community relations

Fast Designed to Bring Council Back to The Table


Twin Citians on March 25 & 26 will fast in solidarity with undocumented families "who don’t have a seat at the table" and call on  Bloomington City council to come back to the table to pass the “Welcoming City” ordinance.

"Immigrants in our community are living in fear," event coordinators advise. "Some are workers who endure exploitation from bosses, who use their immigration status as a threat. Others are children, who from a very young age, know the risk and fear that their parents might be torn from them at any moment. Others are dreamers, brought to the U.S. as children, living in D.A.C.A. limbo, watching their dreams fade away as the program expires. Some are women, who suffer in abusive relationships but are too afraid to call out for help. But ALL are human beings who deserve to live and love in safety and in the abundance of a community that truly welcomes them."


Across many faiths and social movements, fasting has been used as symbol of sacrifice for a moral purpose; and food, as a way of bringing community together. After his 25-day-fast with the United Farm Workers in 1968, Cesar Chavez expressed, “I am convinced that the truest act of courage, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice.”

Starting on Sunday, March 25 at 6 p.m., community members across McLean County will come together outside of Bloomington City Hall to begin a fast in solidarity with undocumented families, and in support of the “Welcoming City” ordinance. The fast will continue into the following day. On Monday, March 26 at 6 p.m., they will invite Bloomington City Council members to “come back to the table” with a commitment to work with us to pass a “Welcoming City Ordinance” and "break the fast."

To become involved, visit

Banquet to Honor 44 Young Community Models


Why I See You, YICU Service Awards Celebration to recognize and celebrate young adults’ community service and leadership in McLean County
For A Better Tomorrow (FBT) announced on August 2 that 44 young leaders and two teams have been nominated for the second annual Why I See You, YICU Service Award. YICU celebrates young leaders who are role models that make a positive impact on others lives and their community through everyday actions in their neighborhoods, schools, social service agencies or through voluntary service to others. 

Tickets for the YICU Service Awards Banquet are $25 and may be ordered on the FBT Website. Deadline to purchase the tickets in September 5. 

“Most of these nominees operate largely ‘under the radar’ doing good deeds, sharing their time and talent quietly and selflessly. We are honored to recognize and celebrate them.” said Cranston Sparks, YICU Steering Committee Member.
A panel of leaders will review the nominations and select three winners in three different age groups. All nominees will be recognized at this event. Nine individuals and one team will be chosen from the outstanding group to receive a prestigious award based on their accomplishments and community impact! FBT is excited to make a $250 donation towards a non-profit in honor of the award winners.

The Awards Banquet will be held on September 10 at the Double Tree in Bloomington, IL. The social hour begins at noon with the program at 1 pm. This year's nominees are:

  1. Emily Fienhold, 21, Chenoa, IL
  2. Jeffrey Risberg, 12, Bloomington, IL
  3. Amber Hill, 16, Bloomington, IL
  4. Jaylyn Haynes, 14, Bloomington, IL
  5. Sankalp Amaravadi, 16, Bloomington, IL
  6. Anusha Bhojanam, 14, Normal, IL
  7. Kaitlyn Stephens, 17, Farmer City, IL
  8. Caroline Pickering, 17, Bloomington, IL
  9. Arjun Kale, 13, Normal, IL
  10. Sankhya Amaravadi, 22, Bloomington, IL
  11. Breanne Penn, 18, Normal, IL
  12. Kavya Sudhir, 16, Bloomington, IL
  13. Wah Chook, 17, Bloomington, IL
  14. Shreeya Malpani, 16, Bloomington, IL
  15. Carys Lovell, 15, Bloomington, IL
  16. Elena Hollingsworth, 18, Bloomington, IL
  17. Sky Holland, 18, Normal, IL
  18. Rebekah Herrmann, 17, Normal, IL
  19. Austin Spaulding, 18, Bloomington, IL
  20. Veli Aydoner, 17, Bloomington, IL
  21. Danylle Myers, 18, Normal, IL
  22. Amit Sawhney, 15, Bloomington, IL
  23. Savannah Sleevar, 14, Bloomington, IL
  24. Sierra Fields, 18, Bloomington, IL
  25. Jasie Kelch, 20, Normal, IL
  26. Leah Sebade, 18, Normal, IL
  27. Zitlally Arias, 17, Bloomington, IL
  28. Ajitesh Muppuru, 15, Bloomington, IL
  29. Makayla Castle, 17, Farmer City, IL
  30. Nathaniel Parson, 17, Bloomington, IL
  31. Sky Watson, 17, Bloomington, IL
  32. Rajeshwari More, 12, Bloomington, IL
  33. Bronwen Boyd, 17, Bloomington, IL
  34. Manasa Chenna, 14, Normal, IL
  35. Bhavana Ravala, 16, Bloomington, IL
  36. Nachiketh Rotte, 16, Normal, IL
  37. Sharanya Rotte, 12, Normal, IL
  38. William Short, 17, Normal, IL
  39. Micah Johnson, 18, Bloomington, IL
  40. Georgi Roll, 18, Bloomington, IL
  41. Camron Hinman, 16, Normal, IL
  42. Tristan Bishop, 18, Bloomington, IL
  43. Logan Smith, 18, Normal, IL
  44. Cierra Ester, 15, Normal, IL
  45. Not In Our School Student Coalition Team - Aishwarya Shekara, Kavya Sudhir, Mihir Bafna, Anniah Watson, Ajitesh Muppuru, Zitlally(Lolly) Arias, Fiona Ward Shaw and Shreeya Malpani
  46. Bloomington High School Promise Council Team - Mihir Bafna, Alisha Nadkarni, Bronwen Boyd, Fiona Ward Shaw, Veli Aydoner, Amber Hill, Carys Lovell, Wah Chook, Sierra Fields, Nathaniel Parson

NAACP, Town of Normal Partner for Civic Engagement Program

The Bloomington-Normal NAACP is partnering with the Town of Normal for the first Normal and NAACP Civics & Citizenship (NC²) program.

This will provide high school students (ages 13-18) the opportunity to come and learn about civic engagement in their community. There is no cost to participate. The mission is to spark dialogue between students and Town officials; this includes but is not limited to police and city council.

The program will take place on Saturday, Sept. 30; Saturday, Oct. 7; and Saturday, Oct. 14. Interest Forms will become available Monday, Aug. 28. Students must complete and submit Interest Form by Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2017.


On Saturday, Sept. 30, NAACP  will partner with the Children’s Discovery Museum to teach students that civic engagement is our duty. The students will participate in the World Wide Day of Play. On Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, we will partner with the Normal Police Department to teach Civic Engagement is Our Right.

The students will learn how to build relationships with the police, engage with police during every interaction, a day in the life of a police officer, and the exploration of law enforcement as a career. This will be an interactive day filled with candid dialogue.


On Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, NAACP will partner with the Town of Normal leadership to teach Civic Engagement is our responsibility. The students will have the opportunity to create their version of the Town of Normal 2040 Visioning Plan. The plan will be presented to some of the Town’s leadership. Every participant will receive recognition during the City Council meeting on Monday, Oct. 16, 2017.

This opportunity is open to all high school students in Unit 5. For more information,  contact Chemberly Cummings at or (216) 570-0549.

Whose Streets? Recounts Ferguson, Reverberates Amid Charlottesville

The tragedy and aftermath of the August 2014 police shooting of Ferguson, Mo., resident Michael Brown reverberated again through the American psyche last weekend in Charlottesville, Va., as a march by white supremacists ended in the vehicular homicide of Heather Heyer.

Whose Streets?, a provocative film about Ferguson, MO, coming to the Normal Theater August 25, 27, 31, and Sept. 2, co-sponsored with Not In Our Town.: Bloomington-Normal. A public discussion will accompany the film, with opportunity for interactive input. Captioning options should be provided for the hearing-impaired.

Told by the activists and leaders who live and breathe this movement for justice, Whose Streets? is an unflinching look at the Ferguson uprising. When unarmed teenager Michael Brown is killed by police and left lying in the street for hours, it marks a breaking point for the residents of St. Louis. Grief, long-standing racial tensions and renewed anger bring residents together to hold vigil and protest this latest tragedy.

Empowered parents, artists, and teachers from around the country come together as freedom fighters. As the national guard descends on Ferguson with military grade weaponry, these young community members become the torchbearers of a new resistance.

Whose Streets?, by filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, is "a powerful battle cry from a generation fighting, not for their civil rights, but for the right to live." McLean County YWCA director and NIOTBN ally Dontae Latson, a former grad student in the Baltimore area, noted "the pain and frustration in neglected or over-policed communities and how it is unfairly labeled as 'rioting and looting.'"

"If you live in these communities, you don't 'own' anything," Latson added, citing the suspicion and tensions that can develop between residents and retail businesses owned by interests from outside the community.

PSCRB 'Just the Beginning' -- Y Mission Impact Director

Local civil rights leaders claimed victory Monday as the Bloomington City Council voted to create a new civilian board to advise the police chief—a step that supporters hope will improve how the city deals with complaints against its officers.

The vote was 8-1, with Ward 8 Alderman Diana Hauman the only “no” vote. Hauman, who represents the city’s southeast side, said she gathered input from many members of the community but still had concerns about the new board’s purpose and how its members would be selected and trained and what they’d be tasked with doing.

“I’ve given this eight months of thought, inquiry, research, and sleepless nights,” she said.

Hauman said she was disappointed that so many of the board’s advocates “said basically negative things about our police” during recent forums, including a 35-minute public comment session that opened Monday’s meeting.

“I heard very few people say thank you,” Hauman said. “I have a feeling that our police are being profiled just as members of the alliance (pushing for the board) indicate that police are profiling people of color. I’m sorry, but that offends me as a person.”

Monday’s vote caps a months-long effort by local organizations such as Black Lives Matter lobbying for creation of a board. It came in response to growing tensions in Bloomington between police and many members of the minority community, some of which were documented in a May report.

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner initially opposed creation of the board as other Illinois communities have done, but he appeared to soften his stance as public debate advanced.

Bloomington officer Stephen Brown, representing the police union (PBPA Unit 21), told aldermen before Monday’s vote that he’s in favor of building a better relationship between rank-and-file police and minority groups. He denied that Bloomington police target people based on their race.

But he said supporters of the new board have shifted their agenda and now want an outsized role in shaping policing policy. He questioned why they didn’t support controversial efforts to open a so-called police “community house” when it came before aldermen in January.

“It seems that we’re being painted as racist in this town,” Brown said, alleging that some who support the board want only to make life more difficult for police. “You have to ask yourself, as citizens of this town, do you want law enforcement’s job to be more complicated, or easier? Because if it’s easier, you’re going to be safer.”

Not In Our Town, YWCA McLean County, and the ACLU of Illinois joined Black Lives Matter in advocating for the board. Many spoke passionately at council meetings in recent months.

“This is just the beginning,” Jennifer Carrillo, director of mission impact at the YWCA, told a crowd of board supporters—many wearing Black Lives Matter shirts—as they cheered outside City Hall after the vote. Carrillo urged them to consider applying to serve on the board.

How Board Will Work

The seven-member Public Safety and Community Relations Board (PSCRB) is “purely advisory” to the city manager and police chief. Felons and police officers won’t be able to serve on the board—a controversial decision that civil rights advocates, aldermen, and board opponents wrestled over.

Among the PSCRB’s formal duties will be adding a “resident perspective” to the evaluation of civilian complains against police, as well as educating the community all the ways citizens to make formal and informal complaints. Members of the board will be appointed by the mayor with the with the approval of the Bloomington City Council by a two-thirds vote of all aldermen currently serving.

Its formal power is limited. The city’s police union contract does specifically limits “re-investigations and prohibit(s) the compulsion of police officer testimony in front of citizen review boards,” the city says.

“This is not an oversight board,” said Mayor Tari Renner. “It’s an advisory board.”

Ward 7 Scott Black said he wants to periodically check on the effectiveness of the board in the years to come.

“My focus right now is to make sure that folks feel that there’s an institution that will help them be heard,” said Black. “This document is the result of a lot of people working very hard toward a common goal.”

Bloomington Council Passes Community Relations Board Plan

During the Bloomington City Council meeting on Monday, July 24, the council passed (8-1) the ‘Public Safety and Community Relations Board’ (PSCRB) in front of a packed house of hundreds of supporters. The advocacy originated from grassroots activists and community organizations who worked tirelessly for this effort to come to fruition. Without them, none of this would have been possible.

The most vocal advocates of the ordinance was an alliance of community organizations convened by YWCA McLean County. The organizations include ACLU of Central Illinois, Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal, Bloomington Normal Branch of NAACP, Central Illinois Pride Health Center, Illinois People’s Action, McLean County League of Women Voters, Not in Our Town Bloomington-Normal and Prairie Pride Coalition.

“Police accountability and transparency is key to improved community relations,” said Ky Ajayi, Black Lives Matter representative. “The establishment of the PSCRB is an excellent step in that direction.”

With the passage of this ordinance, residents will have the opportunity to submit their complaint to the PSCRB, which will then be routed to the Bloomington Police Department, instead of filing directly with the department. The police department will still conduct complaint investigations as they always have, but with this board, a resident will be able to request a review by the PSCRB to ensure proper protocols were followed. In addition, the board will promote alternate avenues available to residents to make complaints, assist in clarifying and improving procedures related to complaints and assure access to these policies and procedures are open and transparent.

“The Bloomington-Normal branch of the NAACP is pleased to see the passage of this ordinance,” said Quincy Cummings, president of the local NAACP chapter. “The transparency provided by establishing this board will encourage more people to comfortably file complaints.”

Another important feature of the board is the ability to recommend changes to the police department. The PSCRB will be empowered to conduct community outreach and recommend necessary policy changes to improve police and community interactions. 

“The establishment of the board is a huge first step towards becoming a community in which police and residents can trust one another,” said D. Dontae Latson, CEO of YWCA McLean County. “We still have a lot of work to do—and this board is only the beginning—but we are committed to playing a role in the process of building and healing community relations.”

Throughout the city council’s public discussion on this issue, which took place over the course of several special sessions, countless stories and testimonies were shared by community members who have been directly impacted by what many describe as ‘disproportionate policing.’ Many cited a recent report by the Stevenson Center, which indicated that in Bloomington, black people are twice as likely to be pulled over by police; and once stopped, are over twice as likely to be searched compared to white people. These residents showed a unified and steadfast support for the creation of board to address these issues.

Citizen Review Board Nearing Critical Vote?

The Bloomington City Council is expected to vote Monday night on a proposed ordinance to create a civilian police oversight board, but its membership would not include convicted felons or police officers.

One of the hurdles for some aldermen has been whether to allow convicted felons to serve on the proposed board.

"I think I am not alone in saying that most of us on the council had many, many conversations across the community about this ordinance and how it needed to read and what its focus should be," Ward 6 Alderman Karen Schmidt said Thursday.

"A group of aldermen worked very hard to try and synthesize all of the ideas with the product that we have in front of us now," said Schmidt. "I also think most of us made some compromises on some things.

"But the heart of the ordinance is something I know a majority of us can support," she added. "It provides a structure for us to build a stronger police-citizen relationship. There are a lot of tools in it that focus on helping communication and education across the board."

An alliance of community organizations — including Not in Our Town, American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP, YWCA of McLean County, and Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal — has asked for a citizen review board for police. Some community activists also wanted to allow convicted felons to apply and to exclude anyone affiliated previously or currently with law enforcement.

"Essentially we came back to where we were kind of at to start with on those issues — that the felons are prohibited even if they're nonviolent felons and even if (their crimes) occurred 20 or 30 years ago, and no law enforcement officials," said Mayor Tari Renner.

Ky Ajayi, a member of the local BLM chapter, said he has mixed feelings about the revised ordinance.

"I will be glad if a review board is created." he said. "I will be disappointed that people who have been convicted of crimes in the past would not be eligible to be considered for membership on the review board."

If that happens, he said, "people who have served and paid their price to society for whatever mistakes they have made are not afforded full rights of citizenship.

"I think people who have been through the process can bring a unique perspective to the review process."

Police Chief Brendan Heffner previously said he is against felons serving on the board unless someone from law enforcement also is allowed to serve.

Ajayi said he would be pleased if the exclusion of city employees and anyone with current or former affiliation with a law enforcement agency is in the ordinance.

In May, a request by the local Black Lives Matter chapter to create a community board to review public complaints about interactions with Bloomington police officers gained community momentum. Not In Our Town: Bloomington-Normal (NIOTBN), YWCA McLean County, NAACP Bloomington-Normal and the Central Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union — supported Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal in calling for a civilian review board.

In a joint statement, the five groups said many residents, particularly people of color, lack confidence in the process for filing complaints about police officers and in investigations conducted solely by police.

Mayor Tari Renner pledged "a broader discussion about what the overall concerns are, what the issues are, what does our current process look like and what our options are." "One, obviously, is a review board and that certainly will be discussed,” Renner said.

"Black Lives Matter has shared some principles it would like to see shape the board, and hopefully at the committee-of-the-whole meeting the City Council will agree that these are good ideas and should form the basis for a board,” said Ajayi.

Few public complaints are formally submitted to Bloomington police, the groups related, but that fact may be misleading.

"We believe it is dangerous to assume that the low number of complaints filed against officers are a measure of public satisfaction, when it may instead be an indication of public distrust with our current complaint process," according to the groups' statement.

The organizations suggest that "in order to maintain public trust," the review board consist solely of volunteer members of the public to remain an impartial body.

The community groups also recommend expanding the avenues for filing complaints by allowing people to file them directly with the review board, with the city's human resources department or through the current process at the police department.

While the police department would investigate the complaints and make determinations, a review board could provide an avenue for people to appeal department findings they dispute, said the organizations' statement.

"We recommend that BPD make all investigative material related to the complaint available to (the review board)," the groups said.

The board could make nonbinding recommendations to the police chief or city manager to consider, according to the groups.

NIOT member Mike Matejka said people may feel more comfortable taking complaints to a review board, and the review process would be more productive than having people just raise these issues in public forums.

"People constantly voice complaints when we have these large public forums," said Matejka. “It's really not fair to the police because they can't answer an individual situation in front of a crowd."

In mid-June, an alliance of nine community organizations gathered on the steps of the McLean County Museum of History Friday to urge the Bloomington City Council to create an oversight board.

"We urge all council members to vote in favor of it," said Jenn Carrillo, YWCA mission impact director before introducing the representatives who spoke at the press conference. In addition to ACLU of Central Illinois, Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal, Bloomington-Normal Branch of the NAACP, Not in Our Town Bloomington-Normal and YWCA McLean County, Central Illinois Pride Health Center, Prairie Pride Coalition, Illinois People's Action, and the McLean County League of Women Voters joined in the effort.

But continued delays in bringing the plan to a vote elicited frustrations in early July

“We are disappointed this process has been delayed once more," NIOTBN member and YWCA Director Dontae Latson stated. "During the June Committee of the Whole session, we heard a majority of council members express support for the passage of the PSCRB ordinance. Council members had ample opportunity to ask questions, offer revisions and raise any outstanding issues with the ordinance during that session. We believed their concerns had been sufficiently addressed in the proposed revisions. The delay raises concern that an already vetted and modest ordinance may be weakened. We remain hopeful the city council will have the courage to vote and pass the PSCRB ordinance.”

BPD Embracing Aspects of 'Community Policing'

Jon Norton


The advocacy group Black Lives Matter BloNo has been asking the Bloomington Police Department to adopt "Community Policing" rather than what it characterizes as a "Broken Windows" approach to policing. Broken Windows theory argues that focusing on small crimes such as vandalism and toll-jumping helps create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, which leads to less serious crimes being committed.

Community policing has a number of core tenants, including assigning officers to specific geographic locations over long periods of time, even decades. It also involves requiring officers to walk or bike their beats as much as possible, and to emphasize problem solving over reactionary policing. Bloomington police chief Brendan Heffner said his department employs all of those tenants, albeit in a limited fashion. For example, he said officers have assigned patrol areas every time they are out.

"We have officers that bid (per their shifts) their patrol areas, so they are actuallyin certain areas for long periods of time, so that helps," said Heffner. "What I think the public doesn't realize is, say, you're an officer on the 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. shift, or the day shift and you change shifts, your patrol area might change as well."

So those officers may essentially patrol a neighborhood for up to a year, which proponents of community policing might say is short of the desired "years" or even "decades" where an officer can really get to know an area and its residents. As for foot patrols, Heffner said his offers do get out on both foot and bike, and said he would like to increase the time they spend out of their cars in the coming months. He also said officers on foot increases their response time when dispatched to other crimes.

"We encourage officers to get out of their cars when they can to talk and engage with people" said Heffner. "Sometimes people are a little taken back because they've only seen or heard things and never had an officer say hello. And we have some officers who are a little shy about that because of the atmosphere, they don't know how to be treated."

Heffner says he tells his officers to be consistent, in that consistency, professionalism, and being genuine reflects on the officer, and those overtures comes back to the officer. 

One of the criticisms of community policing nationwide is that it gets embraced at the upper levels of law enforcement agencies, but the concept itself, such as how how to talk with or approach citizens while on foot patrol doesn't get down to the street level officer. A YouTube video from two years ago filmed by a man walking in west Bloomington has made its rounds on social media. It shows the man and and another interacting with Bloomington police officer who had stopped his car after noticing the two walking. The man filming immediately asked if they were being detained or under arrest as the officer walked up to them. They explained in a direct manner that they don't answer questions from police. The officer explained he wanted to talk with them and get to know them under the guise of community policing. The conversation quickly devolved into the pedestrian clearly stating he didn't trust police, and the officer continuing to talk with the pedestrian in a belittling manor.  Heffner said he has been aware of the video for awhile.

"I actually told that officer 'do not stop doing what you were trying to do.' That obviously was not the best contact, but that is not how everyone feels. If you want to know if our officers try to get out there and do that ... they do," said Heffner.

Acknowledging that the conversation was adversarial from both parties, Heffner said his officers have to act in a more professional manor.

"One thing people have to realize is that we are human too. But we try to be above that. Can we do better? Yes we can, and we strive to do that, and we learn from it. And I hope people understand no matter what you think of the video, it was one video. Because we have a LOT of positive contacts with the public," said Heffner.

Click "Listen" below to hear Heffner talk more about how the Bloomington Police Department approached community policing, including his reaction to data released last year showing blacks stopped and frisked more often than whites during the first six months of 2016, despite finding less drugs or illegal weapons on blacks than whites.

Disorganizer United for Black Lives Matter Fundraiser

Jon Norton


"Whenever I call it a jazz band I do air quotes. 'Jazz.'" said Disorganizer mandolin player Stefen Robinson, gesturing with the index and middle fingers of both hands over his head.


"Because I don't even know what that means anymore," continued Robinson. "Are you talking about Miles Davis? Are you talking about Wayne Shorter? Are you talking about Kneebody?

We're all influenced by jazz, and the other three dudes, (bass player) Ryan Nolan, (drummer) Michael Carlson and (saxophonist) Travis Thacker are influenced by jazz," said Robinson.

Robinson was self-deprecating while describing the group's serendipitous origins. He and Thacker connected at Carl's Pro Band Center in Bloomington and eventually brought in Nolan to play bass during jam sessions.

"It got to the point where very quickly I said 'I'm a terrible drummer ... do you know a drummer?'" laughed Robinson. "That's how I met Michael.  They called in Michael. At first it was two drummers, I was playing drums, Michael's playing drums, and then it just became kind of stupid. So I said 'I play electric mandolin.' I'm actually way better at that than drums."

That self-awareness extends to the rest of the group. It's a trait that has them playing an April 15 fundraiser at The Bistro in Bloomington for Black Lives Matter BloNo. Robinson, who teaches social studies, sociology, and history at Normal Community High School, says the group is intentionally anti-racist.

"Not just, as I describe in my sociology class as passively anti-racist, but actively anti-racist in any context we can," said Robinson. "to try work toward a just society without the racial stratification that we see."

Black Lives Matter. The name itself repels many, especially, but not exclusively, non-blacks.  When I mentioned to Robinson that a local blogger recently questioned "don't white people know that Black Lives Matter hates white people?," for once he paused. "I am intimately involved with the people working with Black Lives Matter. None of them hate white people." chuckled Robinson.

Some believe the term implies that white lives or police lives don't matter. Many respond to "Black Lives Matter" with "All Lives Matter."

"I have to have conversations with my students about this, often," said Robinson. "I wear my Black Lives Matter shift to school. Weekly. I do it so we can have these conversations. I'm not doing it to promote a specific agenda I have outside of school, but to raise conversations so students can have these dialogs."

Disorganizer is inspired by some of the free-jazz players from back in the day, including Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Ornette Coleman. Some of the same players composing music in reaction to or inspired by events in the 1950's and 60's that Black Lives Matter and others are shining a light on today. Robinson said he has used some of that music in his classroom, but said that today kids react more favorably to politically charged hip-hop. But he credits Coleman for the melody on "It shoots, It Hits," one of the four songs on their recently released untitled EP.

"That title comes from the 'Zen and the art of Archery,' this really famous book in the Zen world. It's this concept that this guy was studying archery and couldn't get it right. And his teacher was trying to get him to the point where he didn't think he was shooting the arrow. I wanted to compose this song where it built in a way where the tension keeps increasing. And then like this guy holding the bow, all of a sudden, the arrow just shoots. The guy doesn't ever let the arrow go, it just shoots. And that's the right moment to end the song." said Robinson.


Anti-Hate Rally Commemorates Kansas Murder, Seeks Unity

Lenore Sobota

The Pantagraph

and Camille Taylor

Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe of the Moses Montefiore Congregation in Bloomington asked people attending a Not In Our Town anti-hate rally Thursday at Illinois Wesleyan University to join hands and repeat after her.

"We are not here to protest or rally against any group or individual, but to educate ourselves and our children and become more aware of what is happening around us. After you leave these doors, remember tonight, remember our stories, our cheers, our emotions and friendship, remember that we our one. Together, Let us be compassionate, kind, and respectful towards each other. We must see people for who they truly are and teach our children to take a stand against racism, bigotry and all forms of intolerance. Let us celebrate our diversity together and inspire and honor each other as brothers and sisters. -- Archana Shekara

“We are here. We are your brothers and sisters. We hear you. We believe you,” she said as the crowd of more than 150 people echoed her words. “Hatred and intolerance have no place here. We shall not fear. Love will hold us together as one family of humanity."

The gathering started with a mantra recited by a Hindu priest and the lighting of a candle to symbolize removal of darkness from the community.

Aishwarya Shekara (Photos by Mike Matejka)

Aishwarya Shekara (Photos by Mike Matejka)

Speaker after speaker talked about the need to support each other, to speak out against hatred and bigotry and to work for peace.

Imam Khalid Herrington

Imam Khalid Herrington

The rally took place in IWU's Hansen Student Center where the two dozen flags of other countries that ring the upper level took on special meaning.

“We are all here in solidarity as a community to stop hate together,” said IWU Provost Jonathan Green. “We are gathered here tonight to express love for our neighbors.”

But it was the personal stories of insults and slights, particularly those of high school students from Bloomington District 87 and McLean County Unit 5, that seemed to touch the crowd.

A student whose family is from India told of being asked in a social studies class what caste her family was from.

Another who is Muslim said the day she decided to wear her hijab to school she received "weird looks" or was ignored by people she knew.

A Hispanic student said she was told not to speak Spanish in school — “you're in America now,” they said.

And a student of mixed race related how, when she was only 6 years old, her mother, who is white, came to school for a program and another student asked if she was adopted.

Imam Khalid Herrington of the Islamic Center of McLean County experienced racism growing up in the 1970s with a mother who is white and a father who is black. When he became a Muslim in the mid-1990s, he encountered other bigotry, especially after the 9-11 attacks.

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner and local law enforcement officers were on hand at the event. Below, Normal Mayor Chris Koos, right, and Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner stress the need for community solidarity.

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner and local law enforcement officers were on hand at the event. Below, Normal Mayor Chris Koos, right, and Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner stress the need for community solidarity.

One day, Herrington, whose parents both served in the U.S. military, was told to “Go back to your country,” he said.

“I didn't know whether to laugh or cry,” he recalled.

But amid the stories of rude comments — or worse — there were also stories of feeling welcome in Bloomington-Normal and staying far longer than they ever thought they would.

Archana Shekara, a Not In Our Town member and one of the event's organizers, lived in India for 19 years, but she has lived in Bloomington-Normal for the last 24 years.

“Bloomington-Normal is my town. It's where I live. It's my home,” said Shekara, prompting applause from the crowd.

A number of speakers, representing different races, religions and nationalities took the stage at one point — immigrants and children of immigrants from countries such as France, Brazil, Bangladesh, India and Venezuela.

“This is what Bloomington-Normal looks like,” said Shekara.

The Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard of rural Bloomington warned that hate speech is becoming hate action in parts of America, but she emphasized that hate should not be answered by hate.

“We have to guard against lowering … our behavior to that of the haters,” she said.

Shekara urged people to report instances of hatred.

Her daughter, 17-year-old Aishwarya Shekara, said, “See us as the next generation of leaders who have the power to change our nation, even in these polarized times.”

Baller-Shepard said, "Let's continue to celebrate diversity, not just tolerate it, not just moan about it, but celebrate."

Herrington reminded the crowd: "We are not going to agree all of the time. We can still respect each other all of the time. We can try to understand each other all of the time."

Four of NIOTBN's nine Not In Our School (NIOS) schools also were represented at the rally. An Indian student translated the gathering's Hindi prayer into English, while students from Bloomington Junior High and Bloomington High School read a post-election letter written to them by their teacher assuring them of their safety.

Another BHS student read a prepared statement from the Bloomington District 87 School District affirming its support of all students. A Normal West High School student read a similar statement prepared by the Normal Unit 5 School District.

Other Indian, Muslim, biracial, and Latina students shared personal stories about being stereotyped, feeling singled out, and wanting to be seen as a human being first and foremost. Some of the students were the leaders of NIOS clubs; others were members/students from their schools.

A group of children from BCAI (Breaking Chains Advancing Increase) performed with dances reflecting the Indian culture. Their sponsor, Angelique Racki, is on the steering committee of NIOTBN, as chair of its Arts and Culture Committee.

Stop Hate Together Event Counters Recent Violence

A NIOTBN “Stop Hate Together” rally is planned for Thursday, March 9, 6:30 p.m., at Illinois Wesleyan University’s Hansen Center, 300 Beecher Street, Bloomington.

March 9 would have been Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s 33rd Birthday; Kuchibhotla was the young Indian engineer shot in Olathe, Kansas on February 22.  On Friday, March 3, a Sikh American was shot and wounded in his driveway in Kent, Washington.  Meanwhile, threats against Jewish centers and the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis have also raised concerns.

“As a South Asian community, we are tense and apprehensive,” said Illinois State University professor Archana Shekara, immediate past-president of the McLean County India Association.  “We appreciate Not In Our Town and the community coming together to affirm our positive presence in McLean County and to uphold our rights within this country.” 

Shekara estimates there are over 5,000 South Asians in Bloomington-Normal.

 Various faith leaders, immigrants from diverse backgrounds and area high school students will speak during the event.

 The event is free and open to the public

Solidarity Rally Addresses National Concerns

The Pantagraph

Josh Knight of Normal said he brought his 8-year-old son to a Not In Our Town Bloomington-Normal rally Wednesday night in Bloomington to show him how to be an American.

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner joining hands with Bloomington's Imam Abu-Emad Al-Talla and Mayor Chris Koos of Normal. (Photo by Cristian Jaramillo/WGLT)

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner joining hands with Bloomington's Imam Abu-Emad Al-Talla and Mayor Chris Koos of Normal. (Photo by Cristian Jaramillo/WGLT)

"I wanted to show him that we treat all people equally and that we instill in him the values of American culture that we believe in and that is freedom for all people and to be an open and welcoming person," said Knight.

Nadia Khusro, a Normal Community High School senior, said she was born in the United States but has Muslim relatives living in South Asia. 

"They might not be able to visit us because they are not Christian and they are not white," she said. "It makes me scared and it also makes me a little angry.

"They are my family, and they should have as much of a right to visit this country as anybody else."

They were among about 1,200 people who filled the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts auditorium to capacity in a show of support for their immigrant neighbors and to protest President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration, making the rally one of the largest in recent memory in the Twin Cities.

Imam Sheikh Abu Emad Al-Talla of Masjid Ibrahim, a Bloomington mosque, was the first of many speakers who brought the crowd to their feet when he said, "On behalf of all Muslims all over the world: We love you guys. We are part of the United States of America."

NIOT organized the event following Trump's order on Friday banning entry to the United States citizens of seven predominantly Muslim nations for 90 days, all refugees for 120 days and people from Syria indefinitely.

On its Facebook page, NIOT asked the public to come “stand with our Muslim and other neighbors.” It also asked elected officials to attend, affirm the First Amendment's protection of freedom of religion stand against a registry of people based on their faith.

Five people stood outside the BCPA to show support for Trump's immigration policy, including Ward 3 aldermanic candidate Gary Lambert.

Julia Reinthaler said the group was "demonstrating our support of President Trump in his efforts to improve our national security by putting together a system that will fully, thoroughly vet any immigrants coming into this country.

"We believe in immigration and we're pro-immigrant, but we are very much supportive of this administration's efforts to overhaul our system and better serve the national interest," she said.

In the event, Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner said he had mixed emotions about the event.

"I am so thrilled to see this room packed," he said. "I am saddened that we have to be here to try to defend the idea that all people are created equal."

Speaking of the United States as a nation of immigrants, Normal Mayor Chris Koos spoke of his family's Irish and German roots.

"They came here because they left a hellish environment where they could no longer thrive," he said. "So they traveled halfway around the world to find a place where they could better their lives and their family's lives and the lives of their descendants.  

"So today if you come to our community from South Asia, from Mexico, Central America, from Sudan, from Libya and the five other now-named countries, and you come here to find a better way for you and your family we welcome you.

"If you choose us, we choose you. Welcome home," he added, drawing a standing ovation.

The crowd continued to applaud and stand as the two mayors and Al-Talla clasped raised hands in a show of solidarity.

Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe of the Moses Montefiore Temple in Bloomington urged residents not to live as strangers.

"During the past several generations many of my people have lived as strangers in lands not ours," she said. "On occasion we were treated well. Most of the time not.

"There was a time when our nation closed its doors on Jews escaping persecution. While some found safety in other countries, many were refused and ultimately perished in the Holocaust," said Dubowe, adding, "We cannot make this mistake again."

Mandava Rao of the Hindu Temple Bloomington-Normal read some Hindu mantras, and the Rev. Molly Ward, an Episcopal priest, closed with a prayer.

"This meant a lot to us — such tremendous support and tremendous energy from the whole community regardless of their faith, regardless of their ethnicity," said Mohammed Zaman, president of Masjid Ibrahim, at the conclusion of the  90-minute event.

"This shows that when a community gets together they can fight any evil, whether it's national, international or on any level."

Putting Out The Welcome Sign

Mel Lunny


Despite the anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric we have all witnessed in recent times, there are always a handful of citizens fighting to make their communities more welcoming. 

One such citizen is Matthew Bucher, a pastor at Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisburg, VA, who shared a message with his congregation in response to negative comments made by politicians with regards to immigrants.  It read, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” and appeared in Spanish, English, and Arabic on a simple sign in front of his church.  After a positive response to the sign from the local community, smaller yard signs were created and quickly sold out.

When calls for the signs started to come from other communities, the church posted the design online,  and also offered other language options to adapt the sign based on each local community. 

Today, the signs can be found in communities around the United States and Canada, including Bloomington-Normal—Thanks to Pamela and Herb Eaton, who saw the signs in Harrisonburg, VA while visiting their daughter.  They decided to bring the welcoming message to their own community, so after returning to their home near downtown Bloomington, they ordered 100 signs to be printed locally.

Pamela told WGLT, "I think it's important that when people come into older neighborhoods, especially like where I live in Dimmitt's Grove, they realize just because you may have a foreign last name or speak a different language, you in fact are welcome and we're glad you're our neighbor.” 

Signs cost $10, which allows for a small profit to be donated to the Western Avenue Community Center and the Dimmit’s Grove Neighborhood Association.  If you’d like to order a sign to display locally, call Pamela Eaton at 309-829-3424.

There is also a Facebook page for those interested in purchasing or printing signs in other communities.

BLM Meeting Airs Profiling Grievances

Kevin Barlow

The Pantagraph

Josh Lewis, an 11-year-old Bloomington Junior High School student, says he used to like police officers, participating in “Ice Cream with a Cop” events and talking to officers at school sporting events and activities.

But that all changed a few months back, he told a crowd of about 300 people at a public meeting Thursday at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church with Bloomington Police officials and hosted by Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal.

“One day, my ride picked me up and was confused when we got pulled over a couple of blocks from my house,” he said. “There was no way we had broken any traffic laws.

"The driver was worried about getting a ticket because he had left his wallet with his license at home," he said. "But the officer didn’t want to talk with him. He wanted to talk with me.

"I was nervous. I had heard about black people getting shot by police.”

Lewis said the officer informed him he was investigating a car theft in the area. The driver, according to Lewis, asked if he was going to get a ticket for driving without his license and was told that he wouldn’t.

“I was confused by this,” Lewis said. “I was relieved when he left.

"Then I got pissed when I realized what happened. Was the officer thinking I stole the car or knew something about it? I don’t even drive. But this was profiling. The driver was white and (the officer) didn’t say anything to him.”

Lewis was one of several members of the Black Lives Matter group who spoke at the meeting, detailing incidents where they felt they were unjustly treated by police because of their race.

Group member Ky Ajayi moderated the program.

“There is a lot of misunderstanding of who we are and what we stand for, and even though we are only 2 months old, we are already controversial,” he said. “There are folks out there who don’t know us, don’t like us and have decided they can’t work with us because we say ‘Black lives matter.’"

"Saying that shouldn’t be controversial. We should all be saying ‘Black lives matter’ because when we say that, we are lifting up a problem," he said.

"When people say ‘Save the whales,’ they aren’t advocating the destruction of all other sea life. A problem has been identified and a call to action is being sent.”

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner was allowed to make opening remarks for about five minutes. He was not permitted to comment on the stories that were told, but he was allowed to answer only "yes" or "no" to prepared questions asked by Ajayi.

“There are two sides to every story,” Heffner said after the meeting. “Obviously, tonight, I had no chance to respond and this was not a meeting for dialogue. But I heard it and if those things occurred, that’s not good, but I need information.”

Several issues were discussed, including the use of cameras in undisclosed, public areas of largely minority neighborhoods; the use of body cameras on officers; police training and oversight; and policies related to community police and "broken windows policing" (questioning anyone in the area when a crime is suspected).

Also discussed was a proposal to use a vacant but rehabilitated house owned Mid Central Community Action at 828 W. Jefferson St. for a police substation, which has drawn criticism from among west-side residents.

Under the plan up for a City Council vote next month, officers from every patrol shift could stop by the house to fill out reports, eat meals, take breaks and be out and about in the neighborhood.

“Personally, I am anti-police substation in my neighborhood,” said west-side resident Sonny Garcia. “Think about being in an abusive relationship: You get separated and then the abuser want to come back in.

"Until there is more training for police on race issues and a level of trust is established, I don’t think the substation is a good idea,” he said.

BLM B/N Challenges Substation Plan; 'Accountability Meeting' Thursday

Colleen Reynolds


The group Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal asked its members this weekend to call Bloomington aldermen this weekend to delay a vote on whether to open a police substation on West Jefferson Street. BLM leaders say the community has not been properly engaged and there is no consensus that a substation would be welcome.  They want to delay a vote for more conversation but initially view the substation as an increased police presence that, "violates any commitment to community policing, " according to a release issued late Friday afternoon.

"Many in west Bloomington are concerned there is a disproportionate police presence in their neighborhood." The group acknowledges, "While some community organizations have been part of this effort, many in the community are just finding out about this for the first time."  The house is owned by Mid-Central Community Action which provides a variety of social services, including affordable housing for single adults.

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner said earlier this week the substation would improve community relations and safety. "(It) will reduce officers' response time, increase police visibility, and provide officers the opportunity to meet and collaborate with community members," he said.  Heffner is under fire for what some members of the local chapter say is a lack of efforts to include all residents in the decision-making process regarding how their neighborhoods are protected.

Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal is hosting what it's calling "A Community Accountability Meeting" it requested with Chief Heffner scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15 at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church at 801 W. Market.  The meeting is open to the public.

Mike: Urban America Not 'Living in Hell'

Mike Matejka

WJBC Forum

This election people talk about a divided America.  That point came home to me when candidate Trump said that inner-city Americans were “living in hell.”  I scoffed at the notion at first, but then quickly realized, many Americans, especially white Americans, would agree.

I did not grow up in Bloomington-Normal.  I grew up in St Louis and then Cahokia, Illinois, immediately south of East St. Louis.  My dad drove a bus in East St. Louis and we were in and out of that city constantly.  On school holidays my mother would send me off to ride the bus with Dad for the day.  I went to high school in Belleville, Illinois.   I was shocked when I heard teachers there say, “I never drive through East St. Louis without my windows up and the doors locked.”   I was totally mystified.  What were they afraid of?

Today, I occasionally get a cautious question about Chicago.   People ask if it’s really safe to go to the city.   Of course it is.

Even more shocking, I’ve heard local citizens here say, “I never drive through the west side of Bloomington without my windows up and my doors locked.”  Or, “I have never been to the west side.”  Currently, I don’t live on the west side, but for almost 40 years I did.  I found wonderful neighborhoods with great people, affordable housing where a family could buy a home and live comfortably.

Now I don’t downplay that there are some urban districts that are dangerous.  But to say that people living in those areas are “living in hell” is to label people.  If inner-city America is truly “hell,” than that means that people aren’t smart enough to get out, must enjoy, or are denied a means of exit.

We often forget that in challenged neighborhoods are caring parents, people trying to make a living, human beings attempting to make the best they can with what they have.   To describe “people living in hell” is to succumb to stereotype.  Yes, we need to improve educational and employment opportunities for low-income areas.  Yes, we need to stop the prison pipeline that throws too many young people in jail and then brands them for life.  In all of this, let’s remember that the majority of us – no matter our race, color or creed – are good intentioned people.   Part of this is overcoming our fears of the other we don’t know.  Instead of living in fear or labeling whole communities, some human understanding and looking beyond the stereotype can benefit us all.

Kelley: Just LIKE a Good Neighbor...

Rev. Kelley Becker

Bloomington First Christian Church

For most of us, our homes are our greatest financial commitment. Experts say we will spend almost a third of our lifetime earnings on housing. From a financial perspective, where we choose to live is an important decision. It’s an important decision from a spiritual and heart perspective too. Think for a moment about the factors that went into your decision regarding where to live.

How did you choose your neighborhood?

John and I considered three main things when we were looking for a house 7 years ago. We wanted an old house with character, we wanted most of the hard updating work to have already been done, and we wanted the house to be in school District 87 because at the time, Andrew was in high school and that Purple Raider had absolutely no interest in becoming an Ironman, even though I assured him that people in our family look great in orange and black!

As we looked for a house, we were far less concerned about a particular neighborhood than we were about finding a cool house. When we found what is now our home, I knew the second we walked into the house, it had to be ours.

We love our house. And we love our neighborhood. In fact, the houses in our neighborhood are a lot like the houses in this neighborhood. Many of them were built in the early 1900’s, with wide hardwood baseboards, hardwood floors, ornate woodwork, claw foot tubs, and high ceilings. So much to love!

One difference between the neighborhood I live in and the neighborhood I work in is that most of the people who live near me are like me. They leave their houses in the morning, in their late model cars, they go to work and come home in the evening, dry cleaning in one hand and brief cases in the other. They work in offices, spend their free time playing golf, watching their kids play sports, or working in their yards. They went to college and expect their kids will too. Aside from an occasional teenager over the years, I have never seen a person in a food service uniform in our neighborhood. There are no people with black or brown skin living on our street and very few people who are not white live in our entire neighborhood.

In this neighborhood, where I work, I notice adults going to work in many different types of uniforms, at all times of the day, in the morning, in the afternoon, and even when I am here late into the evening. The people I interact with who live near here have black, brown, and white skin, most of them have black skin. Most of them have attended high school, some have finished high school, few have attended college. I’ve never seen anyone with golf clubs and the sight of children in sports uniforms, like PCSL soccer, is not nearly as common as it is in my neighborhood.

According to my smart phone, at 9 am on most weekday mornings, it takes just 6 minutes to get from my home to my office, if I don’t stop at Coffee Hound.

I live about 12 blocks east of Main Street and the church is about 4 blocks west of Main Street In Bloomington, Main Street is one of the reference points we use to talk about relative location. It’s important to note that there is an economic divide in our community for which Main Street is generally understood as the dividing line. In other words, many people do not see the neighborhoods west of Main Street as desirable places to live and work. There are similar dividers in Normal and other cities as well. I am using Bloomington as an example this morning.

This divide is really bad for our communities for many reasons, chiefly, in my opinion, because of the impact it has on the futures of not just the children who live west of Main Street, but the impact it has on the futures of the children east of Main Street.

You see, children who grow up in poor neighborhoods are likely to stay poor their whole lives. And our propensity toward self segregation, whether it’s the Main Street divide, or exclusive subdivisions, compounds this harsh reality. In a study by Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley, that examined the odds of a child moving up the economic ladder within our nation’s cities, it was noted that in places where people in poverty and people who are affluent are the most isolated from one another, the prospects of children who are poor are the worst.

This isn’t surprising though, since public schools are typically funded by the taxpayers who live in that immediate community, leading to well funded schools for children of economically advantaged parents and struggling schools for children whose parents are poor and less able to provide other opportunities. There are many layers to this, and I know there are other factors involved in neighborhood systems. However, the truth is, many people choose their homes based on the schools. So, those of us with the means to choose select what we perceive as the best schools while the people who have no choice are left with the schools that receive the least funding, in poor neighborhoods. And this helps perpetuate the cycle of poverty. It is also an example of systemic racism. And it will never change unless the people who are benefitting from the current system say, “Enough, my children are special, but they are not more special than the children who live west of Main Street”

And what about the east of Main St. children? I’m using these groupings “west of Main St. children” and “east of Main Street children” metaphorically. We could apply groupings like this to almost any urban setting in our country. How does this self segregation impact the east of Main Street children? This segregation deprives children from more affluent families of the opportunity to be aware of the circumstances of other human beings, human beings that live a mere 6 minutes away from them. It keeps other human beings at arm’s length, perceiving them, and their situations, as something to be feared and avoided, and deprives both groups of the opportunity for true community with one another. Years ago, when I was serving another church as the youth minister, I and the children’s ministry committee decided that instead of having VBS at our church, we would have it at the Boys and Girls Club so that we could share our program with the children there. We thought it was a great idea. And it was. There was one thing that surprised us though. While VBS attendance was very good, the family participation from our church at that VBS was the lowest it ever was. When I asked families who chose not to participate why they were not participating, I got answers like, “We are afraid to be over there at night,” “My kids don’t know anyone over there,” and “I’m afraid of what my kids will learn from those kids.” I have to tell you, when I heard those responses, my heart broke, mostly for the kids in my own church who were being kept so isolated from the real world and from people who had so much to teach them.

What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? I think we have to first answer the question, “Who is our neighbor?” The reality, as I shared earlier, is that for most of us, our physical neighbors are people who are like us. But because the Bible is rich with examples of the goodness and intentionality with which God injected diversity into our world, we have to reject the idea that God intended for us to only think of people like ourselves as our neighbors. I find myself recalling about the phrase, “expanding the neighborhood,” that Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins coined in her book Whole: A Call to Unity in Our Fragmented World. We have to expand who we think of as our neighbors. Our neighbors are the people who live east of Main St. and west of Main St., people who live on the other side of our northern border and the other side of our southern border, people who live in Albuquerque and Aleppo, and everywhere in between.

In my mind, then, the other question Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” brings up is, “How do we love our neighbors?” I had some help answering this question. A few weeks ago, I had lunch with Dorothy Sallee and we talked about this very passage. She mentioned that she had been thinking about what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves. She began with the question, “How do we love ourselves?” She listed the things we do to care for ourselves like making sure we eat the right things, making sure we get plenty of sleep, keeping ourselves safe from the elements and from other dangers. That’s how we love ourselves…by making sure we have what we need to stay physically healthy. But also, we love ourselves by not being hypercritical of who we are, by valuing the gifts and talents God has given us, and by insisting that others treat us as the children of God that we are. These are the things we are taught to do for ourselves. These are the things we must be willing to do for others. In this case, love is not an emotion. It is not something we always feel. It is something we do. In my own life, I often find that the feeling of love comes much after the action of love. I invite you to spend some time thinking about that in your life.

So, if we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, and we have expanded our neighborhood to include all human beings, then we cannot hide on the other side of Main St., pretending to be unaware of the lives of our neighbors. Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne, in his book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, wrote this, “The great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor…

"I long for the Calcutta slums to meet the Chicago suburbs, for lepers to meet landowners for each to see God’s image in the other…

"I truly believe when the poor meet the rich, riches will have no meaning. And when the rich meet the poor, we will see poverty come to an end.”

I think he is right. The world can be different, but we have to be different. We have to expand our limited network of people who look, act, and believe just like we do. When we do, we will see the rich diversity that God has planned for our lives. We must find ways to meet our neighbors, all of our neighbors, and love them on purpose, love them, with action, not warm fuzzy emotion...that emotion comes much later. And we can start in the neighborhoods we live in right now.

We can be real neighbors to the people who live near us and little by little, we can expand the neighborhood. If you don’t know your neighbors, introduce yourself. If you already know your neighbors, think about building on those relationships. Maybe it’s time for pizza on the patio or s’mores after dark one night. And while you are getting to know the neighbors that live close to you, consider getting to know neighbors who live farther away. Take your kids to a park on the other side of town. Watch how quickly they make new friends. Go to a different grocery store. You never know who you might meet and how they might change your life. Consider opportunities to engage the people who live in the neighborhood around the church.

Think about the amount of time you spend interacting with people who are like you compared to the amount of time you spend with people who are different from you. Enrich your life with new people, new experiences, new ways of being, and new ways of loving your neighbor as yourself.

In that spirit, today (October 2), in churches all over the world, Christians are gathering around the communion table, in celebration of World Communion Sunday. The communion tables don’t all look alike, the bread blessed and broken is not all the same, some churches use wine, others use grape juice. But at every table, as each person is welcomed, Jesus is made real in the breaking of the bread and drinking of the cup; and God’s love for everyone is proclaimed over and over again.

Today we are reminded that we are better together. We are made for community. And as good neighbors and good stewards we must be prepared to invest not only our money, but our time, in truly loving our neighbors, especially the ones who live on the other side of the economic divide. There is no such thing as drive by love. Real love requires commitment and time…time on front porches, around dinner tables, shoveling walks, raking leaves, and bringing in the mail. Real love for our neighbors requires us to get close enough to see and understand our neighbors’ everyday joy and intense suffering.

My prayer for all of us is that the keys to our houses will always unlock homes that are filled with love and hope for the future. And that as we walk into that future, we commit ourselves to kindling that same hope in the lives of our neighbors…next door, down the street, across town and all over the world.

Matt: Community Meal Nurtures Bodies, Inclusivity

It may not be the Twin Cities’ most exclusive cafe, but Lutheran Pastor Matt Geerdes has made sure the Community Meal is absolutely inclusive.

Courtesy Agape ISU

Courtesy Agape ISU

The weekly gathering, hosted at 6:30 p.m. each Monday at the ISU Campus Religious Center, 210 W. Mulberry St., has become an open, communal table for students, faculty, Twin Citians of any faith or no faith, people without homes, the LGBTQ community, those who can afford a good meal, those who can't -- in short, anyone.

Geerdes, whose ministry is divided between ISU and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in rural Roberts, conceived the campus-based meal years ago, after visiting a similar dinner sponsored by a San Diego State University ministry and deciding it “just made sense.” Beyond the opportunity for Twin Citians to “build up community with one another and just be people,” the pastor notes “food security” concerns among students who often may eat on the run or, in the midst of academic stress and limited cooking skills, may neglect their nutritional needs.

The Religious Center already provides an interfaith space for ISU’s diverse student body and faculty: In addition to Geerdes’ Lutheran Student Movement, the College Avenue facility is home to the United Campus Christian Foundation, New Covenant Community, Judson Baptist Fellowship, and ISU Hillel Jewish Student Union. Geerdes reports his own Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (which helps fund the Community Meal with added support from Agape) has forged “probably the most formal ecumenical relationship” across a variety of faith communities, and, in fact, is partnering with American Baptist campus ministry colleague Phil Grizzard both in the Monday meal and a second Thursday worship meal. In his own ministry, Geerdes has emphasized building “interfaith relationships and bridges with people.”

The Community Meal has added a new dimension of multicultural security, community, and fellowship –one Islamic guest regularly helps prep the meal, and Geerdes notes several LGBTQ students routinely dine with the group in an open environment.

“It just really excites me when people come together here,” he related. “We host this meal without any programming, and if the people there want to pray, they can have their own prayers rather than having one group prayer. We want it to be a place where people can really feel comfortable and there’s not any kind of ‘bait-and-switch.’ It’s just a meal to build community among people. And I like cooking, and cooking for people, and I’m passionate about bringing people together. This is something that’s been very uplifting for me.”

At the same time, Geerdes witnesses awareness growing, curiosity piqued, and attitudes shifting “in small organic ways” among diverse diners who otherwise might never have come together. In the midst of dorms and student apartments and rentals, the meal draws a largely campus crowd, but guests frequently include outside residents and families from “within a walkable radius.”

Feeding such a culturally diverse crowd poses a few menu challenges: Geerdes and cooking supervisor/student Ashton Mathews (student Katie Peterson is cleaning supervisor) offer separately prepared alternatives along with any pork-based dishes, as well as options for vegetarian guests. A new  community plot behind the Religious Center provides fresh produce for the meal – Geerdes yesterday was preparing to harvest new tomatoes to top the evening’s burgers. Tomato soup accompanied grilled cheese sandwiches the previous week.

Courtesy Agape ISU

Courtesy Agape ISU

Last year’s weekly crowd averaged 40-45 diners (including some 70-75 individuals overall); so far this semester, the group generally has numbered in the 20s. Normally, numbers build as the semester continues, Geerdes said.

“We usually try to have more food than we need for the people we expect,” he explained.