Sound Beach is a small, middle to upper middle class community on the North Shore. Like many North Shore communities, Sound Beach takes pride in its' schools, its' scenery and its' people.
On an early autumn Sunday morning, people were arriving for the 7:30am Mass at St. Louis de Montfort Church on New York Avenue. As they approached the front glass doors and the wooden pillar that divides the doors, they were confronted with the work of despicable vandals.
There were a half a dozen swastikas painted across the doors and the wooden pillar. The people who had gathered for that early morning service were shocked and appalled to see their sacred place of worship defiled and disrespected.
Some of the worshipers that morning kept shaking their heads in disbelief. They kept raising the questions of why and how in such a great community like Sound Beach. Suffolk area police are investigating this unfortunate incident as a hate crime.
After Mass, many people commented that things like this are not supposed to happen on the North Shore of Long Island. They happen in other parts of the country and in big cities, but not in this small, quiet, North Shore community.
The striking red paint that was used to form the hateful symbols that were emblazoned on those glass doors only further reminded many who saw them of that hateful time in our history when more than eight million of our Jewish brothers and sisters were painfully executed by a madman, while the rest of the world moved on in silence.
By the nine o'clock Mass, most of the red paint had been removed from the glass doors and the wooden pillar by a handful of enraged parishioners. They did not want fellow worshipers to encounter the horror that they were greeted with when they came to Church that morning.
As word spread about those horrific acts of vandalism, many parishioners commented that maybe those swastikas should have been left for the entire parish to encounter. Hearing about it is not like seeing it firsthand. Young and old alike were disturbed and troubled by how their faith community was victimized.
In the early afternoon, after all of the worship services were completed, a lot of the local conversation centered around the hate acts inflicted on their community. A number of adults raised the question about hate and discrimination - was it really present in our larger community?
Some parents and adults want to believe that this hate crime is an isolated circumstance perpetuated by a very small group of misguided and immature teenagers or young adults. Other parents and adults disagree. They believe that hate is being fueled all around us. It comes in many forms and has many different textures and colors, but is profoundly present and ripping at the heart of our community.
This hate is expressed in the growing number of incidents of hate crimes. Violence is up all around us. A growing number of teenagers are using weapons and other violent means to resolve conflict. Vandalism and graffiti are everywhere.
People are not born to hate, they learn to hate. As a society and as a culture, we have been too tolerant of hateful and disrespectful behavior. In too many instances, we've made excuses when our children have engaged in prejudicial and negative behavior. We too often treat that behavior as an acceptable phase of human development.
Our nation is a melting pot from around the world. Some of our greatest statesmen have immigrant roots. Some of our greatest inventors were born in foreign countries. American history has been shaped by people of every race, color, creed, religion, orientation and ethnicity.
As diverse as we are as a nation, many among us still have a narrow profile of who an American is. If one does not fit that profile, one runs the risk of being ridiculed and demeaned. That behavior in and of itself seems so un-American.
However, people tolerate that stereotyping, and some find random acts of violence and hate acceptable. That acceptance is best defined by people's silence and indifference when hate erupts.
As people became aware of the swastikas on the glass doors and wooden pillar of St. Louis de Montfort Church in Sound Beach, how many families sat down with their children and talked about the seriousness of that destructive and hateful act? Did our local schools use that unfortunate happening as an opportunity to talk about hate crimes and social responsibility?
Unfortunately, because we are all so busy, if it came up at all, it was probably on the fly. Hopefully, this troubling incident was discussed at many dinner tables and among many families.
The greatest challenge is not merely engaging in a conversation, but rather having the courage to act deliberately, courageously and respectfully. Sometimes poetic exchanges around delicate and complex issues are not enough. Our conversations have to empower us to constructive, positive action. We have to practice what we preach!
In simple terms, if we want to eradicate hate and discrimination, we have to begin where we live, work and play. As parents, we cannot tolerate and be silent or indifferent when disrespectful and discriminating language or expressions are used. When our children engage in conversation and behavior that is racist and hateful, they must be confronted and held accountable.
Too often as adults, we engage in broad stereotyping that is distorted, substantially untrue and discriminating. Our children learn from what they see in us. If they hear us making disparaging remarks about a person based on color, race, religion or sexual orientation, they will probably repeat or mimic the same. It should not be socially acceptable for students, under the guise of humor, to tell ethnic jokes that demean people of a particular background. If students engage in that kind of behavior, they should be called to task.
As adults, we have to stop making excuses for our children and their behavior. We should be more attentive to who their role models and mentors are. No social arena should be above reproach, whether it's the classroom, the ball field or the workplace.
Those of us who teach and coach need to be supersensitive to how our students and athletes treat each other. We should be aware of what is said and not said. As role models and mentors, we should be conscious of our behavior and our language.
Using vulgar and degrading language can never be acceptable and tolerated. Coaches and teachers must engage with their students and athletes using language of respect that is grounded in integrity. A coach or teacher that curses or uses vulgar language to demean a student or athlete should not be allowed to interact with young people. How can we hope to call our students to a higher standard, if we who lead them do not lead by example?