I celebrated Hanukkah recently with some Jewish friends in Memphis. Their welcome would have been unthinkable to an earlier version of myself. For 15 years, I lived a life full of hate, leading and recruiting white supremacists to white power groups in the United States and Germany. Before leaving the neo-Nazi movement in 2002, I would have been more likely to carry a torch than light a menorah.
I'm grateful that I found the strength to leave the white power movement — but the act of turning away doesn't immediately make someone a good person.
After leaving the extremist environment, I was still hard-wired to hate. I moved my family to another town to get a fresh start, and the only apartment I could afford was being rented by a Turkish Muslim man. He showed me compassion at a time when I thought I didn't deserve it and treated me with grace that I wasn't ready to reciprocate. At that point, I was at a crossroads: I could either piece together the fragments of hate that still lived in my heart — or I could confront them, analyze them, and try to understand more about the people that I had thought of as my enemies.
Some time after our move, the nation was shocked by the 2016 shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I grieved the terrible losses of these young men and founded a nonprofit organization called C.H.A.N.G.E to focus on anti-racism and anti-violence campaigns, interfaith work and community outreach. I wanted to use my voice to amplify the concerns of communities on the margins.
IF YOU GO
TM Garret will speak and answer questions at an event Thursday at St. Paul's Episcopal Church at 5:30 p.m. The event is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga and the Mayor's Council Against Hate.
Last year, I visited the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which brings attention to injustices around the world with a specific focus on the Holocaust. For all the work I had been doing to better my community in Memphis, I had done very little to reflect on my former anti-Semitism. While I no longer thought of myself as a hateful person, I had never visited a concentration camp or had a meaningful interaction with a Jewish person. Without that kind of work, I knew I could never adequately atone for my past actions.
Shortly after that visit, 11 people were murdered in an act of hate at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue. Several months later, Chabad of Poway was attacked by a white supremacist.
In the midst of this storm of anti-Semitic violence, I was invited to attend Kol Nidre services at a local synagogue in Memphis — a profoundly humbling experience for someone with my background.
The next morning, as Jews around the world asked God to forgive their sins, an armed gunman tried to enter a synagogue in Halle, Germany, but was kept out by security measures not unlike those that have been put into place at places of worship around the United States. When he could not enter, he shot whoever he could, killing two people. A year later, a similar attack unfolded at the home of a rabbi in Rockland County, New York.
Hate-fueled violence is a global problem that manifests itself in terrifyingly local ways.
Hanukkah is the story of Jewish people rising up against tyranny and reclaiming their community. As we celebrated this year and ushered in a new decade, I thought about my Jewish friends, and how grateful I am to God for their lives and safety.
Prayer is powerful and gratitude is great, but neither is sufficient without action. We must continue to build community, in times of celebration and in mourning, during our holidays and Holy Days and all the days in between. This year, I challenge all of us — Jew and Gentile, black and white — to create peace through the things we do as well as the things we say. Accept invitations to worship in places where you may be uncomfortable. Interrogate your fear and discomfort and welcome the understanding they provide.
I am not free from hate because I renounced white supremacist beliefs 15 years ago. I work toward freedom every day and will, in ways large and small, for the rest of my life.
TM Garret is an author and activist.