B'Nai Emunah
UU Church Today, Spirituality & Theology, Society & Culture, Practice & Voice

In all our diversity and all our collective pain

OCTOBER 30, 2018
By:  Rev. Dr. Marlin Lavanhar
Senior Minister, All Souls Unitarian Church, Tulsa

My congregation and I come with our broken-hearts to grieve with you. We at All Souls consider the Jewish community of Tulsa to be family. Before we had a church building, in the early 20’s we worshipped at Temple Israel downtown for a couple of years. Then in the 1990’s congregation B’Nai Emunah worshiped at All Souls for two years when you were remodeling. When you live with people they become family!

We are here to affirm that anti-Semitism is a vile form of hatred.

As we mourn this week’s dead in Pittsburgh, we also mourn all of the millions who have lost their lives over the centuries to anti-Semitism. We come here tonight with a commitment to join our voices with those who denounce it. To join our hands with those who work against it. To join our hearts with those who weep at the devastation that it continues to cause.

America, after all, is a dark place and we are a devastated people.

Hurricanes Florence and Michael caused catastrophic damage just in the past weeks. Tens of thousands of people have lost everything. A few weeks ago we were caging children at the border. Recently an intergovernmental report on climate change came out claiming that without drastic action now, in 12 years, we will see sea levels that could devastate animal and plant life, accentuate droughts, flooding, forest fires and push hundreds of millions of people into poverty. We have the largest prison population in the world by far. Millions of immigrants live in fear and hiding. Transgender people are under attack. Many African Americans live in fear of the police, and it seems also have to live in fear of going to church or going grocery shopping. Mass shootings in our schools and in our houses of worship have become commonplace.

Sorrow keeps piling upon sorrow, upon sorrow, upon sorrow.

So much so that one sorrow crowds out the next before there is time to begin healing. No wonder we have an opioid crisis the likes of which we have never seen and the rates of alcohol and drug abuse, anxiety and depression are higher than ever.

America is a dark place and we are a devastated people.

Even for those of us who have not been physically harmed by any of these events, all of this wounds our soul. By soul, I mean, that part of us that allows us to make meaning—that allows us to experience joy and love and to connect with other people in healthy ways. Souls get wounded when a person experiences, witnesses or perpetrates violence or neglect. When the soul gets wounded that is what allows people to hate, hurt and hide. You cannot be alive in America today, without having some wounds in and around your soul. One good thing about soul wounds is that unlike holes in the body or the brain, which mostly cannot be repaired, holes in the soul can be healed.[i]

Sometimes the trauma that causes these wounds in our souls gets passed down from generation to generation. It even gets passed down in a squeeze of the hand. This may seem, an unlikely example, to give in a synagogue, but here goes:

“Maurice De Witt, one of those sidewalk Santa Clauses on 5th Avenue in New York City, noticed a marked change in behavior the holiday season following Sept. 11, 2001 when parents would not let the hands of their children go. The kids sense that! It’s like water seeping down, and the kids can feel it. There’s an anxiety, but the kids can’t make the connections. This astute man was noticing a powerful double message in the parent’s action, “Consciously and verbally, the message was ‘Here’s Santa. Love him.’ Unconsciously and physically, it was ‘Here’s Santa. Fear him.’ The unnamed trauma of 9/11 was communicated to the next generation by the squeeze of a hand.” Psychic legacies are often passed on through unconscious cues that flow between child and adult. [ii]

Jewish people know a lot about trans-generational trauma. So do the people of this city. This is where the tragic trail of tears ended. This is the city where the largest race riot massacre happened in America. This is the state where the Murrah Building was bombed, on an otherwise beautiful morning. The two deadliest incidents of domestic terrorism in the history of America happened here in Oklahoma. We, in Tulsa, know more than we want to about trauma and how it gets passed down. We still have a lot of healing to do. We can learn something tonight.

Before I sit, I want to let you know I’ve experienced so many powerful, life-affirming moments in this synagogue: Child Naming ceremonies (like the one that was tragically interrupted on Saturday in Pittsburgh), Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Weddings, Funerals… we even held an All Souls Sunday service here once when our pipes burst.

But one of the most powerful services of them all was one Friday night Shabbat dinner back in 2002, when Rabbi Fitzerman and I collaborated on a service that brought Tulsa’s Holocaust survivors together with the survivors of the 1921 Race Massacre. None of the 1921 survivors, or their family members who came, had ever been in a synagogue, especially not for worship. They had never tasted that “interestingly sweet” Jewish wine y’all like.

We broke challah together and sang the barachas together. After dinner we came in here and prayed and sang and wept and held hands. Black and brown and white hands… and arms with numbers tattooed on them, were woven together in this house of eternal light— right here—in all our diversity and all our collective pain.

The Jewish people and African Americans know how to sing in times of darkness. That is how soul wounds heal: in community, with music and rituals and joining together.

Let’s be really clear tonight, the problems we face as a nation are much bigger than politics. No political fix alone, is going to do it. The best schools and programs and non-profit organizations alone won’t fix it. These all help, a lot!

But, we need religious and spiritual communities because that is how we learn to sing in dark places.

That is how we fill the holes in broken souls.

People with healthy souls do not cause violence and prejudice and hate.

The tendency in times like this is to isolate and withdraw. But what we need is each other. Which is what we have tonight.

I want to close with a very short prayer and I want us to do what we did at the survivors Shabbat. I want us to hold hands. Because trauma is passed down with the squeeze of a hand, but it can also be healed with the squeeze of a hand.

Let’s us pray:

Eternal God, known by many names,

We join hands as we tap into the strength of those who arrived here on a trail of tears. The strength of the people of Greenwood of 1921 and after. The strength of the Jews who picked up their lives after the Shoah and kept on singing. The strength of all our ancestors is with us now as we sit in this darkness. They are teaching us how to sing in the dark.

Because as Howard Thurman said, when we are willing to enter the darkness and stay the course it becomes luminous and we begin to have a new vision and a new hope.[iii]


B’nai Emunah Synagogue recently shared resources on how to talk to your kids about the Pittsburgh shooting and anti-semitism with insight from Elana Newman, Ph.D. is R. M., University of Tulsa, among others.

[i] van der Kolk, Bessel. A. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Viking.

[ii] Castelloe, Molly S. (May 2012) How Trauma Is Carried Across Generations

Holding the secret history of our ancestors. Psychology Today

[iii] Howard Thurman (1965), Luminous Darkness. New York, NY: Harper & Row


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *