. "We believe as Reform Jews in taking the message of Tikkun Olam [repairing the world] out onto the streets and into the wider community." In an earlier report, Stella Levy wrote more about the community engagement of the Congregation B'nai Israel, whose synagogue was one of three fire-bombed in 1999 by radical right-wing brothers who subsequently murdered a gay couple.

Clergy lead parades in New York and Los Angeles
Clergy involvement in the famously zany New York Pride parade was a new development this year. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of New York City's Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the nation's largest LGBT congregation, and Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, were grand marshals.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles (the first LGBT synagogue, founded in 1972), where the presence of clergy in the annual Pride Parade has long been a given, told JewsOnFirst: "Having clergy lead the parade makes a powerful statement to both sides. It's startling to the majority of participants in a Pride parade to have religious leaders lead the way, and startling also to non-LGBT viewers to discover there are religious leaders who will march in the streets for the rights of LGBT people."

Edwards (who is a member of the JewsOnFirst Advisory Board), said the Los Angeles clergy conduct an interfaith service on the parade route "with a banner with all of our symbols on it and a little service with all the LGBT churches and synagogues. The banner says 'In Your Faith.' We stand across from all those hateful signs held by the haters. It is a way of making a statement."

Gay hatred in Sacramento
Over the last two decades, Sacramento has become home to one of the nation's largest population of immigrants from Russia and Ukraine . Most of the tens of thousands of immigrants are conservative evangelical Christians who came to America during the migrations that brought Jews to Israel and Coney Island Avenue. Protestant missionaries were active behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, when the intense struggle for religious expresssion produced fundamentalisms among some Christians and Jews.

In the last several years, some of the Slavic evangelical congregations in the Sacramento area have become known for their crude and threatening opposition to LGBT rights. They turn out in large, disruptive numbers at government hearings and gay activities. (JewsOnFirst wrote last August about intimidation of Sacramento's LGBT community by conservative Slavic Christians.)

Rabbi Mona Alfi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento notes that, as a fundamentalist group, the Slavic Christians were persecuted when they were in the former Soviet Union. But in Sacramento, she said, "They have been out there in the streets with signs and yelling and screaming."

Russian-speakers implicated in murder
And now members of the immigrant community are suspected of murdering Satender Singh.

Suspected is the operative word because, almost one month after the murder, no one has come forward with information to help authorities identify the perpetrators.

Slavic Christians have been quoted in local news reports protesting that they are being unfairly blamed for a crime whose authors remain unknown.

Sacramento County Sheriff's deputies say they responded to a 911 call three hours before the murder and searched the Lake Natomas recreation area but could not find the two groups of picnickers.

The man who made the 911 call told the local Fox News channel that the Russian-speaking group appeared to be offended that Singh was dancing to ethnic music with both men and women. He said that when Singh's group of Fijians and East Indians went into the water, the Russian-speakers walked over and spit on their blankets.

According to the Fox station, a sheriff's sergeant said witnesses reported that the Russian-speaking group also hurled "homophobic and racial slurs" at Singh's group.

Vigil for Singh
On July 8th, Sacramento religious and political leaders joined with Singh's friends and colleagues from the call center where he worked to hold a vigil in his memory.

Darrick Lawson of the Stonewall Democrats said the religious communities' earlier work with the LGBT community made possible the largely spontaneous vigil. "The relationships were already there," he said. "The Blackberrys already had all the phone numbers. We were not alone."

One of the speakers was State Senator Darrell Steinberg, a member of Congregation B'nai Israel. Steinberg later wrote an editorial in the Sacramento Bee in which he reflected on bigotry's inevitable progression to violence -- and the community's will to overcome hate.

Community leaders also formed a Satender Singh Coalition to raise funds for his burial in Fiji and pursue justice.

Will Slavic Christians join in healing or continue anti-gay rage?
At a "Diversity Summit" on July 22nd, Slavic Christians and gay and lesbian activists took initial steps toward dialogue.

In his conversation with JewsOnFirst, Lawson expressed the need for caution in blaming the Slavic Christians for Singh's murder. But he also called on them to ponder the connection between hateful speech and violent acts.

"What we need from them is to realize that hate speech leads to hate crimes and someone from their community committed these heinous acts," he said. He added: "It is a very real consequence when people feel empowered to hurt other people because some one told them to do so in the name of God, [told them] that 'God hates these [gay] people.'"

It remains to be seen, though, whether Singh's murder and the strong community response to it will convince Sacramento's fundamentalist Slavic Christians to reel in their homophobia. This winter they demonstrated that they have the potential to become shock troops for the Christian right's anti-gay agenda in a wider geography.

In January the Seattle Times reported that anti-gay Slavic leaders from Sacramento and Latvia are making common cause against gay rights with Washington state's leading homophobe, Pastor Kenneth Hutcherson. According to the paper,

The relationship with the Latvian pastor, who is visiting Hutcherson this week, has led to pro-traditional-family, anti-gay-marriage conferences in Bellevue and Sacramento, Calif. And it resulted in a recent trip to Latvia, where Hutcherson says he met with top evangelical government officials to talk about stopping "the homosexual movement saying they're a minority and that they need their equal rights."

A Sacramento Russian-language radio host and publisher of Russian-language newspapers in Sacramento and Seattle, Wade Kusak, who spoke at a Seattle event, set forth his vision of the Slavic Christians in the vanguard of a war against LGBT rights. The Seattle Times quoted Kusak saying "I consider myself more American than those who were born in this country who are destroying it." He continued:

It's no coincidence, he said, that states with growing evangelical Slavic communities are the most liberal, full of people "trying to destroy our families."

That's why God "made an injection" of Slavic evangelicals. "In those places where the disease is progressing, God made a divine penicillin."

The competing vision, in Sacramento, was articulated by Sen. Steinberg in his Sacramento Bee essay

"Hate destroys," Steinberg wrote. "But our Sacramento will continue to build, even more so after Singh's death. We will build bridges; we will build community. We will not settle for tolerance alone; we will demand acceptance and love. We will not rest until the words and actions that hurt and divide are no more."