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Jews On First!

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Jewish Congregation Among Faith Groups in Solidarity As Sacramento LGBT Community Is Shaken by Hate Murder

Anti-gay Slavic Christian community suspected of harboring killer

by JewsOnFirst.org, July 25, 2007

Last month interfaith clergy groups marched in the lead of gay pride parades in several cities, sending a message of tolerance to haters and disparagers. Only days after their show of solidarity, the interfaith group in one of those cities, Sacramento, came together again in sadness to celebrate a life cut short by hatred of gays.

On July 1st a Russian-speaking group harassed a group of Fijians, as both groups picnicked at a local lake. The Russian speakers reportedly hurled anti-gay epithets at the Fijians and one of them punched 26-year-old Satender Singh, who fell and sustained a brain injury. His family took him off life support the following week.

From a Sacramento correspondent

Sacramento Pride and the Faith Community

by Stella Levy, July 15, 2007

I am having trouble finding where to begin. Today I am feeling introspective. It is my father's yartzheit.

It is also the day of the funeral for Satender Singh, the Sikh young man who died after being beaten by a Russian speaking group. In the hours prior to the attack, the Slavs had hurled racist and homophobic epithets at Singh and his friends who were picnicking nearby.

In a front page article in today's Sacramento Bee, Viktor Chernyetsky, administrator of Bethany Slavic Missionary mega-Church, is quoted as saying that homosexuality is a sin and that it is a moral duty to fight against gay rights. "We see danger that comes from the gay community, in Sacramento especially", he said, and added: "This issue is so important for our families and for our kids, and by the way, for the future of our country."

Globally, the fate of the Jewish community has often been entangled with the fate of the LGBT community. Not only because Jews are so well represented in the LGBT community, but because we have often shared the same fate whether on stage and screen or in the gas chambers. Locally, in Sacramento, our shared fate played out in the June 1999 firebombings of three Sacramento synagogues by brothers Matthew and Tyler Williams. Two weeks later, the brothers murdered a Redding gay couple, Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder, as they slept. The Williams brothers' defense: they were carrying out the will of God.

The rhetoric of sin and anti-gay vitriol have been the rallying cry of Sacramento's 30,000 plus Slavic evangelical Christians. They have been a ubiquitous, visible, shouting-in-your-face presence whenever the gay community gathers, whether for Queer Youth Advocacy Day at the Capitol, Sacramento Pride or community fairs. After reports of escalating harassment continued unabated, one Sacramento congregation decided to act. In the summer of 2006, Congregation B'nai Israel formed a gay rights committee with the goal of supporting the gay community against these attacks.

A group of about 15 congregants and Rabbi Mona Alfi responded to the request of organizers of the Queer Youth Advocacy day for adults to act as buffers between the youth and the protesters. Twice that number marched in the 2007 Sacramento Pride parade along with about 200 other members of the faith community that included Quakers, Unitarians, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others. It was the first Pride day where the faith community turned out in significant numbers. There was tremendous enthusiasm that day with talk of doubling the faith community showing in 2008.

The power and significance of faith community participation in Pride cannot be overstated. I will never forget the dignity of Rev. David Thompson of Westminster Presbyterian Church with his snow white hair and scarlet robe marching past the jeering sidewalk protesters with their hateful signs. (A child held a sign saying "Don't Sodomize Me"). Another high point came as marchers passed a group shouting " Shame on you! Shame on You" and spontaneously answered "We Love You, We Love You".

Because of the networks established following the synagogue firebombings, the gay community and the faith community immediately responded to the death of Satender Singh by holding a vigil on July 6, 2007 in the Rose Garden at Capitol Park. Rabbi Alfi and other members of B'nai Israel, including State Sen. Darrell Steinberg, participated in sympathy and solidarity with the Singh family, the Sikh community and the LGBT community.

Stella Levy lives and works in Sacramento.

At last year's Pride event, Sacramento's LGBT community suffered intimidating harassment by fundamentalist Slavic Christians. So this year, Dr. Darrick Lawson, president emeritus of the Stonewall Democrats of Greater Sacramento, told JewsOnFirst that Pride organizers asked the many local congregations that support gay rights to be a strong presence in the parade. He said they wanted the clergy presence "so as we went marching down the street the protestors would see that."

Lawson said that when the protestors saw the clergy, they looked "shell-shocked." They had been told that people of faith condemned homosexuality, he said, "and then all of a sudden there's all these people in their vestments walking down the road in support."

Local Jewish congregation takes an active role
The Friday before the parade, Lawson said, he participated in a Pride Shabbat service and panel discussion at Congregation B'nai Israel.

The congregation, and its rabbi, Mona Alfi, have been very active in supporting the Sacramento LGBT community.

Listen to JewsOnFirst's recorded interviews with Dr. Darrick Lawson and Rabbi Mona Alfi .

http://www.jewsonfirst.org/audio-video/

Rabbi Alfi discussed the congregation's activism in an interview with JewsOnFirst. She said: "The reason we took on the issue of gay rights was because over the previous year there had been a series of attacks by another faith group on the gay community in Sacramento and we felt it was important to speak up as a faith group, to show another perspective on what religion has to say, and to show another perspective of tolerance, respect, and protecting people."

Alfi continued: "Our synagogue has a long history of social action and being involved in the Sacramento community. As a result of a Simhat Torah [the holiday celebrating the conclusion and then beginning of the annual Torah cycle] seminar called Torah in Action, we wanted to see how we could become more engaged [and] take the Torah out into the world."

She said: "We decided to take on three issues: sustainable living, adopting a local neighborhood school, and gay rights," said Alfi.

"During the Pride Shabbat service we talked about Jewish values and the variety of values in the Jewish community. We had an educational seminar on the diversity of our community. We had a booth the next day," Alfi said. "We believe in having a presence."

Alfi said the congregation's response was "overwhelmingly proud, a pride not only as individuals, but as a community." She attributes that to members' roots in the Reform movement. "We believe as Reform Jews in taking the message of Tikkun Olam [repairing the world] out onto the streets and into the wider community."

In the accompanying sidebar Stella Levy writes more about the community engagement of the Congregation B'nai Israel, whose synagogue was one of three fire-bombed in 1999 by radical right-wing brothers who subsequently murdered a gay couple.

Clergy lead parades in New York and Los Angeles
Clergy involvement in the famously zany New York Pride parade was a new development this year. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of New York City's Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the nation's largest LGBT congregation, and Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, were grand marshals.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles (the first LGBT synagogue, founded in 1972), where the presence of clergy in the annual Pride Parade has long been a given, told JewsOnFirst: "Having clergy lead the parade makes a powerful statement to both sides. It's startling to the majority of participants in a Pride parade to have religious leaders lead the way, and startling also to non-LGBT viewers to discover there are religious leaders who will march in the streets for the rights of LGBT people."

Edwards (who is a member of the JewsOnFirst Advisory Board), said the Los Angeles clergy conduct an interfaith service on the parade route "with a banner with all of our symbols on it and a little service with all the LGBT churches and synagogues. The banner says 'In Your Faith.' We stand across from all those hateful signs held by the haters. It is a way of making a statement."

Gay hatred in Sacramento
Over the last two decades, Sacramento has become home to one of the nation's largest population of immigrants from Russia and Ukraine . Most of the tens of thousands of immigrants are conservative evangelical Christians who came to America during the migrations that brought Jews to Israel and Coney Island Avenue. Protestant missionaries were active behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, when the intense struggle for religious expresssion produced fundamentalisms among some Christians and Jews.

In the last several years, some of the Slavic evangelical congregations in the Sacramento area have become known for their crude and threatening opposition to LGBT rights. They turn out in large, disruptive numbers at government hearings and gay activities. (JewsOnFirst wrote last August about intimidation of Sacramento's LGBT community by conservative Slavic Christians.)

Rabbi Mona Alfi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento notes that, as a fundamentalist group, the Slavic Christians were persecuted when they were in the former Soviet Union. But in Sacramento, she said, "They have been out there in the streets with signs and yelling and screaming."

Russian-speakers implicated in murder
And now members of the immigrant community are suspected of murdering Satender Singh.

Suspected is the operative word because, almost one month after the murder, no one has come forward with information to help authorities identify the perpetrators.

Slavic Christians have been quoted in local news reports protesting that they are being unfairly blamed for a crime whose authors remain unknown.

Sacramento County Sheriff's deputies say they responded to a 911 call three hours before the murder and searched the Lake Natomas recreation area but could not find the two groups of picnickers.

The man who made the 911 call told the local Fox News channel that the Russian-speaking group appeared to be offended that Singh was dancing to ethnic music with both men and women. He said that when Singh's group of Fijians and East Indians went into the water, the Russian-speakers walked over and spit on their blankets.

According to the Fox station, a sheriff's sergeant said witnesses reported that the Russian-speaking group also hurled "homophobic and racial slurs" at Singh's group.

Vigil for Singh
On July 8th, Sacramento religious and political leaders joined with Singh's friends and colleagues from the call center where he worked to hold a vigil in his memory.

Darrick Lawson of the Stonewall Democrats said the religious communities' earlier work with the LGBT community made possible the largely spontaneous vigil. "The relationships were already there," he said. "The Blackberrys already had all the phone numbers. We were not alone."

One of the speakers was State Senator Darrell Steinberg, a member of Congregation B'nai Israel. Steinberg later wrote an editorial in the Sacramento Bee in which he reflected on bigotry's inevitable progression to violence -- and the community's will to overcome hate.

Community leaders also formed a Satender Singh Coalition to raise funds for his burial in Fiji and pursue justice.

Will Slavic Christians join in healing or continue anti-gay rage?
At a "Diversity Summit" on July 22nd, Slavic Christians and gay and lesbian activists took initial steps toward dialogue.

In his conversation with JewsOnFirst, Lawson expressed the need for caution in blaming the Slavic Christians for Singh's murder. But he also called on them to ponder the connection between hateful speech and violent acts.

"What we need from them is to realize that hate speech leads to hate crimes and someone from their community committed these heinous acts," he said. He added: "It is a very real consequence when people feel empowered to hurt other people because some one told them to do so in the name of God, [told them] that 'God hates these [gay] people.'"

It remains to be seen, though, whether Singh's murder and the strong community response to it will convince Sacramento's fundamentalist Slavic Christians to reel in their homophobia. This winter they demonstrated that they have the potential to become shock troops for the Christian right's anti-gay agenda in a wider geography.

In January the Seattle Times reported that anti-gay Slavic leaders from Sacramento and Latvia are making common cause against gay rights with Washington state's leading homophobe, Pastor Kenneth Hutcherson. According to the paper,

The relationship with the Latvian pastor, who is visiting Hutcherson this week, has led to pro-traditional-family, anti-gay-marriage conferences in Bellevue and Sacramento, Calif. And it resulted in a recent trip to Latvia, where Hutcherson says he met with top evangelical government officials to talk about stopping "the homosexual movement saying they're a minority and that they need their equal rights."

A Sacramento Russian-language radio host and publisher of Russian-language newspapers in Sacramento and Seattle, Wade Kusak, who spoke at a Seattle event, set forth his vision of the Slavic Christians in the vanguard of a war against LGBT rights. The Seattle Times quoted Kusak saying "I consider myself more American than those who were born in this country who are destroying it." He continued:

It's no coincidence, he said, that states with growing evangelical Slavic communities are the most liberal, full of people "trying to destroy our families."

That's why God "made an injection" of Slavic evangelicals. "In those places where the disease is progressing, God made a divine penicillin."

The competing vision, in Sacramento, was articulated by Sen. Steinberg in his Sacramento Bee essay.

"Hate destroys," Steinberg wrote. "But our Sacramento will continue to build, even more so after Singh's death. We will build bridges; we will build community. We will not settle for tolerance alone; we will demand acceptance and love. We will not rest until the words and actions that hurt and divide are no more."

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Recorded Conversations with two Sacramento leaders
Rabbi Mona Alfi of Congregation B'nai Israel and Dr. Darrick Lawson, president emeritus of the Stonewall Democrats of Greater Sacramento, discuss their work for social justice

Interviews and introduction by Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, JewsOnFirst.org, July 17, 2007

Rabbi Mona Alfi of Congregation B'nai Israel, and Dr. Derrick Lawson, president emeritus of the Stonewall Democrats of Sacramento, took a leadership role in Sacramento's Pride parade. Then both came forward to bring the community together in the wake of the murder of Satender Singh in an apparent anti-gay hate crime. They are ideally situated to help us understand the events of the last several weeks.

In the recorded conversation, Rabbi Alfi emphasizes her community's efforts to develop a social action program to bring "Torah" into the community. She speaks about her own and her congregation's long-time commitment to social justice.

Dr. Darrick Lawson is a long time leader in the Sacramento LGBT community. His own story of finding a faith that made room for his relationship to God -- and that God loves him for who he is -- is very moving. Dr. Lawson also speaks emphatically about the fundamentalist Slavic Christian community's responsibility for creating a climate in which hate speech has progressed to violence.

http://www.jewsonfirst.org/audio-video/
Satender Singh Justice Coalition Appeals for Funds

From Rabbi Mona Alfi, Congregation B'nai Israel, July 16, 2007

Since Rabbi Alfi sent this appeal, Satender Singh's remains have been flown home to Fiji. But funds are still needed to defray expenses.

As part of formulating a broad, multi-tiered response to this awful crime, the "Satender Justice Coalition" is trying to help raise money to help Mr. Singh's family send him home to Fiji for a proper burial. Mr. Singh, was of the Sikh faith. As with many cultures, it is important for him to be buried in his homeland with his family.

Checks may be made payable to Parkside Community Church and sent to 5700 S. Land Park Drive, Sacramento CA 95822.

Vigil for Satender Singh in Sacramento

Nate Feldman, YouTube.com, July 8, 2007

Satender Singh's death mobilized distinguished members of Sacramento's religious and political leadership to participate in memorial vigil. The vigil for Mr. Singh's brought together people from his work and from many ethnic groups who lovingly remembered his infectious humor and optimistic demeanor.

The speakers included: Reverend Dr. Susan Hamilton of Parkside Community Church; Dr. Darrick Lawson, president emeritus of the Stonewall Democratic Club of Sacramento; Alice Wong, the public safety officer for the Capitol; Rabbi Mona Alfi of Congregation B'nai Israel; Darrel Steinberg, California State Senator. Rev. Brian Baker of Trinity Cathedral led a concluding pledge to Satender Singh's memory written by the Anti-Defamation League calling for openness and tolerance. Click here.

911 Call Fails To Stop Deadly Lake Natoma Beating

KTLX Fox 40 Television Broadcasting, Sacramento, CA, July 18, 2007

FOLSOM -- Sheriff's deputies were warned about an increasingly angry confrontation between two groups that led to the death of a 26-year-old Fijian immigrant, but the officers could not find the site, a sheriff's spokesman said Wednesday.

Wolfgang Chargin of Folsom called 911 on July 1 to report that trouble was brewing between a group of Russian-speaking people and a group of Fijian and East Indian immigrants in a picnic area at Lake Natoma near Folsom.

The call came in to the California Highway Patrol and was transferred to the Sacramento County Sheriff's dispatcher about three hours before the fatal confrontation. Satender Singh was punched and hit his head when he fell. He died a few days later after being taken off life support. Continue.

Update on Satendar Singh as of Sunday, July 22, 2007

Stonewall Democratic Club of Sacramento, July 22, 2007

Representatives from the Satendar Justice Coalition met with Sheriff John McGinness on Tuesday, July 17 regarding the Satendar Singh alleged Hate Crime murder investigation. As a reminder, the Coalition was created in the wake of Satendar’s death, and consists of people representing the LGBT, African American, Muslim, API, and Sikh communities, as well as Faith leaders from many other denominations. The group walked away from the meeting with renewed confidence that the Sherriff was treating this investigation with the importance that it deserves.

Sheriff McGinness assured the group that his department was aggressively investigating the crime. They are placing a great deal of emphasis, from various resources in the sheriff's department, on the case. We felt that Sheriff McGinness understood the importance of this investigation to the LGBT community. We voiced our concerns and our fears and felt that he was sympathetic to our needs and that he will do all in his power to ensure that those responsible will be caught. In addition, we are encouraged by his understanding and acknowledgement of the escalating volatility of anti-gay protests by members of the Slavic fundamentalist community. Sheriff McGinness expressed his willingness to meet with the Slavic fundamentalist ministers and other leaders from that community to dissuade them from continuing to engage in the kind of rhetoric that incites people to overstep the bounds of civility and decency while they participate in our country’s freedom of expression. Continue.

Tragedy of hate crime, murder rallies community

Opinion article by Darrell Steinberg, The Sacramento Bee, July 22, 2007. Steinberg is a State Senator representing Sacramento.

America has always represented hope for a better life to people around the world, but for some new Americans, that dream can become a nightmare.

Satender Singh was attacked on July 1 in an apparent hate crime at Lake Natoma and removed from life-support four days later. Singh came to this country of freedom in peace and with a desire to build his life. But tragically his new life ended just as it was beginning. He died because a group of people expressed their hatred and their bigotry in the way most bigotry eventually expresses itself, through violence.

The murder of Singh, and the reaction to the death of the 26-year-old immigrant from Fiji, showed the worst and best of the Sacramento community in one stroke. Continue.

Marcos Bretón: Community has stake in finding killer

Column by Marcos Bretón, Sacramento Bee, July 22, 2007

Somewhere, maybe within the borders of Sacramento, a group of people are hiding from authorities after witnessing a murder.

They have acted like fugitives while the impact of a punch to the face, a ruptured brain stem, the taking of a life grows larger with each passing day.

Someone attacked Satender Singh at Lake Natoma on July 1, an unspeakable crime -- possibly a hate crime.

It means Sacramento is now a town where one man may have killed another because he thought his victim was gay, and where that killer has found refuge in the silence of the people there with him that day. Continue.

Hate assailed at summit
Slavic bishop blasts prejudice in wake of Singh killing

Kim Minugh, Sacramento Bee, July 22, 2007

There was no mistaking the fundamental differences between Bishop Nikolay Gelis and most of his audience Saturday at the first West Coast Diversity Summit.

His Russian words reverberating throughout Trinity Cathedral Hall in midtown Sacramento, Gelis preached with the help of a translator that he believes "normal families" are men and women who produce children, building strong communities for the betterment of a nation.

In the audience sat about 50 gay and lesbian activists and allies, undoubtedly with different definitions of family and societal betterment.

But in the end came common ground. Continue.

Religious Groups Take Lead for Gay Pride

Karen Matthews, Associated Press, Findlaw.com, June 24, 2007

NEW YORK-Religious groups led the city's gay pride parade on Sunday, lending gravity to an often outrageous event that also featured a jumble of drag queens in feather boas, marching bands, motorcycle-riding lesbians, rugby players and samba dancers.

"We stand for a progressive religious voice," said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of New York City's Congregation Beth Simchat Torah. "Those who use religion to advocate an anti-gay agenda, I believe, are blaspheming God's name."

The annual parade, one of dozens around the world, commemorates the 1969 Stonewall riots in which patrons at a Greenwich Village gay bar fought back against a police raid.Continue.

Of God and gay rights
Evangelicals, liberal religious groups on hand at annual Pride Parade

Melissa Nix, Sacramento Bee, June 17, 2007

Conversation about religion dominated much of Saturday's gay pride celebration. But the big question of the day seemed to be: Whose point of view was the right one?

And whose God?

That of the 150 or so evangelical Christians who marched along the Pride Parade route to protest what they claim is a sinful lifestyle? Continue.

Sacramento Pride Parade Fair SacPride Gay and Lesbian Center

Nate Feldman, YouTube.com, June 29, 2007

The opening scenes from the June 2007 Gay Pride Parade show the hostile signs carried by adults and even children, some of whom are identified as members of the Slavic Christian community. Above the noise of the parade are the derisive shouts of protesters.

Nate Feldman, the maker of this video, captures a very important record of the intolerance displayed that day -- and at the same time the very homey in-the-park feel of a sunny day, food and friends. Click here.

Militant Christians...

Huw, SARX, July 7th, 2007

I’ve read several news reports on the current Christian Vs Gays issues in California ...

A couple of things stand out: the phrase "Slavic Christians" is used over and over. I clicked through originally in fear of finding the same Russian creeps, with their icons, spitting on Gays in Sacramento. No. This is Slavic Protestants, fleeing persecution (from the Orthodox) in their homelands who have come here to share the love. Continue.

Gay-rights foe finds new allies in Slavic churches

Janet I. Tu, Seattle Times, January 27, 2007

On a recent Sunday morning, at a strip mall in Kent, a few hundred people gathered to worship, rocking out to a band playing contemporary worship songs and cheering on the fiery pastor -- all in Russian.

This might seem an unlikely place for Ken Hutcherson -- Redmond's Antioch Bible Church senior pastor, who is known for outspoken views against homosexuality -- to look for allies in his effort to overturn a state law banning discrimination against gays and lesbians.

But then Pastor Andrey Shapovalov asked the children to come forward. Bless them, he said. "Pray that none of them become homosexuals or lesbians or have abortions or live a life of crime." Continue.

For Gays, a Loud New Foe
Sacramento's large enclave of immigrant Slavic evangelicals is becoming a force on social issues. Their actions shock many.

By Rone Tempest, The Los Angeles Times, October 13, 2006

This in-depth report tells how the Slavic Christians settled in large numbers in Sacramento and have been effectively organized against gay rights. Click here.

Militant Slavic Christians threaten progress on gay rights in California
Immigrants who fled Soviet persecution to California menacing Sacramento LGBT community

by JewsOnFirst, August 9, 2006

Aggressive Slavic Christian immigrants are terrorizing gays and lesbians in Sacramento. These militants, organized through their churches, have been in the forefront of religious right opposition to legislation promoting respect of gays and lesbians in California's public schools. So fierce has that opposition been, that the bill's author was forced to remove one of its two sections.

Such a retreat is unusual in California, a blue, generally gay-friendly state. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in response to the religious right's onslaught, promised to veto the measure, Senate Bill 1437, before the legislature even acted on it.

So this week, citing "endless distortions and falsehoods," Sen. Sheila Kuehl, the bill's author and the state's first openly lesbian legislator, removed language requiring school textbooks to mention the sexual orientation of historically significant gay and lesbian individuals. Continue

There is additional material about the Slavic Christians' activities in 2006 here.