Calls for solidarity, peace and an end to racism reverberated to the rafters inside a local church.

During a July 14 prayer vigil and service tied to recent high-profile victims of gun violence, about 50 people, including three police officers, gathered to reflect on a rash of killings of civilians and law enforcement personnel earlier this month that have once again stirred racial tensions across the nation.

The recent killings of two black men — Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota — by police officers and the subsequent killing of five Dallas-area law enforcement officers during a protest about the Sterling and Castile killings have also prompted widespread conversations about structural racism in policing and what is to be done about it.

A point emphasized and re-emphasized during the hourlong service at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 100 E. Broadway, was that Waukesha is not immune from those tensions — or racism itself.

'We cannot turn our backs to that reality,' said Betty Groenewold, president of Stewards of Prophetic, Hopeful, Intentional Action, which organized the vigil.

'Our hearts ache for the families left behind.'

Victim of racism

Dealing with racism, in big and small ways, was and is a reality for the Rev. Angela Khabeb, a black woman, who addressed the crowd at length.

'I've comforted myself for many years that most police officers must be good, decent people,' Khabeb said, 'but after the events of the past few weeks, I'm starting to rethink that.'

She went on to describe several examples of the racism she and her family have faced over the years, including one instance that involved a member of her congregation at Ascension Lutheran Church, 1415 Dopp St., where Khabeb is a pastor.

'Dr. (Martin Luther) King taught us that, yes, all lives ought to matter,' Khabeb said, in reference to the rapidly growing activist group and movement Black Lives Matter.

'But in my experience, that's not the case.'

'Silence is violence'

Khabeb concluded by exhorting the crowd to speak out against racism and injustice wherever and whenever they encounter it.

'Our voice cannot be silenced because silence is violence,' she said.

After lighting a candle for the victims of the shootings, Khabeb walked directly over to the police officers who attended the vigil and thanked each of them personally for their service.

She said during her sermon that, when she and her husband see officers walking around the city while they are out with their children, they still call the officers 'our heroes.'

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