Stories of despair and calls for action to protect the most vulnerable and all “who feel their belonging in our country is being questioned and threatened” was the focus of an interfaith vigil in Fresno on Thursday on the eve of the presidential inauguration.
Speakers of many faiths denounced divisive political rhetoric against Mexicans and Muslims, and vowed to protect undocumented people and rally in support of affordable health care for all.
Tears filled the eyes of high school student Estefania Torres as she opened the event attended by around 100 people Thursday night at First Congregational Church (Big Red Church).
“The night I realized that Donald Trump had been elected as our next president, I felt as if my life and walls were crumbling down on me,” said Torres, who attends St. Anthony Mary Claret Catholic Church in Fresno. “I spent the whole night crying and questioning my future. Why? Because my parents brought me here when I was 2 years old. I am undocumented. I feel hopeless and powerless.”
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We are committed to do everything we can to defend every member of our community against any threats. People of faith are more committed than ever to act as the moral compass that we need to be for the new president and elected leaders.
Rabbi Rick Winer
The vigil was organized by Faith in Fresno (formerly called Faith in Community) as part of Faith in the Valley, which represents around 120 congregations. Similar events were held in other cities throughout the central San Joaquin Valley under the umbrella of PICO National Network, a collection of faith-based organizations that work to address issues facing communities.
“Unity, love, togetherness – no more division, no more hate,” said Sharon Avril of Carter Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church during an opening prayer: “Let us stand as one people, under your yoke, serving those who are less fortunate.”
As fists clench, we pray for open hearts.
Rabbi Laura Winer
Jess Fitzpatrick of First Congregational Church and vice chair of Trans-E-Motion, an educational resource and support group for the transgender community, said after Trump was elected, “We started seeing the hate, the threats and the violence roll out of our country like some long-held-back wave.”
At the time, Fitzpatrick was organizing a Transgender Day of Remembrance and started receiving more reports of people who killed themselves or were attacked for being transgender, gay, Muslim or Hispanic.
“And I came here to my church on Sunday, and I cried,” Fitzpatrick said, “and I then heard the good words of my friend Jan, who promised me that if there was ever going to be a registry – whether it was a Muslim registry, or a Hispanic registry, or a gay registry – she would put her name on that, and that gave me hope.
“And my friend Kathy, who is sitting right next to me right now, told me that she will stand by me and she will stand in front of me, if she had to, and I recognized that this should be the power of our faith that moves us and compels us into the action not just to care and to send prayers and thoughts to those who are suffering, but move in an action to protect them and their lives, as God protected ours.”
Marcel Woodruff, a software engineer who attends Westside Church of God, shared an example of how he is working to protect others, by developing new technology to help undocumented people find support.
If we work together, we can make the best of this.
Rabbi Rick Winer of Temple Beth Israel urged the crowd to remember that political leaders are elected representatives, and that “we are making a demand for a just and inclusive America.” The evening’s program included giving out the phone numbers for the Washington offices of local congressmen Jim Costa and Devin Nunes.
Jen McLelland of the Unitarian Universalist Church received vigorous applause for her defense of the Affordable Care Act, which she said her family relies on to keep her young disabled son alive. She said before Obamacare, some insurance policies had lifetime limits of how much they were willing to pay out to any individual – limits that her young son, who is connected to breathing and feeding tubes, would exceed within his first nine months of life.
“If Obamacare gets repealed, lifetime limits can come back,” she said. “For-profit health insurance companies will get to decide the value of all of our lives. … If Devin Nunes wants to repeal Obamacare, I invite him to come to our house and unplug that ventilator.”
Sara Salgado of Valley Christian Center, who has worked in the U.S. as an undocumented person for 20 years, shared fears for the future of her children and young granddaughter.
“We have to move forward, stepping firm, all of us, united, like Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King did,” she said. “United under one cause, led by faith and love. We must not think negatively. We must not feel frustrated, and we can’t live in fear. We have to be steady in this fight for justice.”
Rev. Akiko Miyake-Stoner of United Japanese Christian Church compared threats against Muslim Americans today to what Japanese Americans experienced during World War II, when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps.
The Islamophobia that is so rampant in our community disgusts me and disheartens me.
Rev. Akiko Miyake-Stoner
She vowed to continue to educate her congregation “on the true meaning of Islam as a religion of peace and charity and goodwill in our humble way to stand with our Muslim neighbors.”
Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, stressed that peace cannot exist without justice.
“I urge all of you in seeking peace that we first always pray for justice, for without one the other has no value.”
Amrik Virk of the Sikh Council of Central California said all people are equal in the eyes of God and that he is standing up for “all who are being hated.”
“United we stand, divided we fall,” Virk said. “In America, we need to unite together and outside, with other countries, we have to cooperate, otherwise we cannot be a strong country. We cannot make America great again if we are not united.”
Love is stronger than hate.
Rev. Tim Kutzmark
Rabbi Laura Winer of Temple Beth Israel offered a prayer that she said was inspired by Jewish tradition and the Declaration of Independence.
“In each generation, we are called to take action,” she said, “to preserve and to protect those fragile dreams upon which our nation was founded. … Now is not the time to avert our gaze from what troubles our hearts. Now is the time to build friendships, not walls.”
Rev. Tim Kutzmark of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno led a blessing for people traveling to events and marches around the country Saturday aimed at “reminding this nation that love is more powerful than hate.”
Fresno State student Sara Mirza of MyDeen Islamic Center said that people of different faiths and cultures can learn much from one another, “if we take the time to do so.”
“I encourage you to learn about someone who is different from you,” she said, “because upcoming events are going to affect all of us.”