Twin Citians United in Face of Nationwide Violence


Residents came together from the community to remember the recent  victims of violence and racism throughout the country on Monday night, as Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church Rev. Frank McSwain led the gathering in the rallying call, “United, we stand; divided, we fall.”

Moses Montefiore Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe and Imam Abu Emad AL-Talla chat with Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner prior to the vigil.

Moses Montefiore Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe and Imam Abu Emad AL-Talla chat with Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner prior to the vigil.

Leaders from five area religious denominations came together at Bloomington First Christian Church for what is becoming a hallmark of Bloomington-Normal’s Not In Our Town efforts -- a bringing together of all faiths and even those questioning their faith. The prayer service included a reading of names, a lighting of candles, and a moment of silence for victims and the families of shooting victims in Dallas, Minnesota, and Louisiana.

"If we don't start living together as people, I promise we are already dead as a community," McSwain warned.

The vigil included chanting, or a Sholka (Song) to bring in light by local Hindu Priest Divaspathi Bhat. Imam Abu Emad AL-Talla of the Bloomington mosque Masjid Ibrahim provided a meditation on light and the service included a later reference to the Martin Luther King quote, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can drive out darkness," while Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe of the Moses Montefiore Temple in Bloomington issued a call to action which could be different for each person -- "We can't just stand here after this night. Think about what you can do to make a difference in people's lives."

Imam Abu Emad and Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church Senior Past Frank McSwain join in a gesture of solidarity.

Imam Abu Emad and Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church Senior Past Frank McSwain join in a gesture of solidarity.

First Christian Senior Pastor Jim Warren, the father of a large multicultural family, said he's tired of holding vigils and rallies. "I'm tired of us saying we are going to do something and then we don't." He suggested, "reach out to those who are different from us.  Build a community of compassion."

“We really need to see each other as human beings,” said Mike Matejka from Not In Our Town . “That’s people in the community, that’s people of diverse background, that’s our law enforcement. There is so much tension in our nation right now, this is an opportunity to come together in our diversity and say we’re all human, we all support each other, we need each other to heal .”

“It is really beginning to seem that way, that we can’t find civil ways to discourse,” added Anne Libert, and retired teacher from Unit 5 and Not In Our Town volunteer.  “We seem to want to attack the other and blame the other, no matter who the other is.”

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner said he was heartened by the turn out at First Christian Church and the standing ovation given officers there, but he said the people who need to hear the call for unity, empathy, and tolerance were likely not there to hear it. The challenge, he says, is reaching that group. Heffner is interviewed in an upcoming Twin Cities Stories blog article, along with local NAACP head Quincy Cummings.

Bill Kellett of Normal said he came because he needed reassurance that something like the police shootings in Dallas, Texas, would not happen here. “I know our town is different and I can’t see that happening here,” he said. “Yet, I’m glad that we have people in this community who care enough that show that we won’t tolerate that kind of hatred here.”

Sam Ridgway of Bloomington said people need events like this where they could gather peacefully.

“I want to be around people who are committed to making this area a better place,” he said. “I am thankful that we are a smaller community and can have something like this in a church, rather  than downtown near a courthouse where it’s in an open area and you are a little scared.”

Janet Merriman of Bloomington argued “people are putting their lives on the line just by going out and protesting, but here, we are letting people know that we see what’s going on in the world and we aren’t going to let it happen here.”

“Brothers and sisters, whatever they are.  Black, white, tall, short, rich, poor. They are brothers,” said Imam Abu Emad AL-Talla.

“To claim light in darkness, to remember the lives and potential that have been lost as a result of violence against our brothers and sisters,” NIOTBN Faith and Outreach Chairman and First Christian Associate Minister Kelly Becker of First Community Christian Church maintained. “And to look forward to a different future for our neighborhoods, our community and our nation.”

Twin Cities Islamic Leaders Hail Interfaith Communication

Knowledge, communication, and understanding is key to countering extremism and “the essence of a very healthy, very dynamic community,” a Normal psychiatrist and Islamic community leader argues.

Faisal Ahmed, interim president with the Islamic Center of Bloomington-Normal, hails Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal in helping lead the way to interfaith, intercultural understanding. In December, reacting to Islamophobia sentiments in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings and inflammatory presidential campaign rhetoric, Twin Cities Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders united in a NIOTBN-sponsored vigil aimed at building solidarity and furthering the effort “to protect us from extremism,” said Ahmed, a pediatric psychiatrist with Advocate Children’s Medical Group.

Bloomington’s Masjid Ibrahim mosque recently held a public open house along with Moses Montefiore synagogue and the Hindu Temple of Bloomington-Normal – Ahmed stressed the need “to let people know actually who we are.” Ahmed argued “this community has been blessed.”

“As we’ve seen all around the world, extremism has been widespread,” Ahmed acknowledged at Tuesday’s NIOTBN’s “beautiful, wonderful” 20th anniversary celebration downtown in downtown Bloomington. “I think these events and these efforts offer a ray of hope that we can actually fight this. Better communication, better integration among us will lead to better results. We can fight this extremism at any level with more coordination and more interfaith effort.”

Mohammed Zaman, president of the mosque that has served local Muslims since 2007, agreed NIOTBN amd local spiritual leaders are “doing a really, really excellent job in bringing the communities together.” Tuesday night, Masjid Ibrahim Imam Abu Emad helped lead an opening blessing with Jewish, Christian, and Hindu community representatives.

“Basically, it’s about a dialogue between the communities,” Zaman held. “We need to come out of our isolation, get together, and have frequent dialogue between the communities.”

Watch Zaman and Ahmed’s complete interviews for more on communication between communities.

Kelley: A Safe Place For All in an Unsafe World

The Rev. Kelley Becker

Bloomington First Christian Church

While attending the NIOT 20th anniversary celebration Tuesday night, I shared with a friend that I was thinking about the community events I have been part of in the last two days and how they are all connected. My friend reminded me that writing about these experiences might be a great way to process them. So, here are some thoughts as I initially process the last couple of days.

The Rev. John Libert and Imam Abu Emad were among Twin Cities spiritual leaders who dedicated Tuesday's NIOTBN 20th anniversary celebration.

The Rev. John Libert and Imam Abu Emad were among Twin Cities spiritual leaders who dedicated Tuesday's NIOTBN 20th anniversary celebration.

On Monday night, I attended the 2016 LGBTQ Spirituality Forum, sponsored by the Prairie Pride Coalition. It was a moving experience to hear ministry colleagues speak words of welcome to members of the LGBTQ community gathered there. The faith communities represented were First Christian Church, New Covenant Community Church, Hope Church, Unitarian Universalist, Moses Montefiore Temple, and Illinois Wesleyan’s Evelyn Chapel. These communities have stated publicly that they are safe, welcoming, inclusive places for members of the LGBTQ community…and all of God’s people.

A block off the Old Courthouse square, The Bistro -- a social center of activity for the Twin Cities' LGBT community -- offers a message of strength in the wake of the Orlando tragedy.

A block off the Old Courthouse square, The Bistro -- a social center of activity for the Twin Cities' LGBT community -- offers a message of strength in the wake of the Orlando tragedy.

One of the questions asked of the panel was, “Are there other faith communities in Bloomington-Normal that are welcoming of the LGBTQ community and if so, who are they?” That question opened the door for a conversation about the differences between welcoming people to attend versus welcoming people to be who they were created to be by participating fully in the life of the faith community. The Reverend Elyse Nelson Winger from IWU challenged us, as clergy, to encourage our colleagues to publicly support and fully welcome everyone, specifically the LGBTQ community. She said, “Now is the time…actually, it has been time for a long while, but now is really the time.” She is right. It is time. If you represent God, welcome and embrace all of God’s people. Now.

Following that event, on Tuesday I participated in Beyond the Rainbow: Build Your Strength as an Ally for LGBTQ Youth training event, sponsored by Project Oz. Gathered there were teachers, social workers, crisis team members, and even a few ministers. We heard stories of people who have been deeply hurt because they have been designated the “other” by pockets of our community, one pocket being some faith communities. We learned new language, new ways to listen, and new ways to be allies to the young people in the LGBTQ community.

I was struck again by the importance of Elyse’s words. After hearing, again, the damage religion and other aspects of our culture are doing to the young people of the LGBTQ community and being reminded, again, of my own privilege, I am more committed than ever to leading in ways that breathe life and hope into my brothers and sisters of all faith traditions, gender identities, sexual orientations, skin colors, and abilities. When we, as leaders, are silent, we send a powerful message of apathy and exclusion. When we exclude anyone from our community, the community is less than it could be. We are better when we include and welcome. God created diversity on purpose. It is time we fully embrace this gift from God.

Finally, I had the privilege of welcoming my colleagues from Moses Montefiore Temple, the United Church of Christ, Masjid Ibrahim mosque and the Hindu Temple as they blessed the NIOT anniversary event last night. I was moved, first of all, that they said, “Yes,” when I asked them to participate in this event. And second, their words of welcome and community resonated deep in my soul. I thought to myself…we all want the same things. We want to experience sacredness in our community, and in each other, every day. We all want a place to belong…a place of safety.

And then Tuesday night, after a long day, I learned of the act of terrorism in Istanbul. I remembered anew that the glimmers of hope I have experienced in our community the last couple of days need to be more than glimmers. They need to be sparks that ignite a passion for justice and peace, not just in Bloomington-Normal, but all over the world.

Friends, the world is not as it was intended to be. We must continue our work toward wholeness in a world that is, in many places and ways, so broken. Let us do this work together, healing the pieces one heart at a time. Shalom.

LGBT Unitarian Member Urges Church to Preach 'Love They Neighbor.'

Lin Hinds was horrified in the wake of last weekend’s Orlando nightclub massacre to read the comments of a California Baptist minister who celebrated the shooter eliminating “Sodomites.”  “Where does that man even think he’s representing God or even has a connection to God?” Hinds, a member of Bloomington’s LGBT community, demands.

The Orlando shootings, which left 50 dead and more wounded, has raised questions about gun violence, gender bigotry in America, and the stance of religious doctrine and practice toward LGBT individuals. Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal, McLean County YWCA, and Prairie Pride Coalition will sponsor a June 27 LGBT Spirituality Forum -- a discussion with local religious leaders about finding safe places for LGBTQ people to worship -- at 7 p.m. in the Heartland Bank Community Room at 200 West College Ave. in Normal.

For the lesbian, mother, and member of the LGBT-friendly Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington-Normal who serves as office manager with Moses Montefiore Congregation Jewish synagogue, the issue breaks down to basic spiritual principles.

“It’s simple,” she maintained. “Love your neighbor. Don’t peek into their bedroom window; it shouldn’t matter. People are people. As a gay mother of a son, I raised my son to believe that people are people, you love people, and it doesn’t matter who they love.

“We need to get back to basics. A person’s character isn’t based on who the love or who they decide to spend their life with. It’s built on what they do and how they act.”

A native of Chicago’s northwest suburbs, Hinds moved to the Twin Cities in 1993, when LGBT residents still frequently felt pressured not to reveal their gender identity for fear or personal or even professional reprisal. She’d grown up essentially “unchurched” until high school, when she became involved with a local Lutheran church “because my best friend was Lutheran,” but Hinds’ parents taught her the Ten Commandments and other Judeo-Christian principles.

The Unitarian church traditionally has been one of the more inclusive Protestant denominations, and indeed, the overarching Unitarian Universalist Association has designated individual “Welcoming Congregation” churches. The church emphasizes “free thinking,” the concept of “salvation for all,” and a membership that includes Christian Unitarians Universalists as well as religious humanists, secular humanists, theists, Buddhists, “pagans,” and others.

In the case of Hinds’ Bloomington Church, the addition of rainbow flags signals that it has “done work to be specifically welcoming to LGBT people.”

“It has taken us four years to get that designation,” she nonetheless stressed. “Unitarian Universalists tend to come from different faith traditions, a lot of times, so your older members from about 20 years ago came from a time where they either didn’t understand or weren’t welcoming, so it took some time. We did it, but it took some time. I equate that today, unfortunately, to some of the racial issues that exists.

“I went to a very white school (in the Chicago suburbs), and I went to that school for all 12 years – never had a black kid in a class, only had one Jewish kid in town. It was SO stereotypical middle-class, and my father was a truck driver. I wasn’t raised in a racist house, but I certainly had friends who were. My father believed a jerk was a jerk – didn’t matter what color he was. To the point where, when I was a freshman in college, my folks actually fostered two black twins for a few months. It was amazing the backlash they got.”

As Hinds examines LGBT issues in modern society, she also continues her faith journey. Her employment with Moses Montefiore, a progressive Reform Jewish temple that also welcomes LGBT members and guests, “certainly has strengthened my own spirituality, my own connections.”

“I’m connected to God every day, in one way or another,” Hinds noted.

IWU Examines Interfaith Understanding With Film, Patel

Words with Gods, which premiered at the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival, is a unique and beautiful film that explores “the relationship between different cultures and religion." It airs at 7 p.m. tonight (Thursday) at Illinois Wesleyan University's Hansen Student Center.

Eboo Patel

Eboo Patel

 "Aboriginal Spirituality, Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Shinto Buddhism, Orthodox Christianity, Umbanda, Hinduism, as well as Atheism find their expression in this two-hour film,” the film's promotion states. Words with Gods is based on a concept by Guillermo Arriaga with nine episodes directed by him and eight other directors. The music was written and performed by Peter Gabriel.

This event is part of the 3D series and sponsored by Evelyn Chapel and the Multifaith Ambassador Program. For more information, email University Chaplain Elyse Nelson Winger at and visit

Meanwhile, Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, is set to visit IWU on Feb. 17. A Rhodes scholar with a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, Patel has four honorary degrees. His autobiography is required freshman reading on 11 college campuses., and he runs the nonprofit Interfaith Youth Core with 31 employees and an annual budget of $4 million.


Interfaith Rally to Show Unity, Promote Freedom

Lenore Sobota

The Pantagraph

Amid anti-Islamic rhetoric elsewhere in the country, the anti-discrimination group Not In Our Town hopes to bring people together Wednesday in an interfaith show of solidarity.

The event, at 6 p.m., is planned for the east side of the McLean County Museum of History downtown — the same side where the World War II memorial refers to the “four freedoms” outlined by former President Franklin Roosevelt, including “freedom of worship” and “freedom from fear.”

The Rev. Kelley Becker of First Christian Church, Bloomington, a co-sponsor of the event, said much of the reaction in the wake of attacks in Paris and California is based on fear.

“Fear is so powerful,” Becker said. “We believe love is more powerful than fear.”

The purpose of the event to show “our Islamic brothers and sisters” that “this community is a safe, welcoming place.”

In announcing the event, organizers encouraged people of all faiths or of no particular faith to stand together to show that stereotyping of groups is not acceptable in the Twin Cities.

Other co-sponsors include New Covenant Community, the Presbytery of Great Rivers interfaith group and the Moses Montefiore Temple, in collaboration with the Islamic Center of Bloomington-Normal and Masjid Ibrahim Mosque.

Mike Matejka, a member of Not In Our Town since it began 20 years ago in Bloomington-Normal, said, “Every movement, group, religion has extremists in it. That doesn't mean that every follower of that movement or religion is an extremist.”

He said Wednesday's event is an opportunity to take a stand and let the local Islamic community know “we're not going to fall into the trap of hatefulness.”

In the event of inclement weather, the event will take place at Major Hall, First Christian Church, 401 W. Jefferson St., Bloomington.

But Becker is hopeful the event can stay outside.

“The idea of coming together in full view of the entire community is a good thing,” she said.

In addition to representatives from various faiths saying a few words, those gathered will also light candles, said Becker, adding, "Lighting candles is so much a part of many faith traditions.”

Matejka acknowledged that some people think the efforts of Not In Our Town, such as posting anti-racism signs, are superficial.

But Matejka said, “It's important that publicly we reinforce those stances, that we're a community that works hard not to just tolerate, but to celebrate our diversity.”

Michael: Reject Islamophobia, 'Meet Our Neighbors'

Michael Gizzi

Illinois State University

Not In Our Town is sponsoring an interfaith, community solidarity event on Wednesday, December 16, 6 p.m., on the east side of the Old Courthouse, 200 N. Main Street, downtown Bloomington.   Co-sponsoring are First Christian Church, New Covenant Community, the Presbytery of Great Rivers interfaith group, and Moses Montefiore Temple, in collaboration with the Islamic Center of Bloomington-Normal and Masjid Ibrahim Mosque.  In case of inclement weather, the event will move to Major Hall, First Christian Church, 401 W. Jefferson, Bloomington.

Not In Our Town is sponsoring an interfaith, community solidarity event on Wednesday, December 16, 6 p.m., on the east side of the Old Courthouse, 200 N. Main Street, downtown Bloomington.   Co-sponsoring are First Christian Church, New Covenant Community, the Presbytery of Great Rivers interfaith group, and Moses Montefiore Temple, in collaboration with the Islamic Center of Bloomington-Normal and Masjid Ibrahim Mosque.  In case of inclement weather, the event will move to Major Hall, First Christian Church, 401 W. Jefferson, Bloomington.

The last month has seen a resurgence in concerns about terrorism, both global and domestic.  Between the ISIS attack on Paris, the Planned Parenthood shooter, and now the San Bernardino attacks, the end result is that American fears about terrorism are now greater than at any time since 9/11.   

Much of this fear has translated into intense unwarranted distrust against Muslims.  Social media has been filled with hateful rhetoric targeting Islam, and an assumption that Islam is a religion of hatred and not peace. All Muslims have been cast into the same categories as being extremist radicalized jihadists. The rhetoric has only been made worse by extreme statements by presidential candidates and other public figures. The end result is a toxic environment in which core American values are being sacrificed for a politics of hatred, fear, and anger. A politics where well over one million American citizens feel threatened, targeted, and in danger.

It is easy to marginalize those who are different; those with names that sound foreign; those who profess a different faith; those who wear different clothing; those who look different. But when we do this, we diminish our own beliefs and faith traditions.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all a part of what are called the Abrahamic Faiths -- all share a common belief in the same one God.  A God of peace.  The God of Abraham.  

Abraham is central to the story told in Genesis -- the first book of the Bible.  Abraham has a central role in not only Judaism, but in Christianity, and Islam as well.  In the latter, Abraham, like Jesus, is revered as a prophet. Abraham represents faith, sacrifice, commitment, and patience. These are shared values, of three religions which profess peace and love as their primary values.  Indeed, the very word Islam is derived from the Arabic word “salema” or peace.  Muslims greet each other with “a salaam alikum”  (peace be unto you). This is not just a platitude. It is part and parcel of Muslim belief and practice.

Yet, it is so easy to miss this, when all we see is someone different. It is only in the “other” where we can see the true face of God.  As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks proclaims in his book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, “the human other is a divine other” and the supreme challenge is to see God’s image in the one who is not in our image. It is in the desire to seek the divine other that makes it so important to take a stand against bigotry and hatred. And as Rabbi Sacks wrote last week in the Washington Post, “Faith is like a flame. Properly tended, it gives light and warmth, but let loose, it can burn and destroy. We need, in the 21st century, a global Hanukkah: a festival of freedom for all the world’s faiths. For though my faith is not yours and your faith is not mine, if we are each free to light our own flame, together we can banish some of the darkness of the world."

This Wednesday (December 16), people in Bloomington-Normal are taking a stand to banish the darkness. Not in Our Town, along with several faith communities, are gathering together with the Muslim Community to show our support and solidarity. We need to say no to islamophobia. We need to look beyond labels, and meet our neighbors.

From left, Sheikh Ghassan Manasra, Michael Gizzi, Rodef Shalom Eliyahu McLean, Deacon Jiries Mansour, during a recent interfaith dialogue at ISU.

From left, Sheikh Ghassan Manasra, Michael Gizzi, Rodef Shalom Eliyahu McLean, Deacon Jiries Mansour, during a recent interfaith dialogue at ISU.

In doing so, we can learn that Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others have far more in common than we have differences. We need to gather together in solidarity to reaffirm our commitment to peace. In doing so, we can show that there is no place for hatred or fear.  We can pledge that our community is safe and welcoming for all. Join us at 6 pm, at the Old County Courthouse in downtown Bloomington.  

A salaam alikum.  Peace Be Unto You.    

Michael Gizzi is a professor at Illinois State University, and is moderator-elect of the Presbytery of Great Rivers, Presbyterian Church USA. He attends New Covenant Community and leads an interfaith group for the Presbyterian Church.

Multi-Faith Activism: Unplugging the Peace Process

Jewish, Muslim, and Christian peacemakers from Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Galilee will gather at Illinois State University to talk about what happens when the peace process stalls.

Eliyahu McLean, Ghassan Manasra, and Jiries Mansur will give a talk titled Multi-Faith Activism When the Political Peace Process Stalls: An Evening With International Peacemakers at 7 p.m. October 20, in the Prairie Room of the Bone Student Center. The event is free and open to the public.

The three are members of Abrahamic Reunion, a multi-faith group of peacemakers from Israel who seek to use religion as a force for peace. McLean is an Orthodox Jew from Jerusalem, co-founder of the Abrahamic Reunion, and director of the peace organization Jerusalem Peacemakers. Manasra is an ordained sheikh in the Qadiri Sufi Order of Islam, and director of the Peace Center in Nazareth. Mansur is a Christian Arab and deacon in the Greek Orthodox Church, and principal of a middle school in the Arab village of Kfar Rame in the Galilee.

“The Abrahamic Reunion represents something that is rarely seen when people think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict–the cooperation and willingness to work for peace across faiths that occurs in Israel and Palestine,” said Associate Professor Michael Gizzi, who worked with McLean when he visited Jerusalem last winter to lay the foundation of a possible study abroad class. “Bringing the peacemakers to Illinois State University provides our students and the community with a great opportunity to learn about peacemaking in the Middle East.”

The talk is sponsored by Illinois State University Diversity Advocacy, Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution, Hillel Student Union, the Presbytery of Great Rivers, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Moses Montefiore Temple, Illinois Wesleyan University’s Evelyn Chapel, the Harold K. Sage Fund, and the Illinois State University Foundation.

For additional information, contact the Dean of Students Office at (309) 438-2008(309) 438-2008. To set up an interview with Michael Gizzi, contact Media Relations at (309) 438-5744(309) 438-5744, or

Kelley: Church affirms commitment to One and All

Rev. Kelley Becker

Associate Minister, Bloomington First Christian Church

Bloomington's First Christian Church takes seriously God’s call to welcome everyone to the Table. In our faith community, the Table is the communion table, but we believe this welcome extends to all tables in all places.

Our involvement in the NIOT campaign is a natural extension of that call. We are overjoyed to be the sponsors of the new NIOT quilt and to be part of this community-wide group that stands with our brothers and sisters who have been excluded from community; from a sense of belonging.

Our desire is to reach out to our neighbors in Bloomington-Normal and to be a safe, inclusive, compassionate place of service and worship. To that end, beginning in January, we are starting a new, progressive worship service. The service is called One and All. It will be at 10:15 a.m. on Sundays. The service will feature radical hospitality, inclusive language and social justice themes. We invite anyone who is searching for a place to belong to join us.

Everyone is welcome at First Christian Church, where All Means All.