Sacramento Pride and the Faith Community

by Stella Levy, July 15, 2007

I am having trouble finding where to begin. Today I am feeling introspective. It is my father's yartzheit.

It is also the day of the funeral for Satender Singh, the Sikh young man who died after being beaten by a Russian speaking group. In the hours prior to the attack, the Slavs had hurled racist and homophobic epithets at Singh and his friends who were picnicking nearby.

In a front page article in today's Sacramento Bee, Viktor Chernyetsky, administrator of Bethany Slavic Missionary mega-Church, is quoted as saying that homosexuality is a sin and that it is a moral duty to fight against gay rights. "We see danger that comes from the gay community, in Sacramento especially", he said, and added: "This issue is so important for our families and for our kids, and by the way, for the future of our country."

Globally, the fate of the Jewish community has often been entangled with the fate of the LGBT community. Not only because Jews are so well represented in the LGBT community, but because we have often shared the same fate whether on stage and screen or in the gas chambers. Locally, in Sacramento, our shared fate played out in the June 1999 firebombings of three Sacramento synagogues by brothers Matthew and Tyler Williams. Two weeks later, the brothers murdered a Redding gay couple, Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder, as they slept. The Williams brothers' defense: they were carrying out the will of God.

The rhetoric of sin and anti-gay vitriol have been the rallying cry of Sacramento's 30,000 plus Slavic evangelical Christians. They have been a ubiquitous, visible, shouting-in-your-face presence whenever the gay community gathers, whether for Queer Youth Advocacy Day at the Capitol, Sacramento Pride or community fairs. After reports of escalating harassment continued unabated, one Sacramento congregation decided to act. In the summer of 2006, Congregation B'nai Israel formed a gay rights committee with the goal of supporting the gay community against these attacks.

A group of about 15 congregants and Rabbi Mona Alfi responded to the request of organizers of the Queer Youth Advocacy day for adults to act as buffers between the youth and the protesters. Twice that number marched in the 2007 Sacramento Pride parade along with about 200 other members of the faith community that included Quakers, Unitarians, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others. It was the first Pride day where the faith community turned out in significant numbers. There was tremendous enthusiasm that day with talk of doubling the faith community showing in 2008.

The power and significance of faith community participation in Pride cannot be overstated. I will never forget the dignity of Rev. David Thompson of Westminster Presbyterian Church with his snow white hair and scarlet robe marching past the jeering sidewalk protesters with their hateful signs. (A child held a sign saying "Don't Sodomize Me"). Another high point came as marchers passed a group shouting " Shame on you! Shame on You" and spontaneously answered "We Love You, We Love You".

Because of the networks established following the synagogue firebombings, the gay community and the faith community immediately responded to the death of Satender Singh by holding a vigil on July 6, 2007 in the Rose Garden at Capitol Park. Rabbi Alfi and other members of B'nai Israel, including State Sen. Darrell Steinberg, participated in sympathy and solidarity with the Singh family, the Sikh community and the LGBT community.

Stella Levy lives and works in Sacramento.