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Belmont Unitarian Universalists Offer Religious Response to Racism
First Church in Belmont, (Massachusetts) Unitarian Universalist, is located in an affluent suburb outside of Boston that is 92 percent white. Belmont is less than ten miles away from Boston but the disparities between suburban Belmont and urban Dorchester (a neighborhood of Boston) in terms of racial composition, and the inequalities in terms of economic wealth, safety and well being, are abundantly clear.
This everyday fact became a shattering reality for people in Belmont and Dorchester the day that Herman Taylor III (HT3) was murdered in July 2006. Herman was the thirty-seventh murder victim in Boston in 2006. The year closed with seventy-three homicides in Boston, most of them young African American men, while the last murder in Belmont was in the 1960s. However, unlike many of the other young murder victims in Boston, Taylor was attending high school in Belmont as part of the School Choice program.
He was an accomplished and popular student and athlete and several members of the First Church Youth Group were his friends. His murder last July put a face on Boston's homicide epidemic for a community that hadn't had a murder in more than forty years.
Herm Taylor was not a faceless unknown victim in the inner city; he was a member of the community. His death led his friends at First Church and their minister Rev. Edmund Robinson to challenge the urban/suburban divide.
Robinson led a call to action:
"When children are being murdered in the inner city, when children are living in fear, when children are not safe—the community must act. We cannot stand aside safely in the suburbs when children are at risk. We stand in solidarity with the families in Dorchester, in Roxbury, in Mattapan. 'Their' children are 'our' children and it is up to all of us to work for all of our children's safety and well being."
Taylor's death moved the Belmont and Dorchester communities to work together. His family, particularly his two sisters, reached out to community and religious leaders. Belmont organizations, such as Belmont Against Racism and First Church Unitarian Universalist, joined with the Black Ministerial Alliance, Freedom House, Dorchester People for Peace, Save the Youth Ministries, the Nation of Islam, the Roxbury Multiservice Center, and several city councilors and state representatives to form the HT3 Peace Network in Taylor's memory.
Through this collaborative effort, the network organized a Taking Back Our Neighborhood Peace March and Rally in Grove Hall, the neighborhood in Dorchester where Herman was killed. The organizers chose to make the march as visible as possible—holding it during 5 p.m. rush hour on September 11—to underscore their point that people's lives were being lost or destroyed by the ongoing violence:
"We are sending a message about the critical need for peace and solidarity in communities terrorized by violence on America's streets. We can no longer tolerate living in a country where we stand idly by while people's lives—from grieving families to frustrated officials—are being interrupted more each day as the issues feeding this problem continue to escalate."
Belmont youth group member Erika Zarowin, who helped organize the march said, "Herm's death was a tragic loss for our high school class, but I felt the need to do something constructive. Helping show his neighborhood the power of voice and importance of demonstrating for peace proved to be a rewarding and empowering experience."
The events brought out 500 people, including over fifty from Belmont. The First Church youth group helped organize the Belmont contingent from their congregation and their high school.
In addition, the partnership created the HT3 Peace Fund, to provide scholarships to inner city youth for schools and camps, and continued ongoing anti-racism work that embraces a 'village model' of addressing the crises of youth violence by connecting youth with resources for education, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, and anti-violence programs.
First Church has a history of confronting racism. In response to the violence that erupted following the beating of Rodney King, the congregation helped establish Belmont Against Racism, which raises funds to provide anti-racism training for teachers and community leaders; holding speakers' series on institutional racism; supporting affordable housing initiatives; monitoring the Police Department for racial profiling; and establishing a Human Rights Committee to hear complaints of discriminations.
This year's annual Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast sponsored by Belmont Against Racism was dedicated to celebrating Herman Taylor's life. His sister, Marisa Coleman, spoke to the audience of more than 400 people about her journey after her brother's death and thanked the audience and the town for their "continued love and support."
As Black History Month approaches, seven months after Taylor's murder, First Church UU continues its work by launching The Fences that Divide Us as the month's theme. The congregation will sponsor a workshop on race and class, and the church's youth group will be in San Antonio during the February school break, volunteering with a Mennonite and Catholic group, called DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection). The group's work is focused on providing aid and rights to immigrant communities.
The witness and work continues. First Church's Gulf Coast social initiative is organizing a service trip from February 26 through March 3 to the Turkey Creek community in North Gulfport, Mississippi. The week will also include a day in New Orleans to allow participants to learn more about New Orleans recovery efforts and provide volunteers and donations for ongoing work in the devastated city. The congregation is raising funds to purchase Home Depot and Lowe's gift cards to donate to the Mississippi Coast Interfaith Disaster Warehouse in Biloxi and Turkey Creek in North Gulfport.
"Universalists are often asked where they stand," Rev. L. B. Fisher said in 1921. "The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move." On January 29, Rev. Edmund Robinson took that notion one step further, in a sermon titled "What Moves Us." In it, he examined the various strands of theological belief underpinning the liberal commitment to social justice. Unitarian Universalists are not agreed on theological matters, but they can agree on the necessity to fight for social justice, he said. "In the end, it comes down to making love real in the world."