By Marnie McAllister, Record Editor
The rising tide of hate-motivated violence in the United States reached Louisville Oct. 24 when Maurice Stallard, an active member of St. Bartholomew Church, and Vickie Lee Jones were shot to death at a Jeffersontown Kroger. The shootings are being investigated as a hate crime.
Just a few days later, a gunman killed 11 and injured four at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh during a baby-naming ceremony.
Hate crimes reported to police in the nation’s 10 largest cities rose 12.5 percent in 2017, according the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. The center, located at California State University, San Bernardino, said the increase is the fourth straight consecutive annual rise.
Pope Francis prayed for victims and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops joined other religious leaders around the nation in condemning the massacre at the synagogue, as well as calling for prayer and action.
“Those killed and injured represent the best of who we are: people of faith gathered to pray and celebrate the birth of a child and officers responding to the ensuing violence with no concern for their own safety,” said Bishop Joseph Bambera, chair of the bishops’ Committee for Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs. “Anti-Semitism is to be condemned and has to be confronted by our nation.”
Crimes of hate and the use of gun violence also must be addressed, said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the bishops’ conference.
“We condemn all acts of violence and hate and yet again, call on our nation and public officials to confront the plague of gun violence,” he said in a statement released Oct. 27, a few hours after the Pittsburgh shooting. “Violence as a response to political, racial, or religious differences must be confronted with all possible effort. God asks nothing less of us. He begs us back to our common humanity as his sons and daughters.”
The common humanity of all people is on the minds of St. Francis of Assisi School’s eighth-graders here in Louisville, who attended a vigil outside the Jeffersontown Kroger Sunday night.
Hate crimes aren’t new to these students, who have extensively studied the Holocaust — and the dynamics that made it possible — with curriculum pioneered by their teacher, Fred Whittaker. He helps the eighth-graders in preparation for confirmation examine the genocide through the lens of Catholic teaching and see every person as their brother or sister.
During a conversation in their classroom Oct. 30, the eighth-graders offered passionate statements of support for victims, as well as concern and frustration related to violence and hate.
They said they felt afraid but also prepared to put their faith into action.
“It’s a little scary, but with that fear is empowerment,” said Avery Ramsey, who along with her classmates has written to the rabbi of the Tree of Life Synagogue.
Lilia Biagi wrote a poem for the synagogue called “Unite.”
“We study the Shoa (Holocaust) to understand our calling to be brothers and sisters with all people,” she said, explaining her poem.
Sophie Jones expressed frustration that people aren’t more outraged, adding, “Everyone should do as much as they can” to combat hatred.
Alanna Haddow had a similar perspective, noting “This is not the America I want to grow up in. This is a generation that has no place for hate.”
In addition to sending letters, poems and artwork to the synagogue, the class plans to hold a walk next Tuesday and welcome two local speakers — African American leader Christopher 2X and a leader from the Jewish community.
“We need the perspective of groups that are marginalized,” Whittaker told his students. “They’re going to invite us into their perspective.”
The class will carry signs on their walk around the neighborhood, Whittaker said, noting, “We want to call people into a greater love and to the courage that love requires. We want to do something that offsets the event so we don’t normalize it.”
Under Whittaker’s leadership, the school’s students have for years both learned about the kind of hate that fuels such violence, but also advocated to help prevent it in the future.
His students have led two successful efforts to bring Holocaust education to all of Kentucky’s students. Their efforts were successful last year when the legislature passed the Ann Klein and Fred Gross Holocaust Education Act, which requires Holocaust education for middle and high school students. It was signed into law on April 2.
Previously, in 2008, the school’s students saw passage of the Ernie Marx Holocaust Education Act, which allowed for students to study the Holocaust, but did not make it a requirement.
Whittaker said he and his students try to never reduce their studies to mere facts, but apply its lessons to their lives and faith.
“They don’t want to be observers, but to be changed by it,” he added.
Brooklyn Pizzonia noted her class has experienced a great shift — from studying history to seeing it play out in real life.
She noted that the Holocaust was made possible in the beginning by small steps — subtle biases that emerged first in the form of little jokes and other off-handed remarks made at the expense of the Jewish people.
“It starts small with ideas and little steps,” she said.
Lilia Biagi added that her classmates had a confirmation retreat last week where they discussed the damage that can be done with subtle jabs accompanied by phrases like “just joking.”
“I find myself doing that less,” she said. “We need to abolish hate from everyday life.”