Among those honored at the United We Stand Summit at the White House were two of the One America Movement‘s religious leaders, Pastor Tom Breeden and Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin. While we here at the One America Movement know how great these two are, we want to share a little more about them and why they were chosen for such a great honor.
Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin served at Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the night of the 2017 white supremacist rally. She says, “The antisemitism of the rally and the Ku Klux Klan demonstration that preceded it shook my sense of safety and identity as an American Jew. The connection between the antisemitism that I experienced and racism, as well as other forms of hate, changed the way I understand social justice and our country’s biggest challenges.”
At the time, Pastor Tom Breeden was also serving as a religious leader at an evangelical church in Charlottesville. He says, “The intensity of the hate at that rally shook me. A sea of swastikas looked nothing like the home that I knew. I was overwhelmed, and in the months that followed, I wasn’t sure what to do.”
The One America Movement worked with Pastor Tom Breeden and Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin to reach out across political and religious divides to bring together a group of local clergy to reduce divisions in the community. After being part of that experience, they decided to join the One America Movement as staff members to continue to share their stories and bring others into the work of peacebuilding.
Pastor Tom Breeden was surprised to receive his invite to the White House. He said, “When I first heard the news, I thought it was odd that the White House wanted to honor us. Have we really done something so extraordinary? I didn’t think so- but maybe that’s the point. Something as simple as friendships with people who don’t think like me, vote like me, or worship like me is powerful. Relationships like that may not seem extraordinary, but they’re powerful enough to heal our country and change the world. The power for change like that is within reach for every single person in our country, so I’m thankful that the White House has chosen to hold up stories like ours to show what is possible.”
Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin knows the importance of continuing this critical work to create a healthier society. “Dismantling toxic polarization and bringing people together across divides feels like an ongoing protest against those who wreak havoc in our nation. This recognition at the White House reminds me that what I am doing matters. When violent extremists try to divide and oppress, we must work to create unity, love, and care between fellow human beings.”
Both Pastor Breeden and Rabbi Schmelkin have advice for potential bridgebuilders.
Rabbi Rachel says, “Sometimes people incorrectly assume that bridge builders sit down with extremists and risk their physical and emotional safety. I do not risk my physical or emotional safety in my current work to cross divides. However, I do enter into conversations and situations that feel challenging and uncomfortable. Bridge builders must be able to discern the difference between discomfort and danger, and they must be willing to endure these feelings of internal unease to work towards a greater shalom, wholeness, and peace.”
Pastor Tom adds, “Relationships move at the speed of trust, and trust builds slowly. Don’t get discouraged. Just keep going. Every bit matters.”