Feb. 4 is the birthday of Rosa Parks, the “mother of the civil rights movement,” who said her courageous stand against segregation was an “act of faith” made possible by “strength from God.” This week’s clergy discuss why standing up — or sitting down — for your religious beliefs is still important.
Sister Mary Alice Piil
Director, faith formation, Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre
To answer this question one must begin with the fact that there exists a natural law, which grounds the belief and behavior of all religious persons. The role of religion is to interpret this law. My religion teaches me to respect the dignity of every human person. But this respect cannot be simply a professed fact. My behavior toward others must flow from this belief. History provides us with examples of this point. Rosa Parks sought the human dignity of every black person to be seated on the bus in their seat of choice. The motivation and courage Rosa needed to sit on the bus flowed from her religious beliefs formed in the Baptist Church. The late Sister Marie Eucharia, of the Sisters of St. Joseph, traveled from Brentwood, Long Island, to Selma, Alabama, to express her religious belief in the dignity of every human person by marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to support Rosa’s actions. The challenges to the practice of one’s religious faith continue today. Various groups within society attempt to limit one’s acting from one’s deepest convictions. Religiously motivated individuals are told that they are free to worship within the church but not to live the faith from their convictions. This being said, at no time does one’s religious freedom to fight for a particular need give one the license to harm another. Nonviolence is a given when one struggles to bring about the right of every human person to the dignity given them by God.
The Rev. Henrietta Scott Fullard
Presiding elder, Long Island District, African Methodist Episcopal Churches
Religious beliefs are sacred and are dependent upon an eternal God who allows his Holy Spirit in us to communicate with Him. When we are dedicated to a particular religious belief, we have a sacred commitment that the spirit will empower us to defend. One must always be ready to defend and fight for religious beliefs. Religious beliefs compel us to move forward with external and internal strengths. When the spirit urges us to take action, we will stand tall for what we believe in. It’s then that we will gather strength for the defense of our beliefs. We need only to look to biblical characters who stood and fought for their religious beliefs. David, as a teenager, fought Goliath for his beliefs. He put his life on the line for his beliefs. I, also, put my religious beliefs on the line. At the age of 16, I chose to march in a student protest for our civil rights. I believed in the right to vote, integrated schools and public facilities, equal justice, equality for all, and eradication of racism. I was arrested and taken to the [now demolished] South Carolina Penitentiary. I remember the dark days there sleeping on the cold concrete floor for two weeks without bedding, toiletries, change of clothes or any other supplies. I will not be denied any of my God-given rights without a fight. It’s time to accomplish the religious fight through love, peace and mercy.
Cantor Irene Failenbogen
The New Synagogue of Long Island, Brookville
Why is it important to fight for your religious beliefs? My Jewish beliefs were tested in my second-grade public school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Some girl from out of nowhere, as I was erasing the blackboard, called me, in Spanish, a “filthy Jew.” I went home crying that day, after having my first physical fight by pushing each other and pulling each other’s hair. This experience of obvious anti-Semitism marked my Jewish identity in a surprising way. I refused to go back to my public school, so my parents found a Hebrew school where I could study regular curriculum in the morning and in the afternoon I could learn Hebrew, the Bible and Jewish music. During these seven years of education, I learned the value of representing a religion that has countless messages of peace, oneness with all humanity and teachings of wisdom and understanding of the divinity. This experience built my calling as a cantor in New York. I am still singing many of the Sabbath melodies that I learned in my childhood. I still feel the same pride in representing a faith of love and echad (the Hebrew word for oneness). The challenge now, for all people and leaders in fighting for religious beliefs, is to keep remembering the wisdom of Confucius resonant in the words of Rabbi Hillel: “Do not do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you.” In other words, every faith worth fighting for has the core spirit of respect for each other’s beliefs and of not bringing harm to anyone who is different.