The Letter: Litmus Test for '60s Clergy, Inspiration for B/N Leaders

The Letter from Birmingham Jail, also known as the Letter from Birmingham City Jail and The Negro Is Your Brother, was an open letter written on April 16, 1963, by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The letter defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism. It says that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action rather than waiting potentially forever for justice to come through the courts.


Responding to being referred to as an "outsider," King writes, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The letter, written during the 1963 Birmingham campaign became an important text for the American Civil Rights Movement. The Birmingham campaign began on April 3, with coordinated marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. The nonviolent campaign was coordinated by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

On April 10, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing." Leaders of the campaign announced they would disobey the ruling. On April 12, King was roughly arrested with SCLC activist Ralph Abernathy, ACMHR and SCLC official Fred Shuttlesworth and other marchers, while thousands of African Americans dressed for Good Friday looked on.


King was met with unusually harsh conditions in the Birmingham jail. An ally smuggled in a newspaper from April 12, which contained "A Call for Unity" -- a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods. The letter provoked King, and he began to write a response on the newspaper itself. King writes in Why We Can't Wait: "Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me."

The letter responded to several criticisms made by the "A Call for Unity" clergymen, who agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not the streets. As a minister, King responded to these criticisms on religious grounds. As an activist challenging an entrenched social system, he argued on legal, political, and historical grounds. As an African American, he spoke of the country's oppression of black people, including himself. As an orator, he used many persuasive techniques to reach the hearts and minds of his audience. Altogether, King's letter was a powerful defense of the motivations, tactics, and goals of the Birmingham campaign and the Civil Rights Movement more generally.

King began the letter by responding to the criticism that he and his fellow activists were "outsiders" causing trouble in the streets of Birmingham. To this, King referred to his responsibility as the leader of the SCLC, which had numerous affiliated organizations throughout the South. "I was invited" by our Birmingham affiliate "because injustice is here," in what is probably the most racially divided city in the country, with its brutal police, unjust courts, and many "unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches." Referring to his belief that all communities and states were interrelated, King wrote, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."

King also warned that if white people successfully rejected his nonviolent activists as rabble-rousing outside agitators, this could encourage millions of African Americans to "seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies, a development that will lead inevitably to a frightening racial nightmare."

The clergymen also disapproved of tensions created by public actions such as sit-ins and marches. To this, King confirmed that he and his fellow demonstrators were indeed using nonviolent direct action in order to create "constructive" tension. This tension was intended to compel meaningful negotiation with the white power structure, without which true civil rights could never be achieved. Citing previous failed negotiations, King wrote that the black community was left with "no alternative." "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

The clergymen also disapproved of the timing of public actions. In response, King said that recent decisions by the SCLC to delay its efforts for tactical reasons showed they were behaving responsibly. He also referred to the broader scope of history, when "'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'" Declaring that African Americans had waited for these God-given and constitutional rights long enough, King quoted Chief Justice Earl Warren, who said in 1958 that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." Listing numerous ongoing injustices toward black people, including himself, King said, "Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.'"

Along similar lines, King also lamented the "myth concerning time," by which white moderates assumed that progress toward equal rights was inevitable, so assertive activism was unnecessary. King called it a "tragic misconception of time" to assume that its mere passage "will inevitably cure all ills." Progress takes time as well as the "tireless efforts" of dedicated people of good will.

Against the clergymen's assertion that demonstrations could be illegal, King argued that not only was civil disobedience justified in the face of unjust laws, but it was necessary and even patriotic. "I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."

King stated that an unjust law was a law that degraded a human personality. Citing Augustine of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich—and examples from the past and present—King described what makes laws just or unjust. For example, "A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law." Alabama has used "all sorts of devious methods" to deny its black citizens their right to vote and thus preserve its unjust laws and broader system of white supremacy. Segregation laws are immoral and unjust "because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority." Even some just laws, such as permit requirements for public marches, are unjust when used to uphold an unjust system.


King addressed the accusation that the Civil Rights Movement was "extreme," first disputing the label but then accepting it. Compared to other movements at the time, King finds himself as a moderate. However, in his devotion to his cause, King refers to himself as an extremist. Jesus and other great reformers were extremists: "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?" King's discussion of extremism implicitly responded to numerous "moderate" objections to the ongoing movement, such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's claim that he could not meet with civil rights leaders because doing so would require him to meet with the Ku Klux Klan.

King expressed general frustration with both white moderates and certain "opposing forces in the Negro community." He wrote that white moderates, including clergymen, posed a challenge comparable to that of white supremacists, in the sense that, "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection." King asserted that the white church needed to take a principled stand or risk being "dismissed as an irrelevant social club." Regarding the black community, King wrote that we need not follow "the 'do-nothingism' of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist."

In closing the letter, King criticized the clergy's praise of the Birmingham police for maintaining order nonviolently. Recent public displays of nonviolence by the police were in stark contrast to their typical treatment of black people, and, as public relations, helped "to preserve the evil system of segregation." Not only is it wrong to use immoral means to achieve moral ends, but also "to use moral means to preserve immoral ends." Instead of the police, King praised the nonviolent demonstrators in Birmingham, "for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes."

King wrote the letter on the margins of a newspaper, which was the only paper available to him, and then gave bits and pieces of the letter to his lawyers to take back to movement headquarters, where the pastor Wyatt Tee Walker and his secretary Willie Pearl Mackey began compiling and editing the literary jigsaw puzzle.

An editor at The New York Times Magazine, Harvey Shapiro, asked King to write his letter for publication in the magazine, but the Times chose not to publish it. Extensive excerpts from the letter were published, without King's consent, on May 19, 1963, in the New York Post Sunday Magazine. The letter was first published as "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in the June 1963 issue of Liberation, the June 12, 1963, edition of The Christian Century, and in the June 24, 1963, issue of The New Leader. The letter gained more popularity as summer went on, and was reprinted in the July Atlantic Monthly as "The Negro Is Your Brother." King included a version of the full text in his 1964 book Why We Can't Wait.

Mass Choir to Sing Out In Commemoration of Charlottesville

Nine local congregations will rise up together in a song of hope and humanity at Monday's Unity in the Community interfaith gathering to address the recent Charlottesville tragedy, at 7 p.m. at Bloomington First Christian Church.

The gathering is open to the public, and Twin Citians of all faiths as well as non-believers and others are welcome. The service will feature a mass choral performance of the anthem "Goodness is Stronger Than Evil," with words by Desmond Tutu.

"Having a mass choir, with the choirs of all these different churches, shows the diversity that we all can contribute, to share our passion that love is stronger than evil," said service co-coordinator and First Christian's music director Rev. Holly Irvin. "We can sing that message together."

In a statement by "faith leaders of Bloomington-Normal," they stressed they "abhor the loss of life, the dishonoring of the children of the Divine, the insults hurled, and the wounds of history re-opened."

"Events such as these inflict injury which damages our minds, bodies and spirits: the totality of our humanity," a group of several dozen leaders of various faiths stated. "At times such as these, the faiths which sustain us separately come together to assure us that love remains the most powerful force in human existence, allowing no room for hatred, bigotry, discrimination, and violence.

"Hatred is the poison of the spirit. The resulting fear cut us off from the holy, from goodness, beauty and ultimately, life. It is love that truly confronts the corruptions of racism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and discrimination of all forms."

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Hate In Our Backyard?: The Creativity Movement

Check out the Southern Poverty Law Center's online Hate Map, and you'll find 917 hate groups currently scattered about the U.S. -- at last count. A cluster of swastikas dot Central Illinois, and in its midst, you'll find the Creativity Movement, headquartered according to the center in Bloomington.

Matt Hale, former leader of the Movement, was convicted in 2004 of trying to solicit the murder of the federal judge who presided over a copyright trial involving his group, which was then using the name of a non-racist church. He is currently serving a 40-year-sentence at a supermax facility in Colorado. But his movement, like other larger supremacist groups, continues to seek a broader footprint in several states.

In addition to the Creativity Movement, Illinois also is identified as home to the statewide Aryan Nation Sadistic Souls and Soldiers of Odin, the Morton-based Divine International Church of the Web, and Peoria's anti-LGBTQ Illinois Family Institute Tri-County Chapter.  

A self-styled religious organization, the Creativity Movementpromotes what it sees as the inherent superiority and "creativity" of the white race — about the only tenets there are to its supposed "theology." The group was formed in 1973 as the Church of the Creator and was later renamed the World Church of the Creator (WCOTC).

After the 1993 suicide of Ben Klassen, who initially formed the group in 1973 as the Church of the Creator and wrote a number of foundational texts, new leader Matt Hale renamed it the World Church of the Creator (WCOTC) in 1996. The group, largely composed of racist skinheads, developed a reputation for the rampant criminal violence of its members and the verbal violence of Hale. After Hale was convicted of soliciting the murder of a federal judge in 2004 — and the group was ordered to change its name because of a ruling in a copyright infringement trial — the once-formidable outfit now known as the Creativity Movement all but collapsed, leaving only weak remnants.

In Its Own Words
"We gird for total war against the Jews and the rest of the goddamned mud races of the world — politically, militantly, financially, morally and religiously. In fact, we regard it as the heart of our religious creed, and as the most sacred credo of all. We regard it as a holy war to the finish — a racial holy war. Rahowa! is INEVITABLE.  … No longer can the mud races and the White Race live on the same planet."
— Founder Ben Klassen, 1987 

"[W]e are today engulfed in a major worldwide revolution that constitutes a major turning point in the history of the human race, and the outcome will either be a catastrophe of gigantic proportions or it will usher in a new age of greatness and well-being for the human race. … If the evil forces led by the Jews are victorious, future humanity is doomed to tens of thousands of years of slavery, misery, and bestiality, a situation from which there is no reversal and from which it can never recover. If, on the other hand, the White Race wins, led by the program and vision of Creativity, a bright and beautiful new world will emerge."
— Ben Klassen, "A Call to Action"

"The ‘W' of our Emblem stands, of course, for the WHITE RACE, which we regard as the most precious treasure on the face of the earth. The Crown signifies our Aristocratic position in Nature's scheme of things, indicating that we are the ELITE. The Halo indicates that we regard our race as being UNIQUE and SACRED above all other values."
— Webmaster,, 2005 

The Creativity Movement was formed in 1973 by the late racist Ben Klassen under the name Church of the Creator (COTC). Its adherents believe that race, not religion, is the embodiment of absolute truth and that the white race is the highest expression of culture and civilization. Jews and non-whites are considered subhuman "mud races" who conspire to subjugate whites. While Klassen's "religion" attracted few followers at first, by the late 1980s, increasing numbers of white supremacists were drawn to his Nazi-like belief system, which was spelled out in a whole series of Klassen books that included such titles as Nature's Eternal Religion, Rahowa! This Planet Is All Ours, and The White Man's Bible.

Creators, as Creativity followers call themselves, have sometimes literally taken up the movement's calls for RAHOWA — or "racial holy war" — by committing violent hate crimes. Creativity "reverend" George Loeb, for instance, was convicted of the racially motivated murder of Harold Mansfield Jr., a black sailor and Gulf War veteran, in Mayport, Fla., in 1991. In 1993, eight individuals with ties to the COTC were arrested in Southern California for plotting to bomb a black church in L.A. and assassinate Rodney King, whose videotaped beating by white police officers in 1991 had sparked national outrage. Later in 1993, Jeremiah Knesal, a member of the COTC, was found with weapons, ammunition and hate literature in his car; he later confessed to his involvement in a July 1993 firebombing of an NAACP office in Tacoma, Wash. Later (see below), a close associate of the group's leader would go on a murderous racist rampage before police killed him.

In 1992, anticipating a civil lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in connection with the Mansfield murder, Klassen sold most of his Otto, N.C., compound at a fire-sale price to William Pierce, founder and leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance. After searching for a successor to head his group, Klassen, a former Florida state legislator and inventor of one version of the electric can opener, then committed suicide in 1993 by swallowing four bottles of sleeping pills. After his death, his successor, Richard "Rick" McClarty, failed to defend COTC in the 1994 lawsuit SPLC did bring on behalf of Mansfield's family. As a result, Mansfield's family was awarded a $1 million default judgment. (Later, the SPLC also sued Pierce, who had immediately resold the Otto land at an $85,000 profit, for engaging in a scheme to defraud Mansfield's estate. Pierce was forced to give up the profit he had made on the resale of Klassen's land.) 

Matt Hale

Matt Hale

In 1995, the organization came back to life under the leadership of Matt Hale. An avowed racist from an early age, Hale discovered the COTC in the early 1990s while going to school at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill, near his home. Joining the group in 1995, he seized control in 1996, changing its name to World Church of the Creator (WCTOC) and adopting for himself the title Pontifex Maximus ("highest priest"). Unusually well educated for a neo-Nazi (he ultimately earned a law degree in the late 1990s), Hale managed to revitalize an organization that had virtually collapsed after Klassen's death. From 14 chapters in 1996, WCOTC grew to 88 chapters by 2002, making it the neo-Nazi group with the largest number of chapters in America. Hale also built up the group's Web presence in the late 1990s, and proved adept at winning national publicity on a number of occasions.

But Hale also proved to be a bit of a cartoon character. He had spent almost his entire life living in his retired father's two-story house in East Peoria, operating out of an upstairs bedroom painted red to depict the blood of the white race. He never held a serious job, sported a Hitler wristwatch and used an Israeli flag as a doormat outside his room. He kept a collection of teddy bears on his bed, and although he eventually married — twice — neither union lasted more than a few months. 

Hale's talk was big, but his walk was small. He told reporters that he had as many as 80,000 followers — a patently ludicrous assertion for a group that never had more than several hundred. He received national publicity for a Web page he put up that was supposedly meant to recruit young children — but confided to insiders that it was a publicity stunt (and a very successful one, at that) aimed at generating media interest. Hale appeared repeatedly on NBC's "Today" show and other national TV news programs and a leading New York Times columnist once described him as "the face of hate" in America. But the mundane reality was that Hale, while depicting himself as a red-hot leader ready to lead the revolution, spent much of his time lecturing in tiny library rooms under heavy police protection. Matt Hale, some of his crueler detractors joked, was rescuing the white race one library at a time. 

Even so, Hale's group has attracted a number of sociopaths and other violently inclined individuals. In 1999, Ben Smith, a close friend of Hale even though the Illinois führer later denied it, left two non-whites dead and nine others wounded in Illinois and Indiana after a shooting spree that was spurred by the refusal of the Illinois Bar Association to grant Hale a law license. Another acolyte, Erica Chase, was convicted in fall 2002 in a plot to blow up landmarks on the East Coast. Other Hale's followers, many of them concentrated in Florida, have been arrested for aggravated assault, armed robbery, witness intimidation and attempted murder.  

While Hale's efforts to market himself and his organization earned him a great deal of public notoriety, internal conflicts were ripping WCOTC apart. In 1999, after the Ben Smith rampage, the state of Illinois sued Hale's group, which had claimed tax-exempt status, for failing to register as a charity and disclose its finances as required by state law. Hale claimed that as a "church" WCOTC was not required to register, but in 2001 he was finally ordered to do so. After appealing the Illinois Bar Association's refusal to grant him a law license all the way to the Supreme Court, Hale also lost his bid to become an Illinois lawyer. Although he had passed the bar exam, the association found that he was not morally fit. A similar attempt to get licensed in Montana also failed. 

Starting in 2001, the WCOTC began to suffer from internal splits and defections. In December of that year, Hale — described as a misogynist by some insiders — lost his two most important female activists. Lisa Turner and Melody LaRue, who led WCOTC's efforts to recruit women in their roles at the head of the Sisterhood of the WCOTC, quit the organization. Turner cited her mother's failing health, while LaRue wrote cryptically that many of her reasons were "of a personal nature." With other female former Creators, LaRue set up Hypatia Publishing on the model of the Sisterhood. Hypatia built a website and began publishing Sisterhood magazine.  

Just a few months later, in March 2002, Hale expelled long-time Montana Creators Dan Hassett and Slim Deardorff, who had helped him win his Pontifex Maximus title back in 1996. Hale told followers that he'd sent the men $8,740 in WCOTC funds for safekeeping after the group was sued by the families of Ben Smith's victims. (The civil suit was ultimately unsuccessful.) Hassett and Deardorff bought gold with the money, burying it near Deardorff's Montana cabin. Hale said the men later claimed the cabin burned down and the money had been lost. Enraged, Hale accused the men of embezzlement and "treason." In May 2002, after Hale made his accusations, Hassett, Deardorff and three other Creators – men who had once elevated Hale to leader — fired back. They sent Hale a letter informing him that he was no longer WCOTC's leader. Hale ignored the rebels, but Hassett and Deardorff started a rival, though short-lived, "Northwest Church of the Creator."

These losses were setbacks for Hale, but by far the most important threat to WCOTC came from a trademark complaint that was brought against Hale and the WCOTC by the TE-TA-MA Truth Foundation, a peace-loving, multicultural church in Oregon that supports "the Family unification of Mankind." In 1987, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office accepted the foundation's application request to copyright the name "Church of the Creator," which was the title it used for its own church. After the required five-year wait for any challenges to that application, the foundation's ownership of the name became legally incontestable, even though Creators had used it since COTC's founding in 1973. In May 2000, after years of enduring confusion between Hale's violently racist outfit and its own peaceful church, the foundation sued the WCOTC. Hale won the first round in January 2002, when U.S. District Court Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow ruled in WCOTC's favor. But an appeals court reversed the decision, sending the case back to Lefkow for reconsideration.  

Abiding by the appeals court decision that July, Lefkow ruled against Hale, issuing a toughly worded injunction that forbade the WCOTC from using the term "Church of the Creator." The WCOTC was ordered to give up its website domain names and remove or cover up the phrase "Church of the Creator" on all WCOTC publications and other products. Vowing to defy her, Hale transferred the WCOTC's publications and its "world headquarters" to Riverton, Wyo., in an apparent bid to keep its assets safe from the court. "No tyrant's paws will ensnare our Holy Scriptures," Hale said, adding that Wyoming state leader Thomas Kroenke was being elevated, in effect, to second in command ("Hasta Primus," or Spearhead) of the WCOTC. 

On Jan. 8, 2003, Matt Hale arrived at the federal courthouse in downtown Chicago to face a contempt hearing for refusing to comply with Judge Lefkow's order. There, he was seized by agents of the Joint Terrorism Task Force and arrested for asking his own security chief to assassinate Judge Lefkow. It turned out that the FBI, which had seen Hale as a dangerous threat ever since the Ben Smith rampage, had recruited Tony Evola, the security chief, as an informant. After four years of wearing a wire, Evola received an E-mail from Hale under the heading "assignment" and asking him to find out Lefkow's home address. A number of cryptic comments from Hale that were taped by Evola ultimately provided enough for prosecutors to charge Hale with solicitation of Lefkow's murder. Finally, in 2004, Hale was found guilty of one count of solicitation of murder and three counts of obstruction of justice. He was acquitted of a second count of solicitation of murder. A year later, Hale received a 40-year sentence in federal prison, the maximum possible sentence for his offense.   

In the course of Hale's trial and ultimate conviction, the WCOTC essentially collapsed. From 88 chapters in 2002, the group fell to just five the following year. After Hale's conviction, loyalists of the WCOTC, now renamed the Creativity Movement, scheduled an "emergency meeting" to select a new "interim" leader. But there weren't many Creators left to lead. One Montana Creator went out with a bang in 2003, taking 4,100 of the "holy books" written by Klassen from the storage shed where they had been shipped for safekeeping. Identified in newspaper accounts only as "Carl," the man hauled off every last holy book and then peddled them to the anti-racist Montana Human Rights Network — for a token $300. 

For details on other hate groups, visit the Southern Poverty Law Center at



IWU Workshop/Dinner Focuses on Religious Diversity

Tahera Ahmad, associate chaplain and director of interfaith engagement at Northwestern University, will lead a workshop from 4 to 5 p.m. in Illinois Wesleyan University's Memorial Center Davidson Room.

This workshop is for all students, faculty, and staff, and is designed to sharpen skills in both recognizing religious intolerance (especially anti-Semitism and Islamophobia) and supporting a religiously diverse campus where all worldviews are welcome.

The campus community is also invited to a 6 p.m. dinner and keynote address.

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.

IWU Speaker Examines Gender Segregation

Author and journalist Jenny Nordberg will speak Wednesday at the President’s Convocation at Illinois Wesleyan University. Nordberg is the author of The Underground Girls of Kabul , which was selected for the University’s Summer Reading Program.

Nordberg’s book is based on her extensive research and reporting inside a war zone on the practice of “bacha posh” – how girls grow up disguised as boys in gender-segregated Afghanistan. In 2010, Nordberg broke the story to a global audience in her work published in The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune. The practice of "bacha posh," which had never been previously documented, offers new and previously unknown details about Afghanistan and the inner workings of the deeply conservative society. Nordberg’s book raises new and profound questions about gender in children and teens, nature versus nurture, religion, sexuality, and what roles women play during war. The book has won numerous awards, including the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2014. Nordberg has also developed the website as an online resource for girls who have grown up as boys due to segregation.

Nordberg is an award-winning journalist and foreign correspondent, columnist and television producer. Together with The New York Times’ investigative unit, she worked on projects such as the examination of the American freight railroad system, a series that won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.

Also with the Times, she worked on a project on U.S. efforts at exporting democracy to Haiti. She has produced and written several documentaries for American television, and she is also a member of the first investigative team at Swedish Broadcasting’s national radio division, where she supervised projects on terrorism and politics. She has won awards from Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Nordberg holds a law and journalism from Stockholm University, and an M.A. from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

The President’s Convocation, which begins at 11 a.m. in Presser Hall’s Westbrook Auditorium (1210 N. Park St., Bloomington), traditionally opens the academic year at Illinois Wesleyan. Nordberg’s address is free and open to the public. She will also sign copies of the book at 1 p.m. Sept. 14 in the Memorial Center Young Main Lounge.

Simulation Offers Chance to 'Walk In Their Shoes'

McLean County's Multicultural Leadership Program and Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church are sponsoring "Walk In Their Shoes," a poverty simulation, from 4:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22.

The simulation is designed to provide Twin Citians a glimpse into the life of a family in poverty. Participants who arrive at 4:25 p.m. will be assigned to a family and attempt to tackle the challenges of being low income in the U.S.

The event is free, and participants are encouraged to bring a donation to the Mt. Pisgah Food Pantry if possible. Recommend for ages 16 and up.

Burkinis and Bans: Social Pressure Translated Into Law

The burkini, or full body swimsuit, that some Islamic women choose to wear to the beach, was banned in the city of Cannes on the French Riviera this summer, and the ban was upheld by the municipal court in August. A number of arrests have been made since the ban was put into effect and about a dozen beach cities in France have subsequently instituted a similar prohibition. Illinois State University Professor of Comparative Literature Rebecca Saunders is a core faculty member of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Illinois State University. In this analysis, she calls the ban problematic in its ironic call for “decency”: 

David Lisnar, the mayor of Cannes, justified his decision on the basis that burkinis “conspicuously showed off religious affiliation” and “risked disrupting public order at a time when France is subject to terrorist attacks.” His announcement further stated that, until the end of the summer season, beach access and swimming would be “prohibited to all persons not wearing appropriate clothing that respects bonnes moeurs [public decency] and the principle of laïcité [secularism].” He emphasized that any clothing “bearing a connotation contrary to these principles” would be subject to arrest and fine. In a subsequent press conference, he stated that burkinis were a “symbol of Islamic extremism.” Another city official defended the ban speaking of the burkini as a “conspicuous form of dress that signifies allegiance to terrorist movements that are at war with France.”

Unfortunately, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls supported and augmented these stereotypes averring that “the burkini isn’t a fashion. It’s the translation of a political plan, of anti-social attitudes, founded on the enslavement of women.” A lawsuit has been filed by the Federation of Muslims of Southern France and I doubt that the appellate courts will uphold the ban, although any ruling is likely to come after the scheduled termination of the ban on August 31.

Many Muslim women see the burkini very differently: as a way to be comfortable swimming in public or taking their kids to the beach while respecting the Koranic principle of “hijab” or modest dress. In my view (which coincides with a number of Muslim women and other French people), the burkini ban is problematic for multiple reasons, not least because it posits, absurdly, that women must expose their bodies in order to enjoy a public beach and be “decent” (while it’s perfectly “decent” to wear only a sliver of a thong on the same beach). Most women who choose to wear the burkini do so of their own accord and not because they are “enslaved” (as the Prime Minister suggests) and it seems to me nonsensical to suggest that a woman choosing to cover her body (or her head with a scarf) is more oppressed than are Western women who are subject to a kind of regime of obligatory exposure and sexualization — an obligation largely policed by social pressure, but in this case translated into law.

In addition, the idea that wearing a burkini expresses an allegiance to terrorism is not only preposterous, but dangerous; it falsely associates all Muslims with Islamic terrorism and legitimates discrimination against Muslim women. These are effects that potentially remain long after the ban has been terminated. The burkini, moreover, is a garment clearly associated with only one religion which is being singled out for discrimination. (Wearing a cross necklace, by contrast, is perfectly acceptable). The burkini ban is also of course an infringement on the basic personal freedom of a person to dress as s/he sees fit and as s/he desires.

Meanwhile, the ban has created some other absurdist quandaries: what about surfers wearing wet suits? Or the sizeable numbers of extremely rich Saudi Arabian women who vacation on the Riviera (and patronize its most exclusive boutiques and restaurants)? Or women walking on the beach in leggings, a long sleeved T-shirt and hat?

While I disagree with the ban, I think it has to be understood within the context of the French principle of secularism, the history of recent attacks in France, and the large Islamic population concentrated in southern France (which is located near the former French colonies of North Africa). French laïcité is somewhat different in nuance from the American principle of the separation of church and state or of religious freedom. It grows out of the strong anti-clerical strain of the French revolution on which modern French society has been built. While regularly debated and reinterpreted, laïcité or secularism has largely been interpreted as an obligation for public officials to remain religiously neutral, but has sometimes, as in this instance, shaded into the idea that public places must be free of signs of religious affiliation.

This debate has been played out in controversy over the wearing of the veil in public schools and the right to wear the niqab in public and are part of an ongoing struggle to balance French values of secularism, personal liberty and religious tolerance.

Kelley: Is Black Lives Matter A Form of Racism?

Rev. Kelley Becker

Bloomington First Christian Church

When was the last time you felt really uncomfortable?


I’m not talking about physically uncomfortable like after eating Thanksgiving dinner. Or after spending the night in a bed that wasn’t made for you, your spouse, a few kids…and maybe even a pet or two.

I’m talking about the kind of uncomfortable you feel when you tell your mother in law how wonderful her meatloaf is and your child says,

“But dad, you said grandma’s meatloaf tastes like cardboard.”

Or at the family reunion when your sister’s new husband complains about labor unions to your uncle who has worked as a union electrician his entire life.

…That kind of uncomfortable. It kind of sucks the air out of the space and is usually accompanied by a split second of silence that feels like forever.

Today’s sermon topic has a way of making us feel that kind of uncomfortable.

We continue our sermon series, You Asked For It, with a question submitted by one of you, “Is the Black Lives Matter movement a form of racism?”

I will be honest, it has been an uncomfortable week for me. The more I prepared for this sermon, the more uncomfortable I became. I was uncomfortable because so many of the stories I was reading were so far outside my own experience that it was hard to wrap my brain around them. I was uncomfortable because many of the stories point to unjust systems and ways of being that have benefited me my entire life. I was uncomfortable because it is clear to me that many of our brothers and sisters who have black skin are in deep pain, are very angry and frustrated with systemic racism that continues to affect their lives every single day. And I was uncomfortable because the more I read, the more convinced I became that the narrative in the media about the Black Lives Matter movement is creating a smokescreen that is keeping us from fully addressing the real root of the pain and anger from which Black Lives Matter was born. That root is racism. Our country has a problem with racism…and sometimes when we try to talk about it, we get very uncomfortable; sometimes we get angry and defensive.

I remember being a store with my grandma when I was about 8. We were standing at the checkout and an African-American man got in line behind us. As he did, my grandma moved her purse from her side to in front of her and she clutched it tightly. I asked her why she was doing that. Even at 8 years old, I remember how uncomfortable my grandma looked as she very quietly explained that it is good and responsible to be sure you keep an eye on your belongings. Racism makes us uncomfortable.

Today we are going to talk about it though. I hope the result of talking about it here is that we will begin to listen to one another, growing to understand experiences different from our own.

Let’s start with the text Sue read for us. Did this story make you feel uncomfortable? In the story, the woman, a Gentile, hearing that Jesus was traveling around healing people, appealed to him to heal her demon possessed daughter. She bowed at his feet as she begged him to help.

Now, what would you think Jesus might to say to this distraught mother?

I thought of a number of things he might say…all of them filled with compassion, care, and concern.

He said none of them.

Instead, he said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Jesus’ answer was in the form of a metaphor. The children in this metaphor are the children of Israel, the Jewish people. The dogs were anyone who was not Jewish, the Gentiles. Basically, what Jesus was saying was, “My ministry is to people like me, Jewish people.”

That makes me uncomfortable. That is not the kind of thing the Jesus I follow would say. The Jesus I follow was the one who told the story about the Good Samaritan. The question the story answered was, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer, “Everyone.”

The Jesus I follow forgave the Samaritan woman at the well; healed lepers, ate with tax collectors, and challenged religious leaders who cared more about law than love. The Jesus in this story slurred a woman who begged him to help her child, comparing her, not to a beloved pet who is a member of the family, but to a semi-wild scavenger, an outsider, who would eat unclean food. 

I am uncomfortable with that.

While I am uncomfortable with it, I can certainly relate to it. We live in a world where name calling is not uncommon. We live in a world where we separate ourselves from people who are different from us. We live in a world where we fear “the other” will take what is ours. This fear is what keeps racism alive. Racism is so much more than name calling. It is embedded deeply into the fabric of this nation and the Black Lives Matter movement is a response to that reality.

The fact is, in this country, life is easier if you have white skin than if you have dark skin. I am not saying that white skin guarantees a person an easy life. That is not the case. Sadly, people of all skin colors experience poverty, violence, family disruption, and negative encounters with the criminal justice system. However, in our country, people with black skin are more likely to experience these things and experience them to a greater extent. This is a fact.

And that fact means that systemic racism exists in this country. That makes us uncomfortable though…because I think we want to believe the best about our country. We want to believe that all people, regardless of the color of their skin, have the same opportunities to succeed, to contribute, to have the things they need, and to be safe. That is not what many, many black people have experienced.

At a Not in Our Town meeting a few months ago, I heard the stories of black students, in our community, who have been discouraged from taking college prep classes in high school while their white peers, with the same or lower grade point averages, have been automatically placed in those classes. That is racism. I have seen studies that show employers are more likely to hire a white person with a criminal record than a Black person without one, and much more likely to follow up on a resume with a “white-sounding” name than an identical resume with a “Black-sounding” name. That is racism.

And we have heard so many stories of black people in our country who fear encounters with our criminal justice system, including law enforcement officers. Sadly, there seems to be a reason for that fear. It is racism.

And just because I have not experienced these things or you have not experienced them, does not mean our black neighbors have not. We must listen to them when they share from their pain, anger, and frustration.

In this congregation, we have heard Jim and Sharon Warren’s stories about the differences between how their children with light skin are treated versus their children with black skin. This week, I read the story of another parent with a similar family make up. She asked me, the reader, a number of questions:

Do store personnel follow your children when they are picking out their Gatorade flavors?

Do coffee shop employees interrogate your children about the credit card they are using while you are using the restroom?

Do your kids get treated one way when they are standing alone but treated completely different when you walk up?

Do the shoe sales people ask if your kids’ feet are clean?

To all of these questions, and many others, this mother says, “My black children are treated differently than my white children.” We need to listen and believe this mother and every other parent who shares these stories.

 We need to listen to her and others as they have joined voices to say, “Black Lives Matter.”

And that may make us uncomfortable. Some of us might be tempted to respond by saying, “All Lives Matter.” Please don’t.

The Black Lives Matter movement is not “only Black Lives Matter.”

It is Black Lives Matter too.

The movement is about the experiences of black people. It is about black parents fearing for their child’s life when he walks out the front door. It is about black people not having the same opportunities white people have. It is about injustice. Let’s face it, in this country, white people have always mattered…just ask the Native Americans.

Let me say it this way (in the words of Reddit user, GeekAesthete):

Imagine that you're a teenager sitting down to dinner with your family, and while everyone else gets a serving of the meal, you don't get any. So you say, "I should get my fair share." And as a direct response to this, your dad corrects you, saying, "Everyone should get their fair share." Now, that's a wonderful sentiment — Indeed, everyone should, and that was kind of your point in the first place: that you should be a part of everyone, and you should get your fair share also. However, dad's comment just dismissed you and didn't solve the problem that you still haven't gotten any!

The problem is that the statement "I should get my fair share" had an implicit "too" at the end: "I should get my fair share, too, just like everyone else." But your dad's response treated your statement as though you meant "only I should get my fair share," which clearly was not your intention. As a result, his statement that "everyone should get their fair share," while true, only served to ignore the problem you were trying to point out.

Just like asking dad for your fair share, the phrase "black lives matter" also has an implicit "too" at the end: It's saying that black lives should also matter. But responding to this by saying "all lives matter" is willfully going back to ignoring the problem. It's a way of dismissing the statement by falsely suggesting that it means "only black lives matter," when that is obviously not the case. And so saying "all lives matter" as a direct response to "black lives matter" is essentially saying that we should just go back to ignoring the problem.

First Christian Church member Camille Taylor, in her recent WJBC forum, titled Which Lives Matter? said it this way:

“The leaders of this movement already know that all lives matter, but from the beginning, they wanted attention drawn to a disturbing pattern of reports of the over use of force toward black people. They want to end systemic racism across institutions, but particularly in the criminal justice system.”

The Black Lives Matter movement is not a racist movement. It is a justice movement. It is a justice movement that calls all of us to work together to end racism in this country. We must stop being distracted by semantics which serves as a smoke screen, keeping us from engaging the real problem. We cannot word smith the problem away. The problem is racism and it affects real people, with real lives, real families, and real fear about the future.

Semantics is not the only thing keeping us from engaging racism. The media’s portrayal of the Black Lives Matter movement as inherently violent and destructive distracts us from the real work of Black Lives Matter. Violence and the destruction of property are never okay. It’s important to remember, though, that Black Lives Matter is not the first justice movement that has struggled with the actions of individuals within the movement.

In fact, this week I ran across a letter, written to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. The letter was signed by a group of clergy. Here is an excerpt:

“…we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely…”

Just as we formerly pointed out that “hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions,” we also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.

The problem then was not the protests. The problem now is not the protests. The problem is racism.

Other smoke screens include, pointing out that crimes among members of the black community exist in abundance, however the existence and prevalence of “black on black” crime does not change the fact that people with black skin do not have the same opportunities or receive the same treatment as people with white skin. And yes, those black lives matter, too.

Stories about barbeques and ice cream with police officers promote positive interaction between law enforcement and black citizens, but do not solve the problem of systemic racism.

The phrase Blue Lives Matter, adopted by some people to draw attention to the contentious environment law enforcement is working within, is another smokescreen. Yes, the lives of the brave men and women who protect our communities matter. However, it is important to remember that, in our world, policemen have position and power that black citizens do not have.

I identified one more smoke screen this week. As I read parts of the platform adopted by the Black Lives Matter movement, “A Vision for Black Lives”, I was disappointed that leaders entered into the political realm of U.S. foreign policy and views regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In my opinion, they created their own smoke screen that distracts from what I understand as their primary message. The problem is still racism.

Despite the negativity that has surrounded The Black Lives Matter movement. Participants have done some important things.

Students on college campuses have rallied to draw attention to racial issues that have plagued their campuses. At the University of Missouri, a protest led to the resignation of the university’s president who failed to institute and enforce policies that discourage racism. On the campuses of Harvard, Brown, Yale and others faculty have taken a deeper look at racial history as it relates to student life. For example, on Georgetown’s campus, administrators renamed buildings that once honored slave owners.

Black Lives Matters activists protested the Confederate flag and have encouraged legislators to act on its removal from public spaces. Much needed attention has been drawn to the school to prison pipeline that exists for black people.

There are many more good and important things happening because of this movement for justice. And we are invited to be part of it.

I know this has been an uncomfortable message for some of you. I hope you will come and talk to me if something I have said has upset you. I want to listen to you as you have patiently listened to me. Know that above everything else, I want us to follow Jesus together. So let’s go back for a minute to where we left our scripture passage.

Following Jesus’ initial derogatory answer to the woman, she responded with, “…even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Jesus, my child matters too.

Jesus’ response was to heal the girl. One scholar I read this week urges us to think of this story, not as a miracle of healing story, but as a miracle of overcoming prejudice and boundaries that separate people. For the initial hearers and readers of this story, this exchange points toward a future in which Gentiles would be included in God’s kingdom. For us, I believe it points us toward a future when we will not have to explain that, of course all lives matter…of course they do. That is the foundation of everything I believe about God. We are all created in God’s image. Every one of us bears God’s likeness.

Right now though, it is the stories of our black neighbors that we need to listen to and believe. We can show them we have heard them by standing together, by lifting our voices with theirs, demanding and working toward justice for everyone because Black Lives Matter today and every day.


Jim: Love All Into Unity

Rev. James Warren

Bloomington First Christian Church

As a father of 10 culturally diverse children, the senior pastor of First Christian drew upon his unique experiences to offer a message of love and unity at NIOTBN's July 11 vigil for the victims of Minnesota, Louisiana, and Dallas.

              Good evening, and welcome to this prayer vigil.  I truly thank each of you for being here and for being committed to making our community better, stronger, and ever more united.

                Let me tell you how I’m feeling tonight.  I’m tired.  I’m just plain tired.  Aren’t you?  Every few days we hear of another tragic event.  Young black men killed in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis.  Police officers shot in Dallas.  How long has all of this been going on?  I can’t remember.  It feels like forever.  Certainly much too long.  And I’m tired of it.  How many more have to die?  How many more prayer vigils will we have to hold?  How long will this go on?  I’m tired of it.  Kelley Becker, our Associate Pastor, preached last Sunday and articulated for me what I’m feeling, and what many of you are feeling.  I’m just plain tired.  Aren’t you?  Something has to change.

                Let me begin by telling you a little something about myself, specifically about my family.  I do this not because my family is anything special, but because of the formative impact my wife and children have had on me and my life.  My wife and I have ten children.  Whenever I tell someone that, I immediately learn something about that person.  Almost everyone will look at me wide-eyed and say with a hint of sympathetic weariness something like, “Oh my.”  But if the person is Roman Catholic, she’ll undoubtedly say, “God bless you.”


                My wife and I have ten children.  Our oldest two children are birth children.  Then we adopted a girl from India and another from China.  Next came two African American boys from Chicago.  Our youngest four were born in Ethiopia: twins who are eleven and two girls who are ten.

                You see, my wife and I have not been disinterested outside observers of the role race plays in our country.  We’ve been in the midst of it.  However, I don’t for a minute pretend to understand the complex issue of race in America.  I’ve lived a privileged life because of my race, and I know it.  But I’ve seen what my children have endured.  My wife shared some of our family’s experiences at a recent Black Lives Matter forum.  Inasmuch as I can, I’ve witnessed the ongoing, pervasive, and negative role race plays in our country.

                I start this evening with my family because I believe that’s where we must begin.  Change must begin with our families, with those who are closest to us, with our friends and neighbors.  Only as change occurs in these intimate circles can real change affect our nation.

                Let me share with you something that Katherine, our oldest daughter, wrote on Facebook today.  She was responding to a long-time friend’s post about his family and ours.  Katherine was born in India, is twenty-four, just received a graduate degree, and is in her first real, full-time job.  I feel like shouting, “Praise the Lord!” when I say that!  She did her master’s project on the difference between how white students and African American students are treated at a large university that proudly declares itself to be inclusive.  In her Facebook post she writes about us, her family.  Her friend, whose family also adopted a girl from India, was reflecting on what he learned in his transracial family.  Let me emphasize that I’m sharing this with you not because my wife and I are somehow remarkable, but because the message our daughter took to heart while growing up is one many of us are attempting to pass on to our children.

                Katherine writes:

I am thankful that parents like yours and mine raised us in such a way that different skin colors were seen as nothing but beautiful. The way our families instilled in us the love of God and taught us how to share that love with others was one of the many gifts we were given. It amazes me [notice her word choice: amazes] that some people are threatened by those who look different from them, and yet people like us so naturally embrace others who appear to be different. In our world, families do not have to look like one another in order to love each other. I have seen how people like you and my brothers willingly loved little brown girls and were proud to declare these little girls your sisters.  I guess we have our parents to thank for that.  We can thank our parents for being good people: honorable and tender role models of equality and love. Your family is beautiful, and mine is, too.

I am so proud of Katherine.  I am so proud of the woman she’s become.  I want to emphasize it was not just our family who taught her to value and love others.  You were a part of it, too.  She learned these lessons right here in Bloomington.  She grew up here and went to Bloomington schools: Sheridan Elementary, Bloomington Junior High, and Bloomington High School.  You made a difference in her life.

When you and I come to treat our children, all children, our neighbors next door, our neighbors across town, and our neighbors on the other side of the world, with the love Katherine experienced in her family and community, we will come closer to the unity you and I long for.

                Our job, first and foremost, is to love others, regardless of who that other person may be.  Jesus’ teaching, which I’m sure is very similar to teachings in all of the religious traditions represented here tonight, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” should guide us in all of our relationships.

                My eighteen-year-old son has a tattoo that says, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  May we be the light and love our world needs.

                Of course, none of this will be easy.  The roots of our country’s racism go back centuries to the arrival of the first European colonists, their disregard for the indigenous peoples, and their enslavement of Africans in pursuit of wealth.  We aren’t going to remedy racism and find a new way to be in a month or a year, nor maybe even in our lifetime.  It’s taken us centuries to get here; it will take a very long time to get from here to where we need to be

And we’re tired, tired of struggling for peace and justice while more and more good people are killed.  Every time we’ve come together after another tragedy, we’ve done so with great resolve and the best of intentions.  “We’ll do something about racism this time,” we tell ourselves.  We leave these gatherings determined to make our society different.  But what happens?  We get busy.  We have jobs and families.  We go to school and volunteer to help others.  We struggle with the everyday tasks of living.  Before we know it, we’ve lost our passion and put our resolve on hold.  “We’ll get to it tomorrow.”  And nothing happens: the promised tomorrow never comes.  Everything goes on just the way it always has.

                We have to awaken from our lethargy and do something sooner rather than later.  We have to do something now.  If we don’t, more young black men will die senselessly.  More courageous police officers will be shot down mercilessly.  We can’t, we just can’t, let this continue.  Let’s make a difference.  Let’s make a difference now!

                One observer of the racial tensions that exist in our country likens our contemporary situation to a broken mirror.  The mirror has been broken and has shattered into a thousand different pieces that now litter our nation.  Those pieces continue to reflect an image, but it’s a partial and fractured image.  It’s impossible to see what the image may be.  To heal the brokenness of race that lies in these splintered pieces, we have to pick up all of those pieces, one piece at a time, and reassemble our mirror, so that it may reflect an image of wholeness and healing.

                Pick up the fragments of peace and justice that lie at your feet.  Love those closest to you, and love them into loving others.  Love those who are different from you, perhaps even your enemies, and love them into the unity that is ours as sisters and brothers.  Amen

Friends Forever Aims to Unite Teens From Israel

Lenore Sobota

The Pantagraph

Friends Forever participants at a Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church service in Bloomington.

Friends Forever participants at a Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church service in Bloomington.

Seeing the transformations of students involved in the Friends Forever program is one of the rewarding aspects of Megan Gonsalves' job.

She is the site manager spending two weeks in Bloomington-Normal with a group of 10 teens from Israel — five Jews, five Arabs — in a program designed to improve understanding between the groups.

The visit is part of a year-long program that also involves activities in Israel involving the Jewish students from Ma'ale Shaharut Regional High School in the far south of Israel and Arab students from Rama Technical High School, about six hours north.

This is the fourth year Friends Forever has come to Bloomington-Normal, sponsored by Rotary Clubs in the Twin Cities and others.

Friends Forever was formed more than 30 years, starting with youths from Northern Ireland, later expanding to Israel and, now, Uganda.

“It's not a challenge that's about politics and Israel,” Gonsalves said. “It's connecting person to person.”

Mikhail Barkan, a student from Ma'ale Shaharut, has lived in Israel less than a year. He emigrated from Russia, attending a boarding school on a kibbutz. He saw Friends Forever as “an opportunity to see who the Arab people really are.”

In Russia, he only knew what he read in the media, he told a group of about 20 people at a public meeting last week at Illinois State University's Bowling and Billiards Center.

Barkan was expecting all the boys to be terrorists with knives and all the girls to be wearing hijabs.

“When I came to Israel, then I saw they are all different and most of them want peace,” Barkan said. “I saw these nice boys who look just like me.”

He and Ali Abed of Rama have become close friends.

“He is my friend, my brother, my teacher in the last eight days,” Abed said of Barkan. Abed said he has helped Barkan with his Hebrew and Barkan has taught him some Russian.

Alon Herlinger, a teacher at Ma'ale Shaharut and a paramedic, is one of two teachers accompanying the group.

He decided to become a teacher after a trip to a World War II concentration camp in Poland with his son and his son's class.

“I don't want this to happen again,” Herlinger said. “I want to teach kids about tolerance and that all human life is precious.”

The students, who are in their second week in the Twin Cities, are required to leave their cellphones at home when they come to the United States. While here, they have no access to technology or mass media.

Gonsalves said, “The amazing thing to see is they stop looking to home for support and they start looking to each other.”

The students first met in Israel in what is called the group building phase of the program. The U.S. phase focuses on skill building — communications, empathy, resilience, impact and perspective. The final phase, when they return to Israel, is community building.

While in the Twin Cities, they have been involved in several activities together.

The students, ages 15 and 16, many of whom have never left their country or been away from their families before, face challenges. Gonsalves said being challenged is “the place where growth is possible.”

When one student was reluctant to participate in the high ropes course at Timber Pointe Outdoor Center at Lake Bloomington, the group reminded her “we make an agreement to always enter the growth zone.”

They persuaded her to put on the harness and helmet and walk to the edge, setting her own personal goal beyond her comfort zone, and she wound up doing the whole route, Gonsalves said.

Michael Gizzi, an associate professor at ISU involved in the Friends Forever program locally, said of the students, “They're going to be ambassadors for peace.”

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."

Twin Citians United in Face of Nationwide Violence


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twin Cities Islamic Leaders Hail Interfaith Communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelley: A Safe Place For All in an Unsafe World

The Rev. Kelley Becker

Bloomington First Christian Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local Muslim, Jewish Leaders Decry Orlando Violence

Twin Cities Muslim and Jewish leaders joined in condemning last weekend’s mass murders at an Orlando night club frequented by LGBT individuals and cautioned against blaming the Islamic religion for the actions of a few.

In a letter to the Prairie Pride Coalition, the Islamic Center of Bloomington-Normal this week repudiated the Orlando shootings:

“The entire Muslim community of Bloomington-Normal, including Masjid Ibrahim and Islamic Center of Bloomington-Normal, condemns the gruesome and barbaric attack in Orlando and we offer our heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of all those killed or injured,” it stated. “We join our fellow Americans in repudiating anyone or any group that would claim to justify or excuse such an appalling act of violence and terror.”

Meanwhile, talking with WGLT Radio, the Islamic Center’s Sheheryar Muftee maintained attacks like the mass shooting at the Pulse night club might be less likely to happen here. Muftee held local Muslims are a tight-knit community that rejects violence, and “all of us know each other pretty well.”

“If people are not attending the mosque, we check on them,” he related. “We have contacts with the joint terrorism task force of the FBI and local law enforcement, so I think it's very, very unlikely something like this could happen, but no one can definitely say."

Muftee said leaders at Bloomington-Normal's three mosques often preach against the use of violence. "The three mosques are very proactive in preaching against hate of any kind, preaching against strong views on religion. We have lots of programs for kids and youth and we try to show them positive things in their religion and keep them away from minority hate groups that are out there," he said.

Muftee said ISIS and other terrorist groups, as well as the San Bernardino and Orlando attackers, "call themselves Muslim but they are not practicing Muslims. They are taking the name of Islam and dragging it through the mud."

He called the phrase "radical Islamic terrorist" an unfair characterization ofthe vast majority of the world's 1.1 billion Muslims.

Muftee believes the Orlando attack was a hate crime directed at gays rather than a politically motivated act of terror. He said he also believes shooter Omar Mateen, who was killed by police, suffered from severe mental illness that was influenced by jihadist propaganda.

He said homosexuals would be welcome to join Muslims in prayer at the Islamic Center.

Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe of Bloomington’s Moses Montefiore Congregation admonished against targeting the Muslim community as “scapegoats” for the Orlando shootings or other acts committed by extremists.   

“There are more good Jews and more good Muslims and good Christians that we do know about,” Dubowe argued. “We tend to be drawn to those individuals who claim that they represent us. We are all God’s children, and I was pleased to see what the Muslim community wrote – it was a very powerful statement, and it really said a lot about the Bloomington-Normal community.”

Dubowe participated in a December vigil with local Christian and Islamic leaders in response to concerns about growing Islamophobia. Rather than pointing cultural fingers, she believes Americans should focus after tragedies such as the Pulse killings on “what we should do,” whether it’s re-examining enforcement of gun regulations, fostering mental health resources, or generating dialogue on broader social attitudes.

As Dubowe along with spiritual leaders nationwide mourn the Orlando victims, emphasized that her temple embraces the LGBT communities and that while some within those communities may feel pressure to suppress their gender identity at church,  “our ‘closets’ are WIDE open.” Because of the Holocaust, earlier Russian pogroms against the Jews, and other assaults on her own community, Dubowe sees strong Jewish empathy with communities that also have been “pushed down.”

Moses Montefiore is a Reform Jewish congregation, “the most liberal of the whole Jewish community,” Dubowe notes. She stresses the need for the church to reach out to all those “on the fringes of society,” including LGBT individuals and those with disabilities, and the temple is working to connect with African-American members of the Jewish community.

“We have been very supportive in recognizing the LGBT members of our community,” the rabbi stressed. “We recognize that each one of us is a child of God – no one less than others. We’ve always wanted to create a safer space for them – not only in God’s eyes, but in our eyes. Everyone has the right to celebrate their life, their love, and who they are. Moses Montefiore Congregation welcomes all.”

Recently, the Reform National Federation Temple Youth movement issued what Dubowe deemed a “very powerful statement” recognizing that transgendered and other members of the LGBT community merit full rights and respect, and the federation is offering transgender training to help members better serve that community.

Vigil, June 27 Forum to Address LGBT Concerns

In light of this weekend's tragedy in Orlando, a vigil will be held at 7 p.m. tonight in front of the Bistro in downtown Bloomington.

Meanwhile, Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal, McLean County YWCA, and Prairie Pride Colaition will sponsor a June 27 LGBT Spirituality Forum -- a discussion with local religious leaders about finding safe places for LGBTQ people to worship -- at 7 p.m. in the Heartland Bank Community Room at 200 West College Ave. in Normal.

LGBT residents have struggled in some cases to find acceptance among local churches, and recent events and attitudes have spurred some denominations to alter traditional positions on LGBT marriage, rights, and worship.

The forum will include a question-and-answer period and refreshments.