When I was hired by the United Methodists 20 years ago as director of Rockford Urban Ministries, one of my first jobs was to respond to a bombing at the Lao Buddhist Temple. I called on the pastors of the Christian community to join in a welcoming prayer at the temple.
I wanted to celebrate Americas right to worship and, at the same time, warn would-be homegrown terrorists that they would find no support in mainline religion: all were welcome in Rockford (correct?). One of the first Rockford clergy to respond was David Weissbard, senior pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Church. David is now leaving the Rockford area, and will be sorely missed, especially by me.
An avowed atheist, he is one of the most Christian men I know. Out of the strife of the Buddhist bombings grew the Rockford Interfaith Council (they sponsor the annual Thanksgiving service, the 9/11 Memorial at RVC, and an Open Houses of Worship tour). David has reminded the Council (constantly) that Unitarian Universalism is a faith. He also reminded Rockford governmental entities that they cannot use taxpayer dollars to fund religious promotions. David has always been the stand-in for the much-maligned ACLU.
The few anti-war rallies hosted by Rockford Peace & Justice Action Committee were surprisingly well attended, but only four or five clergy dared show their collars. David was always front and center with members of his congregation.
Probably his most difficult issue working with me has been the anti-gambling crusade. We made allies on the far right with Christian fundamentalists, trying to shift their concerns away from personal morality (hell, my Mom buys Lottery tickets) and toward the big money interests who wanted a new scam to rape the poor. David was a good bridge builder in that fight.
But his best gift to me was accepting all my lefty friends on his Sunday morning television show (Fusion, 7:30 a.m. on WIFR). Issues were accepted that had rarely received a fair hearing: Palestine, urban sprawl, Cuba, gun control and there were interviews that are classicsespecially the final talk with Peace Pilgrim before she died (copies are available through the church). I became quite famous among national peace organizations because they could speak in Rockford and get their 30 minutes of fame on TV.
You think its easy being liberal in this city? Unsigned hate letters and late-night harassing phone calls are just two of the rewards for being left of Attila the Hun here.
I get paid to raise social justice issues to the Rockford Urban Ministries Council, and then to the public. My job is so much easier when an ordained clergy stands next to me. And there are a few who will stand within rifle range and speak out against war and poverty, and for the environment and human rights. The needle exchange, vegetarianism, capital punishment, all received Davids voice and heart.
As an outspoken liberal, Im happy to have had a David Weissbard on my left, in the heartland of mid-America. I hope the UU Church finds a replacement will do half of what David did to promote social justice.
That is why I appeal to Rockfords silent liberal majority (for you have more power than you think). Stand tall and speak out for your beliefs! Call into those radio talk shows and respond to those right-wing kooks who try to intimidate you and keep you off the air and out of the newspaper. You have nothing to lose but your chains, and the world to win for justice, peace and freedom.
Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.
From the June 21-27, 2006, issue