Fresno, California, 22 January 2017. On the eve of the 45th presidential inauguration, Muslims, Christians, Jews and Sikhs sit side by side in the front pews of Fresno’s First Congregational Church. Religious leaders as well as congregants take turns at the podium offering prayers and pleas.
“We stand here to unite in prayer and solidarity with each other and for each and every group that is marginalised in our community. We pray for peace that is rooted in justice,” says Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno. “Without justice, peace is nothing but a seductive illusion.”
Justice is the thread that weaves this crowd together. It’s an interfaith vigil, sponsored by Faith in the Valley and Faith in Fresno, to unite people who feel threatened by President Trump’s stance on Obamacare, religious freedom and immigration.
Reverend Akiko Miyake-Stoner of the United Japanese Christian Church tells a story of another divisive time in America’s history, when Japanese Americans were put in internment camps during World War II. She says a Methodist Pastor in Fresno, Melvin E Wheatley, moved into the empty home of one family to protect it from vandals and looting.
“He tells this story of being home at night and hearing gunshots outside of his house and receiving death threats,” she says.
Miyake-Stoner says she will follow in Wheatley’s footsteps and ask her Japanese-American congregation to stand in solidarity with another group that currently feels threatened: Muslims.
It’s fitting, she says, that “Japanese-Americans stand with our Muslim American brothers and sisters who have received so much hate and pain.”
Rabbi Rick Winer of Temple Beth Israel asks the audience, “what can we do as individuals, as people?” He suggests they turn to each other and explain how they will fight injustice.
Jess Fitzpatrick and his husband Jordan turn around to face two Sikhs.
Fitzpatrick says he’s seen his share of bullying and won’t tolerate it. “If I ever see somebody being verbally or physically assaulted, I will be willing and ready to step in and put myself between the person being hurt and the attacker,” he says.
Fitzpatrick, a member of the First Congregational Church, says he wants to learn more about other religions. Amrik Singh Virk, of the Sikh Council of Central California, says he is always welcome at a Sikh temple. Sikhs have an open kitchen, he says. They’ll feed anyone who is hungry. They believe any human encounter is a chance to help.
“Even if a person is stuck on the road, it is my duty that I stop and check with him,” says Virk. “This is a basic human instinct that we must fulfill our duty towards other people of helping.”
Estefania Torres served as the host for the event and introduced all of the speakers. She is a Fresno State student, and the only one of her siblings who is undocumented. She says she’s terrified she will be deported and wonders how her younger brothers and sisters would manage.
“Just because we’re so close,” she says. “So if something were to happen to me, I know it would really hurt them and my parents as well.”
It’s why she’s here tonight, she says, to speak out.
”Knowing that the community is all here to support each other, I’ve decided I would raise my voice as well,” she says. “I wanna support others and let other people know they’re not alone. I kind of wanted that reassurance for myself tonight. So not only did I do it for the other people but for myself.”