The Pantagraph

Hindu Festival of Colors Lights Up Fairgrounds Saturday

Dan Craft

The Pantagraph

If a rainbow suddenly turned to powder and poured down in Technicolor torrents over the McLean County fairgrounds this Saturday, you'd get something close to the second annual Festival of Colors.

The event, a local version of Holi, the ancient Hindu religious festival, is brought to us in living color ... literally.

"For the first event last year, we had a little over 250 pounds of colored powder," notes event co-organizer Vinod Nambiar. 

It was completely gone before the event was scheduled to end ... "up in the air, on the floor, everywhere."

Color, you see, is the whole point of Holi, a spring-based festival celebrated mostly India and Nepal in February or March.

As part of the celebratory rituals, colored powders are flung every which way ... dabbed over faces, smeared on clothes, tossed into the air, thrown underfoot and generally left permeating every pore and molecule.

The Twin Cities' version of Holi debuted in late March of last year inside Bloomington's Interstate Center.

It was the brainchild of fellow State Farm Insurance employees Nambiar and Leyons Philip, both members of B-N's Indian fusion band, Exit 167 (named after the I-55 exit ramp into town where the men found their fellowship and music).

Hoping to spread the music of Exit 167 outside their built-in audience of B-N's Indian-Asian community, the men decided to branch out into event management.

Their first endeavor was last year's initial Festival of Colors, a many-hued success for all concerned.

"Holi is basically a celebration of friendship, unity and togetherness ... a festival of love," says Nambiar. "In recent years, they've started spreading out of India and into Europe and the United States."

Nambiar and Philip put their heads together. "Let's try to do this here in a big way the first time."

Hence their choice of the Interstate Center, where they figure around 500 or 600 people would turn out to toss colored powder and enjoy some food and music on the side. 

To their surprise, double that number turned out. "People were ecstatic ... they loved it. And the kids had a ball," recalls Nambiar.

Best of all, he says, the crowd mix wasn't exclusively Asian-Indian, with an estimated 35 to 40 percent of the attendees hailing from outside that community.

For the second fest, the organizers decided to move the event into April and outdoors, the McLean County fairgrounds.

A large, 5,500-square-foot tent will provide protection of the weather doesn't cooperate.

About that colored powder, which is central to the festival's hourly "Throwing of Color" rituals: "It is 99.97 percent cornstarch-based," notes Nambiar, meaning it won't stain or wreak other fabric havoc.

The powder comes in five colors representing love, forgiveness and other matters of the heart and soul: red, neon green, yellow, orange and blue.

During the throws, the power will be tossed into the air and allowed to permeate the atmosphere as well as cover the floor, says Nambiar.

In addition, everyone entering the festival gate will be marked with a dab of color on the forehead or skin area of your choosing (not mandatory).

Thereafter, you're on your own.

"There are some do's and don'ts," Nambiar adds. "We discourage people from bringing in any outside colors. That's to assure that we know everything is 100 percent safe and organic."

In addition, "We do tell people not to dress in their best." Though the colors won't stain, the substance will cling to clothes and shoes.

"So we try to tell people to make sure you shake really well before you get into your car to leave," he says. "And then take a warm shower when you get home."

Black Lives Matter Vigil Draws Crowd to ISU

Lenore Sobota

The Pantagraph

As a “Black Lives Matter” flag waved over the Illinois State University quad on Monday night, nearly 250 people gathered in song, prayer and words in a show of solidarity.

Organizers said the purpose of the vigil was to mourn, to remember and to stand together for people who have "lost their lives to social injustice."

Strong winds made it difficult to keep candles lit for the vigil, so participants lit the lights on their cellphones and held them aloft.

People took smaller versions of the “Black Lives Matter” flag, handed out at the beginning of the vigil, and placed them in the ground around the flagpole as names were read of several African Americans whose deaths have become rallying cries for the Black Lives Matter movement: Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland, among others.

Two speakers also read the names of black transgender women who have been killed, saying, “In the spirit of Black Lives Matter, … we must love each other and support each other.”

The evening included an a capella group, Outlandish, singing several songs, including, “We Shall Overcome” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sometimes referred to as the black national anthem. Later, participants joined the Interdenominational Youth Choir in singing “Amazing Grace.”

The crowd was predominantly black, but there were also whites, Hispanics and Asians in the crowd. All joined hands as a speaker led them in prayer, asking God to “help people understand this is not just us complaining” and to “help us love each other” and “help us to stand together and make a difference on this campus.”

A small group of less than a dozen protesters opposing the vigil also was present.

Talking before the vigil began, senior Kyndle Hunter of Matteson, vice president of the Black Student Union, which organized the vigil, said having the Black Lives Matter flag flying over the quad “shows that ISU cares. It shows that ISU is trying.”

ISU President Larry Dietz attended the start of the rally, walking through the crowd, shaking hands and talking with many of those present. Levester Johnson, vice president of student affairs, also was present.

Hurdylyn Woods, ISU coordinator of diversity advocacy, said the vigil and flag are raising awareness and starting the conversation about black concerns. The flag was raised on a university flagpole earlier in the day with permission from the administration.

"Don't let the conversation end,” he told the crowd. “Use the knowledge that you have to make the world better. It starts right now.”

Pamela Hoff, an associate professor in the department of educational administration and foundations, said “Black lives have always mattered,” but “unfortunately, we have to continue to assert ourselves.”

She called on the crowd to to join in a nationwide community solidarity day on Wednesday, wearing Black Lives Matters T-shirts all day. This will be followed by a time of reflection from 6 to 7:20 p.m. Wednesday (see story below).

Advocate Plans Central Illinois LGBT Clinic/Center

Paul Sweich

The Pantagraph

Community advocates hope to open, by next June, Central Illinois' first health clinic and community center for the lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer or questioning, and intersex populations.

"Our vision is to provide health care, mental health and social support to the LBGTQI community and its allies," said Len Meyer, executive director of the Central Illinois Pride Health Center. Meyer and health center board President Jan Lancaster spoke with The Pantagraph on Friday.

The goal is to provide primary health care, obstetrics/gynecology, pediatrics and hormone replacement therapy within three years.

But they hope to open the center next June, beginning with meetings and mental health counseling.

The board is working on its 501(c)(3) status to be tax-exempt and is searching for space, Lancaster said. The center already sponsors a youth group, and a parents group will begin meeting in August, Meyer said.

"We want to offer our community a safe atmosphere to get care and to not be made to feel less of a person," Lancaster said.

Meyer is a retired emergency medical technician who is operations manager for Merry Maids, the Normal-based residential cleaning company. Meyer has a bachelor's degree in health care administration.

Lancaster, who owns The Bistro in downtown Bloomington, is a member of the Bloomington Human Relations Commission and vice president of the Downtown Bloomington Association.

Meyer is transgender. People who are transgender don't identify with the sex of their birth.

Meyer has been put off by doctors' offices whose choices for patients' sexual identity was male or female. One doctor didn't understand transgender issues and didn't care, Meyer said.

Lancaster said Meyer's experience isn't unique. The result is that LBGTQI people are less likely than others to seek primary care, Meyer said.

"There definitely is a need for this in our community," Lancaster said.

Asked why the group doesn't focus on education and advocacy rather than opening a clinic, they said education and advocacy take longer than growing a clinic.

"The time to do the clinic is now," Lancaster said. "We are trying to add to the quality of care in Central Illinois. We are not trying to replace existing doctor's offices."

Advocate BroMenn Medical Center and OSF St. Joseph Medical Center were given opportunities to comment.

Tony Coletta, Advocate BroMenn human resources vice president, said: "Advocate BroMenn is supportive of any group that is working to improve the health and well-being of members of our community.

"Our own organization has made a concerted effort to be inclusive and sensitive to the needs of the LGBTQI community ... Through ongoing leadership and staff education in health care-specific areas of diversity and inclusion, we continue working to ensure that our processes, communication and environment work together to create a welcoming atmosphere for all of our patients and their loved ones."

A fundraiser for the center — in partnership with YWCA McLean County — will be 6 p.m. Aug. 17 at The Bistro, 316 N. Main St., Bloomington.

"Our mission informs us to provide justice for all," said Jenn Carrillo, YWCA mission impact director.

Cultural Festival: Connecting With Cultures

Julia Evelsizer

The Pantagraph

On a green paper leaf, Brenda Joyner of Bloomington wrote the word “patience.”

She glued the leaf to a cardboard tree representing strengths in the community at the Cultural Festival Saturday at Illinois State University.

“I strive to be patient and I’m trying to grow in that direction,” she said.

Joyner has attended the annual festival, in its 37th year, for “many, many years.”

“If you’re interested in connecting with other cultures, you can start somewhere like this,” she said. “Then spread out to make diversity a big part of your life. Your life is not the only life.”

The purpose of the festival is to connect the wide variety of ethnicities in Bloomington-Normal through music, dance, art and fellowship.

Some of the performances in the Brown Ballroom included the Sugar Creek Cloggers, Odyssey World belly dancing, Japanese sword demonstration, a fashion showcase and solo singers.

“It provides an easy opportunity for the community to experience ballet, clogging, jazz, belly dancing...they can see a huge variety of cultures in one place,” said Tony Jones, program coordinator.

“With everything going on in the world, we need events like these where people can come together, mix and mingle, and enjoy a diverse environment.”

NIOTBN Arts Chairman Angelique Racki at the Festival.

NIOTBN Arts Chairman Angelique Racki at the Festival.

Community groups like Not In Our Town, the local NAACP branch, 100 Black Men of Central Illinois and BN Parents, shared information with visitors. Face painting, crafts and inflatables were available for kids.

While the Odyssey World belly dancers swayed to Middle Eastern music, 4-year-old Wynter Mann hopped off her seat in the audience and started to dance next to her grandma, Virginia Mann.

“It goes to show how people of other cultures can come together,” said Virginia, of Normal. 

Amber Schrlau of Stanford came to the festival for the first time with her kids Maeva, 4, and Murphy, 2.

“They need to know love and what better way than this event,” said Schrlau. “Not everyone is the same and that’s a good thing.”

The young dance group, Ballet Folklorico de Central Illinois, took the stage in authentic Mexican dancing costumes. The girls wore full red skirts and the boys wore sombreros. The group is part of Conexiones Latinas de McLean County, a non-profit organization with the goal of intercultural collaboration and connecting Latinos in the community.

“They are so excited about sharing this with the community,” said Javier Centeno, vice president of the organization. “This sort of event is about love; giving love to the community and respecting each other."

Nuns on The Bus: Heal Gaps, Heed Immigrant Contributions

The Pantagraph

Sister Simone Campbell has a simple message for the Twin Cities on Tuesday.

"We need Bloomington-Normal (residents) to do their part to help heal the gaps in our nation," she said. "It's our same message at all the towns we go to, because if we all get engaged in it, we can heal."

Campbell is one of 19 sisters on the Nuns on the Bus tour of the the Midwest and Northeast. With a theme of "Mend the Gaps," they will spend more than two weeks asking America to promote family-friendly workplaces, living wages, tax justice, and access to citizenship, democracy, health care and housing.

While the group's agenda mirrors traditionally liberal political priorities, Campbell said the sisters are focused on how to bring people together rather than dividing them.

They started Monday in Madison, Wis., and will travel through Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, New York, the New England states and New Jersey before ending in Pennsylvania. Stops will include small cities like Bloomington and big ones like Cleveland and Philadelphia, where they'll visit the Republican and Democratic national conventions. 

"What I'm hoping is we can see similarities in what worries ... and gives hope to Republicans and Democrats so we can begin to speak of where we meet," said Campbell, who organized Nuns on the Bus and is executive director of Network-Advocates for Justice Inspired by Catholic Sisters.

About 75 people came to YWCA McLean County in Bloomington for the afternoon stop.

Attendees heard speeches from the sisters and got the chance to pledge their support and sign the bus. Many chanted "mend the gaps" during a group photo.

The sisters also visited Unitarian/Universalist Church of Bloomington-Normal on Tuesday evening.

This is their fifth annual bus tour; they visited Illinois State University’s Alumni Center and New Covenant Community, both in Normal, in 2013.

"We're big fans of Sister Simone," said Margaret Rutter of Normal, who attended the YWCA event with other New Covenant members.

Rutter spoke of the need for respecting immigrants: "It's terrible how many people have lived here for many years doing horrible jobs and paying taxes and we won't let be citizens."

Policy priorities for the sisters include tax reform that makes "corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share"; "significant minimum wage increases"; "paid family leave and paycheck fairness for woman"; "congressional districts that are fairly and accurately drawn"; universal health care; and "a just and inclusive federal housing policy."

"We have a torn fabric in our society with all the name-calling, the violence, the fear. ... We're better than that," Campbell said. "This is about the divides that have grown in our whole nation, and that's why we're on the road."

Editorial: Our Similarities, Not Our Differences, Bring Us Together

A Pantagraph Editorial:

Last night's vigil to remember recent victims of gun violence perhaps can fortify the belief that our lives — black, white, brown and blue — have more similarities than differences.

The vigil, sponsored by Not In Our Town Bloomington-Normal at First Christian Church in downtown Bloomington, remembered the victims and families who have pulled heartstrings and produced headlines across the country. The vigil came less than two weeks after NIOT marked its 20th anniversary in the fight against discrimination.

Between July 1 and July 6, more than a dozen people — civilians and police — in the United States were injured in police-involved shootings, according to research by The Guardian and published at Those numbers do not include the shootings that occurred late last week and over the weekend.

Last week was a deadly week in America. It always is, but the biggest headlines focused on shootings that involved people of color and law enforcement. Both sides had guns, and both sides fell victim. And the nation spent a weekend in disbelief and grief.

America cannot continue at this pace. We have lost civility and understanding and empathy, with hatred fueled by 140-word rants.

A mother who loses her son on Chicago streets grieves no less or no more than a mother who loses her officer son in Dallas, or a mother who loses her soldier daughter in Iraq. When a life is lost to violence, a community must grieve for a broader loss of innocence.

A divided country cannot stand; we learned that lesson once, and the hundreds of thousands of Civil War dead bore witness to the futility of that fight.

Desperate people across the United States are hurting and hungry, and we must find a way to alleviate that. We no longer can point fingers in hopes of finding a cause and a solution. We must agree that all lives matter; that civil discussions allow for all points of view; and that our similarities are greater than our differences. Only then is there hope that we can move forward.

We must take a step, however tentative, to quell the violence and hatred in our communities and our country. Pray for your neighbors, pray for strangers, pray for the families, pray for those who protect us and for those in such pain that violence seems the only answer.

Reach out to a stranger; reach a hand toward someone in need. Speak up when someone says or does something that promotes violence and divisiveness rather than love and caring.

Support the police. Support social services that help families in need. Support groups that share the messages of race, religion, abilities and gender.

The NIOT vigil was a way to remember those we have lost. It also was a step forward for our community to focus on a common goal of making sure America is the safe, strong and welcoming country the world knows it to be.

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.”

National Bullying Prevention Month: Hugs and Communication

As the students of Unit 5 and District 87 continue to acclimate to new experiences and relationships, they also face the challenge of coping with bullying or the temptation to bully. October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and an ideal time for parents to talk with teachers, communicate with their kids, and, hopefully, help eliminate bullying.

The Pantagraph's Derek Beigh recently examined one local effort to inoculate students against the damage of bullying.

For Antoinese Watson of Normal, reaching out to bullied teens isn't nice, it's necessary.

"My cousin is (a local suicide victim's) sister," she said. "No child should feel they're all alone, and something like that is necessary."

Watson, a senior at Normal Community West High School, joined about two dozen other local residents spreading that message during Wednesday's (Oct. 1) Operation Hug a Child event.

“I started it because of the young lady who committed suicide,” said the Rev. Rochelle Patterson, pastor of God's Decision Outreach Ministry in downtown Bloomington. "Any child from 2 to 92 needs a hug sometimes."

Patterson, members of the church and supporters organized events, including face painting, speakers and games Wednesday at Carl's Ice Cream in Normal.

"I was bullied in fifth grade," said 13-year-old Sharissa Jackson of Normal after getting her face painted. "It helps to make new friends or find an activity to do after school to get your mind off it."

Watson said "a ton of people get bullied," but she tells other students to "stay strong" and "find someone to talk to so you're not all alone."

Patterson said Jackson and 11-year-old Ashanti Hunter of Normal, both church members, were big parts of getting Operation Hug a Child rolling. The effort has visited local restaurants, grocery stores and downtown spaces offering hugs to passers-by, and the church maintains a board with photos of those hugs.

Hunter said she'd like to see more school-based organizations working to stop bullying. Watson is part of an anti-bullying group at Normal West that will hand out informational fliers at the school's homecoming parade next week.

"We're planning to go to the schools," Patterson said. "Too many kids don't realize people actually care about them."

Wednesday's main event was a hugging contest. Deborah Love of Normal and Tabu Triplett of Bloomington raced to see how many people in and around the restaurant they could hug.

After Triplett won, Patterson even offered hugs to people in the drive-thru lane at Carl's, including Bonnie Stephens of Pekin. Attendees also formed a massive heart to demonstrate their togetherness.

Patterson said she'll be out soon at more locations offering hugs to anyone who needs one. She refers to people who offers hugs as "Heroes Under God."

"Look out. There's a H.U.G. coming for you," she said with a laugh.

Normal Unit 5's anti-bullying/anti-bigotry resolution, passed last spring.

Normal Unit 5's anti-bullying/anti-bigotry resolution, passed last spring.

Kelley: See Homeless as People

Pantagraph editorial

"The recent Pantagraph articles highlighting the community of people who live outside should trouble this community. However, we should be aware that this isn’t new. There is a lengthy history of people in our community who live outside due to a variety of circumstances. It is a horrible, dangerous way to live.

This sudden publicity is troubling to many of us who care for our friends who live outside. I understand that, as a result of the publicity, PATH has received many donations to “the cause”. On the surface, this may seem like a wonderful story of a community coming together to solve a problem. Sadly, I don’t believe this is the case.

In the past, when attention has been drawn to the plight of people living outside, the level of danger for them has increased. They live in the shadows of our community for a reason. The comments regarding the Pantagraph story on Feb. 26 illuminate some of the reasons. Previously, there have been threats, property destruction and acts of violence committed against them.

It is my hope that, rather than seeing people who live outside as problems or as causes to champion, we can begin to see them as people. People are not problems. The problems are addiction, poverty, and our refusal to welcome people who have made mistakes back into our community and shelters. One thing is certain; the issues that surround chronic homelessness cannot be solved by throwing some money, blankets, and propane at them."

Kelley L. Becker

Editorial: Police-Community Meeting a Chance to Move Ahead

The Pantagraph

It is not easy to have a well-reasoned discussion on the topic of race.

But that's exactly what we expect will happen Jan. 22 in downtown Bloomington, when the public is invited to meet with representatives of 11 groups in a community-police discussion about race, race relations and racism.

The Twin Cities' Not In Our Town anti-racism group was re-energizing last summer just as Ferguson, Mo., erupted after a white police officer shot a black man. As NIOT discussions continued, the nation watched police-involved deaths take place in Ohio and New York.

And a week ago, just as NIOT and 10 other groups announced their event, a recording of a Bloomington police officer's racial comments from a 2013 incident were played at a trial, leaving little doubt as to the officer's feelings.

Non-discrimination is a belief system that must be practiced by everyone for it to be successful and for it to spread beyond our municipal borders.

It was just last month when NIOT started a pledge drive, asking community members to sign a card agreeing to fight hatred and discrimination in the Twin Cities.

As we said then, true change starts at the grassroots level. And that includes respectful, open, truthful conversation about what works, what doesn't, and why.

The success of a local discussion on race will not be immediate; to start, we must look each other in the eye, speak and harbor respectful thoughts, agree on the problems and try to fix them.

As with any discussion on a difficult topic, there could be finger-pointing and blame. It must be accepted, at the outset, that hurtful words may be said. But once the air clears, the community must agree to work together to pinpoint issues and find ways to address them.

Part of that dialogue could be learning about police policies and training. Equally important is hearing from those who feel judged because of their color, age, employment, religion or background.

Without that information, we run the risk of staying "mind blind" — that is, limiting our responses based on individual beliefs rather than from shared knowledge.

Willfully neglecting to learn about our differences and appreciate our similarities is childish. We must learn about one another to better understand one another. That can lead to a better community.

Our community must step up to step forward.

("Breaking Barriers" will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Jan. 22 at City of Refuge Church, 401 E. Jefferson St., Bloomington. The Rev. Lee Bennett will moderate. Conexiones Latinas will provide Spanish translation. Questions should be submitted in advance and can be done anonymously at or by postal mail to NAACP, PO Box 925, Normal, IL 61761.)