Bay Area interfaith network vows to fight sin of silence

Growing up in the aftermath of World War II, the Rev. William W. Rankin read about the "quiet acquiescence" of many Christians during the Holocaust.

"I vowed I would never stand in silence when something terrible like that happened again," said Rankin. "So when the shootings happened at the [North Valley] Jewish Community Center, I knew that a strong action was called for."

Rankin's concerns eventually gave birth to the Interfaith Emergency Response Network, a San Francisco-based network which seeks to combat hate crime through prayer, rallies and education.

The network, formed in January as a project of the United Religions Initiative, (an S.F.-based organization that promotes interfaith understanding worldwide), currently has over 100 members.

To qualify for a targeted response from the IERN, the crime must be considered one of hate — a criminal act motivated by prejudice. Any actions must be approved by at least three of the six people of the network's steering committee, according to Rankin, who is the vice-president of the URI.

If the crime fits the committee's criteria, a series of events will follow, including prayers and sermons in participants' individual houses of faith, press releases and media campaigns, and community rallies.

"The first purpose of the network is to respond instantly and overwhelmingly to acts of hate violence," according to Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of San Francisco's Jewish Community Relations Council.

Kahn, also a member of the network, said the group's second objective — a show of solidarity among Bay Area's religious communities — is equally as important.

The Rev. Kelvin Sauls, of Downs Memorial United Methodist Church in Oakland, is a veteran of faith-based responses to acts of hatred.

"Martin Luther King once said that he wasn't as concerned about what the evil people of the world were saying, but more about the appalling silence of the good people," said Sauls.

The South African-born religious leader, who also serves on the network's steering committee, said he knows what the "wounds of prejudice are all about," having grown up as a black man in apartheid South Africa.

"The worst thing you can do to any victim is make them feel alone," he said.

To that end, Sauls recalled when he and over 1,000 members of the United Methodist Conference of California were attending an event in Sacramento.

When they heard that a local synagogue had been burned, they immediately halted the program.

"Almost every member of our group went to the synagogue and prayed with our Jewish brothers and sisters," said Sauls. "I told my Jewish friends that I was in pain just like them."

The new interfaith group will not be one that "talks the talk without walking the walk," concurred the Rev. Doug Huneke, the senior minister of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon.

Huneke, another member of the IERN steering committee, has been walking the walk for more than a decade.

Slightly over 10 years ago, when Huneke's church was built, it was designed in a way so that in the event that nearby congregations Kol Shofar and Rodef Sholom or the Islamic Center of Marin were damaged by vandalism, the space could instantly be converted into a non-denominational facility.

All the crucifixes can easily be taken down, and most of the other religious signage is subtle, according to Huneke.

"We also wanted to get the main sign outside the church to be removable — but it's easier to get an 11th commandment passed than get anything past the design and review board," Huneke recalled with a laugh.

The philosophy espoused by Huneke's church is reflected in the new network, according to the minister

"God forbid, if any acts of hate crime occurred from the Bay Area to the Oregon border, then our organization would be ready to ensure that it didn't drive a wedge between members of the human community."