What St. Augustine, FL Can Teach Us About the Importance of Interfaith Literacy

Interfaith Youth Core understands interfaith literacy as "knowing something positive about another person's religious or non-religious tradition." Interfaith Literacy is important because this appreciative knowledge enables us to connect with entire groups of people and through those connections we can cooperate across religious difference to empower one another and make a difference in our communities and world.

As a Christian, one of my favorite pieces of scripture has always been Matthew 25:45 where Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." For me this has always been a call to action - an imperative to act justly; to stand up for, and in solidarity with, others - particularly marginalized groups.

I did not know that this same value - the value of creating a more just society - was something that existed in other religious (and non-religious) traditions until I met Rabbi Mark Goldman. Rabbi Mark was my Hebrew professor at Flagler College and it was in that Hebrew class that he taught me about the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam. Tikkun Olam simply put is "world repair." In other words, it is the pursuit of social justice through action and solidarity. Excitingly, Christians and Jews can see these values in the other tradition and use it as a foundation for mutual action.

I live in St. Augustine, a tiny tourist town on the Northeastern coast of Florida. Many think of St. Augustine as a beautiful Bayfront town with great restaurants and beautiful historic buildings. For the most part, people don't think of St. Augustine as an important place for American Civil Rights history.

While it had been nearly 10 years since Brown vs. Board of education - St. Augustine schools remained, for the most part, segregated. This was indicative of the racial tension that existed in St. Augustine at the time. Martin Luther King Jr. came to St. Augustine in June of 1964 to assist the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in their efforts against segregation. During those efforts, Dr. King was arrested at Monson Motor Lodge, a segregated inn and restaurant.

Distressed at just how much work needed to be done in St. Augustine, he wrote a letter from jail to his friend Rabbi Dresner asking for help - "Send as many rabbis as you can," he said. Rabbi Dresner read the letter at the Central Conference of American Rabbis and immediately he and 15 others made their way to St. Augustine to participate in protests and demonstrations. The rabbis staged a pray-in outside of the hotel and restaurant where Dr. King was arrested while other activists staged a swim-in at the Whites only pool in the hotel.

All 16 rabbis were arrested then held at the St. Augustine Jail in a single non-air-conditioned cell overnight and given only baby food to eat. After their release, they wrote a letter entitled "Why we went." The piece of that letter that has always stood out to me most was,

"We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler's crematoria. We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man's capacity to act....We shall not soon forget the stirring and heartfelt excitement with which the Negro community greeted us with full-throated hymns and halleluiahs, which pulsated and resounded through the church; nor the bond of affectionate solidarity which joined us hand in hand during our marches through town."

It is believed by many that what happened in St. Augustine was the final catalyst for the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Christians and Jews alike worked together during the St. Augustine Movement to fight segregation and to create a more holistic and just community. This story is a beautiful example of what can happen when our appreciative knowledge of the Other, can lead to interfaith cooperation that makes real change.