MERIDEN — A local Unitarian Universalist Church replaced a Black Lives Matter flag for the fourth time during a ceremony Sunday after three previous flags or banners were stolen by unknown vandals.
The Rev. Tony Lorenzen said the Paddock Avenue church is less concerned with seeking punishment against the thieves than with them having the courage to engage in a face-to-face discourse about what the flags mean and how the vandalism has made city residents feel unsafe.
“We will want you to talk about why these banners and flags are here, we will talk to you about this and tell you they are here to combat the fear, anger and hate you embody,” he said. “They are here to tell people we are proud Americans and citizens of Meriden and this is a place where all human beings are truly welcome. These flags and banners are here because people keep getting killed because of the color of their skin in our country.”
In addition to the theft of flags, Lorenzen said two vehicles have been driving by the church and shouting swear words.
The BLM flag was draped over the railing of the church’s veranda after a moment of silence was held for all those who have been targeted by violence on account of their race. Members of the congregation also read over a dozen names of African Americans who have been killed while going about their lives.
The flag hangs alongside an American flag, a Pride flag, a Mother Earth flag and a flag celebrating religions from across the world. The church’s Pride flag has also been stolen in the past.
“We display these flags because this is America,” said Nancy Burton, co-president of the church. “We are a country of multiple people from multiple backgrounds and multiple ways of being, but we are all Americans, whether we are old Americans or new Americans. And this flag belongs to all of us and it is discouraging that in a city as diverse in Meriden, this type of racism and bigotry exists.”
Lorenzen said flags also serve to remind the congregation of their values and calling.
“They are here to remind us — we the people of this congregation that gathers here — to remind us of the difficult, courageous and hard work we are asked to do as a mostly white congregation: to practice and promote anti-racism, to educate ourselves, to call other white people in our community to educate themselves, to do better, to live up to our values that teach us there is no such thing as a lesser person. And you who did this to us, you are not a lesser person. You are misguided; somewhere along the way you learned to fear and hate instead of to love and relate,” he said.
Should the flag be stolen for a fourth time, the reverend said it will continue to be replaced and the church will continue to work with those striving to make Meriden into a place where such things no longer happen.
“Make no mistake, we will continue to replace the flags and banners no matter how often they disappear. Surveillance here will be increased and so will our efforts to know our neighbors better. To those that might say Meriden is better than this, I have to speak the truth and tell you, 'No it is not.' Meriden is just as it is, it is a place still where bigoted, hateful people terrorize those who promote peace, freedom, equality and justice,” he said.
City Councilor Mike Rohde said the city still has work to do in confronting racial inequities.
"It's too bad we have to have an event like this in Meriden, but it's not surprising,” he said.
Rohde pointed to the City Council’s adoption of a civilian review board for the police department and the changing of the oath of office to include the pursuit of racial equity as part of the responsibilities of city employees and elected representatives.
"The quiet and those who are moderates aren't much of a help. We need to be radical, we need to stand up and we need to take action,” he said. “Leadership is action and that's what we're trying to do on the City Council and you can rest assured that we will not give up during our time of office to make Meriden a more racially fair and just community.”
State Rep. Hilda Santiago, D-Meriden, said nobody should be afraid to raise a flag on their property nor in front of their church. Noting the recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, she said that the flag raising is an opportunity to follow MLK’s example of non-violence.
"We must also remember that we all play a part in this democracy and we cannot let it go. We must fight for these rights, we must fight for what we believe in and we must fight — especially with what's going on in Washington D.C. — for voting rights. Because that is the base of our democracy: voting.”
The church has traditionally held an annual breakfast at Maloney High School in recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, however it was canceled for the second consecutive year due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal sent a statement in support to church leadership and said that MLK’s faith that “unarmed truth and unconditional love” will prevail over white supremacy allowed him to overcome injustice and violence.
"We must continue to mark our progress in civil rights and equality as a nation, owed in great part to the Rev. King's leadership. To be sure the fierce fight for equality is far from won, but Dr. King's legacy offers an enduring reservoir of hope and courage, providing resilience and strength,” he said.