It is time for congregations to develop protocols for responding to hate initiatives on their doorsteps.
As the intolerant lose any self-discipline in lashing out at others, we can expect a fresh round of cross-burnings, gay-bashing graffiti and online vitriol. At an Episcopal church in Delaware recently, for example, worshippers returned to their cars to find leaflets attacking them for being an inclusive church.
Such incidents are happening throughout our deeply divided nation, as well as in European states dealing with ethnic diversity and neo-Nazism. If your church, or its denomination, is identified as inclusive, performing same-sex weddings, welcoming women into leadership, collaborating with Jews and Muslims, or honoring racial diversity, including mixed-race couples, you can expect to be noticed and, increasingly, targeted.
Will that mean a hundred hate initiatives, or a thousand, or a million? There’s no way to know. But being prepared seems sadly necessary.
Here are some suggested protocols for handling hate initiatives affecting your congregation:
1. CALL THE POLICE. Hate crimes require investigation and prosecution, perhaps involving federal authorities. Otherwise, victims become fearful, communities get divided and the offenders accelerate.
2. LEADERS MUST LEAD. Clergy and lay leaders must work as a team and get out front. The congregation needs to know that this is a safe place. No hysteria, no cowering, no secrets.
3. TAKE CONCRETE ACTION TO PROTECT THE VULNERABLE, ESPECIALLY THE TARGETS OF HATE. I’m not thinking guns, but hugs, food, affirmation, safe places to stay — tangible reminders that they are a valued part of the whole faith community. Later, education and story sharing. Even those who disagree with inclusive stances need to stand as one with the faith community, saying to all, “You can’t do this to us.”
4. COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE. In every possible way, from newsletters to blogs to telephone calls to open meetings to social media, get the word out: what happened, what it seems to mean, what actions have been taken, what will come next, how people can help.
5. PREPARE A LEGAL RESPONSE. In advance, if possible, consult with an attorney on who can speak for the congregation, what can be said, how to cooperate with law enforcement, and what liability issues, if any, might arise. Have a plan ready.
6. WORK WITH OTHER CONGREGATIONS. If one congregation is likely to be targeted, so are similar congregations in your larger community. Talk it over with leaders of those congregations, including synagogues and mosques, in advance. Be prepared to stand together as a solid faith witness. I suggest you reach out also to religious leaders who don’t share your views or practices. Haters besmirch them, as well as you. It will help everyone if faithful people, across all lines, are seen as putting God above preferences.
7. BE NOT AFRAID. Hatemongers only succeed when they make people afraid. If people are determined to stay calm, united and self-confident, the hate initiative will fizzle.
TOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York. His new Fresh Day online magazine offers fresh words about faith and life, fresh voices, fresh ideas. For a free trial go to freshday.org.