“Where is your faith home?” Vivian Brenner, a Matthews resident for almost two decades, was startled by this frequent question when she moved here from Washington, DC, back in 2000. “I wasn’t really sure what to say. Religion is a private matter. At least, that’s how I was raised.” People she met would press her for an answer. A few even became incensed when she replied, “I don’t have one.”
Brenner considers herself an atheist though culturally Jewish. Her parent’s families were Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia. Her mother’s side of the family was more interested in helping people than in religious observance. They were union organizers in New York City for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. “Grandpa was very fierce about human rights. About people’s right to have a dignified life.”
Her father’s family were more traditional, conservative Jews, but with the same interest in helping others. Her great aunt collected food from the well-to-do to stock food pantries for new immigrants in Norfolk, VA, in the early 1900s.
As for her own upbringing, “My dad was a scientist. We were very much guided by his scientific method, testing every belief.”
With this family background, Brenner developed a deep belief in treating people well. “All of us. We’re supposed to make the world a better place for everyone, not just a special few.” Her lack of belief in an external God “is not a denial of anyone’s personal beliefs.” She feels strongly about this. “I don’t care what people say their beliefs are or what church they go to or don’t go to. I care about how people behave.”
Matthews, says Brenner, while not overtly prejudiced about religion, is influenced by its predominantly Christian population. Meetings begin with Christian prayers. Public spaces are decorated for Christian holidays. Awareness of her minority status is unavoidable. She feels “an ingrown caution” when it comes to talking about religion with people she does not know. “I am pretty discreet in Matthews and in my life.”
Matthews, while not overtly prejudiced about religion, is influenced by its predominantly Christian population. Awareness of her minority status is unavoidable.
Discreet though she may be, Brenner is not afraid to raise her voice and stand up for her beliefs. In June of 2013, she joined the Moral Monday protesters at the state legislature building in Raleigh, led by Rev. William Barber, protesting poor teacher pay, erosion of voting rights, and lack of Medicare expansion. Thousands showed up for these protests begun in 2013, and more than a thousand protesters have been arrested over the years. On June 3, 2013, Brenner was among the protesters arrested for trespass. The arrest record reads, in part, “…assembled with at least three or more persons engaged in disorderly conduct… failed to disperse and remained at the scene.” Another charge was “Post or display of signs and placards.” Brenner was carrying an 8.5X11” sheet of paper that read “Protect Voting Rights.”
Brenner has great respect for Rev. Barber’s work, but, she says, a belief in God is “unrelated to my belief in moral, considerate and ethical behavior.” Reverend Barber agrees.