Carol Elizabeth Owens
Growing up in Alabama, Joyce Wilson Newton heard and saw hate.
“My grandparents were Black sharecroppers on land owned by a Caucasian family,” said the Rev. Newton, a member at Genesee Baptist Church on Brooks Avenue. “At one point, when I was about 8 years old, my brother and I were told that we could no longer play with the White family’s children – simply because we were Black.”
Her grandmother had taught her how important it was not to drink from the ‘wrong’ water-fountain. “Even at such a young age, I learned that I could be arrested or killed if I drank out of the fountain reserved for ‘whites only’,” she said.
Her grandmother’s warning rang true for Newton. “In Alabama, we saw reports about murdered Black people on the news all the time, as well as images of the Ku Klux Klan using the ‘N Word’ while spewing messages of hate and chanting plans to kill African Americans,” she said.
Even walking through a neighborhood sometimes frightened Newton. “I felt that White people were going to kill us just because we were dark skinned in the South.”
Despite the menace of hate, she also heard messages of hope.
“I was thankful for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s presence, leadership and promotion of peace,” said Newton, a member of Genesee Baptist Church on Brooks Avenue. “It was wonderful that people of different races and diverse religious disciplines joined that positive movement.”
Those messages are being spread in Rochester through the new Levine Center to End Hate.
The center, housed at the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester, is hosting Arno Michaelis and Pardeep Kaleka in “Why Do We Hate?,” at 7 p.m. Nov. 21 at the Lyric Theatre, 440 East Avenue. Cost is $10, but free for students.
Michaelis is a former white supremacist who helped start a racist gang that produced a mass shooter who killed Kaleka’s father, a Sikh community leader, in 2012 at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
Michaelis and Kaleka share their experience with the power of openness, vulnerability and forgiveness in their book, The Gift of Our Wounds: A Sikh and Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate.
“Michaelis planted seeds of hatred that came back to haunt him,” said Karen Elam, director of the Levine Center to End Hate. “He created the gang that Kaleka’s father’s killer came from … think of what Michaelis had to do to leave his white power movement and begin repairing the damage he had done. Kaleka and Michaelis strive to understand origins of the level of violence that leads to destruction of lives and communities.”
Their forum in Rochester is a debut of sorts for the Levine Center, which started in 2018. Its mission is to eliminate hate by fostering tolerance and understanding through programs that explore differences, develop skills for discussion and spark cooperative, collaborative responses to all forms of hate.
“In the white community we need to rip out the seeds of intolerance and violence from the ground in order to end hatred because we are all in this together, and we must be mindful of what ‘hate’, ‘intolerance’ and objectifying the ‘other’ could turn into,” Elam said.
Newton said the discussion resonates for African Americans. “We can learn from anyone who teaches and preaches methods seeking to end hate. … We can especially learn from people who set aside anger and difference to engage in reconciliation … it’s not an easy thing to do, it takes work and practice. While it’s easy to be fueled by anger, it’s also easy to be fueled by peace, which has a basis in love. Love is the path to peace.”
The journey toward peace also requires examining society’s focus on differences.
The Rev. Julius D. Jackson, Jr., pastor of Trinity Emmanuel Presbyterian Church on Shelter Street, said exposure to other cultures and realities promotes understanding.
“We are all brothers and sisters once you navigate beyond the surfaces of ourselves … we have more similarities than differences,” Jackson stated. He also noted that, “Whether we are black, white, or various forms of ‘other’, our differences are more illusion than reality, and we must join together on our similarities in order to negate the distractions of our differences.”
Elam said young people need to hear discussions about hate and intolerance, and that Kaleka and Michaelis are bringing their story to schools.
The Levine Center works with organizations such as the Ghandi Institute, National Coalition Building Institute, RISE Program, Racial and Justice Equity Initiative, and other groups that confront institutional racism and promote restorative justice.
For registration, payment options (including inability to pay) and more information about “Why Do We Hate?,” contact Karen Bresson at (585) 241-8621 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org