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New rapid-response team plans to confront hate crimes in the D.C. area

Women of different faiths sit around a table at the first meeting about the new rapid-response team: Clockwise from left, Richa Agarwala, Margaret Johnson, Kati Miller-Holland, Gigi Alford and the Rev. Jean Thompson.

When Symi Rom-Rymer heard about a family in Fairfax County that found their home broken into and “F— Muslims” scrawled on their walls, she wished she could do something to help. When it was a nearby Jewish Community Center and then a church vandalized with swastikas, again she wondered how she might fight the hate.

Now, Rom-Rymer is organizing a team of volunteers who will be prepared to spring into action when a religiously or racially motivated hate crime occurs in the Washington area.

“Whenever there is an incident, our response is going to be in person,” said Rom-Rymer, who works as a community organizer for the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. She envisions the team’s aid as direct and personal. “If a woman who is wearing a hijab feels unsafe walking from her car to her mosque, she or someone in her community can contact us and say, ‘I feel unsafe. Can you send someone out?’ And we would go.”

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More than 50 people from different faiths, including Bahai and Zoroastrianism, gathered in a Mormon church’s basketball gym in Chevy Chase last week for the first meeting for people interested in learning about the new rapid-response team.

The model for the team — formally named the Washington Interfaith Response and Outreach Coalition, or WIROC — relies on churches, synagogues, mosques and other communities signing up as “solidarity congregations.” Each congregation will designate volunteers who will be trained for the rapid-response team. Individuals who don’t belong to the congregations can sign up on their own.

When the network gets word of a hate crime, a trained first responder will contact the victim to provide coaching, such as advice on how to report the crime to law enforcement, and to ask what sort of help the victim needs from the community. Then WIROC will mobilize the whole network to help in whatever way the victim needs, such as cleaning up graffiti or replacing stolen or damaged property.

Rom-Rymer also wants to set up similar networks of students at Washington area universities, who can respond to hate crimes on their campuses.

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Rabbi Gerry Serotta, executive director of the Interfaith Conference, said he hopes 90 percent of the network’s activity will be educational efforts aimed at reducing religious ignorance to prevent bigotry, rather than cleaning up after a crime.

But after several hate crimes affecting congregations in the Washington area in recent months, and a large spike in bias incidents nationwide against Muslims and Jews, Serotta said, “We fear that that’s part of the landscape now.”

“Some people are acting out in these horrendous ways,” he said. “It’s mostly minority communities, most of them people of color … We’re getting calls right and left saying what can I do to help my Muslim neighbors, my Sikh neighbors, my Hindu neighbors?”

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That urge to help brought a diverse group of people last week to the church gym, where they piled their plates with food provided by a local Hare Krishna congregation. At one table, women sat down to eat together and to talk about the problem of religious hatred, from the perspectives of their own faiths.

The Rev. Jean Thompson said her United Church of Christ congregation shares its space with a Muslim congregation and a Hispanic Seventh-day Adventist congregation, and she worries about discrimination against both groups. “All of them are vulnerable, more vulnerable than usual in this climate. And that’s part of what brought me here,” she said.

For Gigi Alford, she had in mind the way that people of her Bahai faith are persecuted in her mother’s native Iran and the racist history of her father’s native Alabama.

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Richa Agarwala, who is Hindu, suggested that her congregation could teach lessons about Hindu theology, in the hope that more information leads to more respect. Merikay Smith, who is Mormon, chimed in to say how much she had enjoyed learning about other traditions at previous interfaith gatherings.

Kati Miller-Holland, a Lutheran deacon, said that in her background in disaster response, she had noticed that people of faith were always the first to help.

“Coming out of my faith, what we are called to do is to learn how to get along with each other, to care for our neighbors,” Margaret Johnson said. She is Muslim. Everyone around the table agreed: Their faith taught them pretty much the same thing.

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