(RNS) — Citing the murders of a Sikh man and a Black churchgoer on the anniversaries of their killings, President Biden, at a White House summit Thursday (Sept. 15), addressed hate-fueled violence, committing to new and renewed measures to combat hate, including attacks aimed at people of faith.
“There’s a throughline of hate, from massacres of Indigenous people to the original sin of slavery, terror of the (Ku Klux) Klan, anti-immigration violence against the Irish, Italians, Chinese, Mexicans — so many others laced through our history,” he said in an address at a daylong event called United We Stand.
“There’s a throughline of violence against religious groups — antisemitic, anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, anti-Muslim, anti-Hindu, anti-Sikh. That throughline of hate never fully goes away. It only hides.”
Federal resources will be allocated, administration officials said, to train people at houses of worship, in workplaces and local law enforcement to identify, report and combat violence linked to hate, the president said.
In welcoming remarks, Vice President Kamala Harris noted that hate crimes reached their highest rate in more than a decade in 2020. “We have seen our neighbors, our friends, our loved ones attacked simply because of who they are or where they pray,” she said.
The president’s fiscal year 2023 budget request “significantly increases” the Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which provides houses of worship with funds to protect them against attacks. The program received $250 million in the 2022 fiscal year; the proposed funding requested in June was $360 million.
The livestreamed summit, which took place in the White House’s East Room, brought together faith leaders and survivors, who spoke of their experiences. Biden was introduced by Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, a counterprotester killed at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The president acknowledged Rana Singh Sodhi, the brother of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the Sikh man who was mistaken for a Muslim and killed in the days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Sarah Collins Randolph, who survived the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham 59 years ago. Her sister Addie Mae Collins was one of four girls who died that day.
The president said that Sodhi and Randolph exemplify the universality of grief, but also of love and hope.
“The power is within each of us to transform the story of our time,” he said, “to rise together against hate, to show who we are. We are the United States of America. There’s nothing, nothing beyond our capacity.”
Osama Hassan, imam of Texas’ Victoria Islamic Center, which was destroyed by an arsonist in 2017 and rebuilt with support from 20,000 people from more than 90 countries, said before a moment of silence: “We all pray for unity, safety, salvation.”
In the audience were other survivors and family members of those lost to violence at houses of worship, as well as the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and other scenes of hate crimes.
The summit was organized at the behest of leaders of several civil rights organizations who sent a letter to the president in the wake of the killing of 10 Black people by a white gunman at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York.
The organizations, including the National Action Network and the Anti-Defamation League, issued a statement describing the event as one step in addressing the violence. “This must be Day One in a renewed effort to squash violent extremism of all forms,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the National Action Network’s president.
Biden pointed to new efforts by interfaith organizations and other community groups dedicated to fostering unity. “As part of this summit, nonprofit organizations like Interfaith America, Habitat for Humanity and the YMCA are launching new nationwide training to teach 10,000 Americans how to become bridge builders in their communities,” he said.
Faith leaders, designated as “uniters,” were honored for their bridge-building work. They included Virginia Imam Mohamed Magid, a co-leader of the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, along with Texas pastor Bob Roberts and former religious freedom ambassador Rabbi David Saperstein; the One America Movement’s Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin and Pastor Tom Breeden of Charlottesville; and Chairman Jordan Dresser, whose Northern Arapaho Tribe has worked with the Episcopal Church to foster renewed access to tribal cultural artifacts.
Long before the summit closed with a performance by the Howard University Gospel Choir, Susan Rice, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said she was struck by the “powerful” comments by faith leaders and survivors.
“I don’t know about you,” she said, “but I felt like I’d gone to church.”