Breakfast Club Designed to Connect Youth and Community

Paul Sweich

The Pantagraph

The divide between some youth and adults in McLean County is being bridged by conversation, activity and hope.

It's happening one Saturday a month in an innovative program presented by the Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal, United Way of McLean County, City Life Bloomington, Not In Our Town (NIOT) and ABC Counseling & Family Services.

"The Breakfast Club was an opportunity to create action to bridge that divide," said United Way President David Taylor.

The idea is to connect youth — who may feel disconnected from the community — with the community through discussions, introductions to different places and careers in McLean County, and community service projects. The goal is to decrease youth violence.

While the program has started small, organizers and participants already are seeing some connections.

"Some of the teens are trying to change," Martilisha Harris, 18, of Bloomington, a member of the Boys & Girls Club and the Breakfast Club, said last week at the Boys & Girls Club, 1615 W. Illinois St.

"They need to join a program to help ’em move forward correctly instead of on the wrong path," she said.

"We're trying to build this community connection," said Tony Morstatter, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club. "To see the kids build a community among themselves — that is, in and of itself, successful."

The Breakfast Club would not exist if not for the increase in Bloomington-Normal shootings that began last year. Many of the victims and shooters were teens and 20-somethings.

Last summer, The Pantagraph interviewed teens, young adults and their mentors at YouthBuild McLean County, an alternative school for at-risk youths, and Boys & Girls Club, which has programs for at-risk, low-income children and teens, about what can be done to stop the violence.

Reports of shots fired continued in Bloomington-Normal this year.

In August, United Way and NIOT hosted a community conversation at Miller Park Pavilion about the violence. That was followed by two listening sessions with young people — one at Boys & Girls Club and one with City Life Bloomington that works with teens on relationship-building and social skills.  

While community leaders described McLean County as caring, friendly and diverse, youth described it as boring, unsafe and dangerous.

"We are trying to bridge that disconnect," said United Way consultant Kathleen Lorenz.

Mike: March Students Represent 'Thoughtfulness and Reason'

Mike Matejka

WJBC Commentary

On Saturday, March 24, there (was) a march in downtown Bloomington against gun violence.  The main organizers and adherents of this event are area high school students, propelled and frightened by school shootings.

As I’ve followed these young people in the local media and having met a few, I’ve been totally impressed, not only by their passion, but also by their thoughtfulness and reason.   Guns are not an easy issue, yet it seems these high school students should be a model for us all.  They don’t all share a uniform viewpoint.  At the same time, they’ve been able to respectfully listen and dialogue on a difficult issue that’s divided the nation for generations.

This may be presumption, but I’ve considered them Obama’s children.  Our current high school students were born during George W. Bush’s presidency.  They came of age during Barack Obama’s two terms.  Reflecting their classroom’s diversity, they saw a multi-racial President with a multi-hued administration.   They also witnessed a passionate leader projecting a calm and reasoned presence.

Racial, gender and ethnic tensions still live in school hallways, just as they are in our society.   Our younger generation does not simply accept these, but instead they actively dialogue.

My contact with them is through the Not In Our Schools program.   A very diverse group meets regularly in our junior and senior high schools.  They talk about what they witness; they reach out to students who might be marginalized or bullied.  They talk to their teachers and school administrators, sharing concerns that might run beneath the surface.   Most impressive, they’ve decided they will not be by-standers, but “up-standers,” speaking up when other students are not treated with consideration and equality.

Watch their Saturday march, join them if you can.   You’ll see that youthful energy, tempered by thoughtfulness.   If we older Americans can support our youth, we’ll be building a firm foundation for the future.  We don’t have to agree with all their stances, but we should take every opportunity to encourage their debate and their welcoming spirits.  They are a breath of fresh air in our current politics, which attempts to score points against the opposition on issues, rather than grappling with those concerns carefully and moving our nation forward.

Mike Matejka is the Governmental Affairs director for the Great Plains Laborers District Council, covering 11,000 union Laborers in northern Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. He lives in Normal. He served on the Bloomington City Council for 18 years, is a past president of the McLean County Historical Society and Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society.

March For Our Lives Participants Seek Action on Gun Violence

Julia Evelsizer

The Pantagraph

Claire Lamonica has had enough.

“I was sure it would get better after Columbine and I was sure it would get better after Sandy Hook, but here we are. I hope all the young and old people work together for a change and Congress gets a clue,” said Lamonica of Normal.

She joined a multi-generational crowd of hundreds Saturday at the March for Our Lives event outside the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington to advocate for stricter gun laws in the country.

About a dozen counter-protesters held signs and flags.

The local March for Our Lives event was one of more than 800 rallies around the world that was organized following last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead.

Photos by Camille Taylor

Photos by Camille Taylor

Despite the blowing snow and ice, the crowd met for over an hour to hear speakers, sing songs and sign letters to state lawmakers on the museum steps. Then the crowd marched to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts for a final song.

The march was organized by Voices of Reason, Indivisible McLean County, YWCA McLean County, Not In Our Town and the Normal Community High School Peace and Justice Group.

“We want to send a message that a majority of Americans want sensible gun reform, safe schools and safe communities,” said Jodie Slothower, event coordinator. “We’re not saying to get rid of guns, we’re saying guns need better regulations. We should get rid of bump stocks, improve the way guns are registered, increase background checks and work on mental health issues.”

Megan Michalski of Bloomington waved signs with her sons Felix, 8, and Murray, 6.

“I don’t want my children to be afraid to go to school. I’m worried about my youngest learning how to read, not hide. I hope the community can push aside their personal agenda,” said Michalski.


Many of the speakers and attendees were Twin City high school and college students.

Normal Community West High School juniors Francesca Riley, Abby Ramsey and Mary Kelly waved signs as they stood in the snow.

“Guns have no place in schools. It genuinely makes us uncomfortable,” said Riley. “I think about the possibility of a shooter all the time. Like, if they came into this classroom, what window would I run to. That’s messed up.”

University High School students and sisters, Elizabeth and Katherine Raycraft used plastic bags to protect the messages on their rally signs.

“It’s not OK to have guns in school. Stand up for what you believe in and don’t let others, or the weather, stop you,” said Elizabeth, 16.  

As a gun owner, Jerry Moncelle of Bloomington said he’s tired of gun violence and “something needs to change.”

“It’s the government’s responsibility to take care of people and they’re dropping the ball. We aren’t against guns, but we need more control to keep them out of the wrong hands,” he said.

John Boch of Bloomington and Ryan Sweeney of rural Armington attended to show support for the Second Amendment.

“We’re here to try to make people aware. There’s a lot of work that should be done before gun reform. Mental health reform is a huge issue and so is parenting. Criminals don’t follow laws anyway,” said Sweeney.

“We’re out here to show we won’t lay down as the other side marches to ban our guns,” said Boch.

Aishwarya Shekara of Bloomington said marchers want to protect everyone in the community, “including the counter-protesters.”

“I encouraged the crowd to contact their representatives, write letters, send emails and post more on social media about the cause,” said Shekara, a freshman at University of Illinois. “My fear is that students will lose hope. What about tomorrow and next month and next year? This movement isn’t over until we see better gun control in Congress.”

Local Students Join National Walkout To Address Gun Violence

The Pantagraph

Photo by Mary Aplington

Photo by Mary Aplington

Students at several Central Illinois schools joined their peers across the nation Wednesday by walking out of their classrooms to send a message about gun violence.

Photo by Diane Peterson Mather

Photo by Diane Peterson Mather

The nation-wide walkout began at 10 a.m. and lasted for 17 minutes.

The event was organized to occur exactly one month after 17 students and faculty were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., by a former student wielding a semi-automatic rifle.

In wake of the massacre, students have risen to be some of the loudest activists for stricter gun control.

Hundreds of students at Normal Community High School, Normal West High School and Bloomington High School participated in the peaceful protest. Several schools in neighboring communities also joined.

“I am so moved by the students in our community,” Bloomington-Normal Not In Our School coordinator Mary Aplington said. “Their voices, their actions, their messages today have power and inspiration beyond their schools.

At NCHS, nearly 400 students left their classrooms and crowded on the sidewalk behind the building. Their event was organized by the Not In Our School group, Social Studies Club and Peace and Justice Club.


Senior Faithe Wenger spoke to the crowd, reminding them of the 2012 shooting that happened in a classroom at NCHS.  The shooter was a student. No one was injured and the building was evacuated.

“NCHS remembers. Our town remembers. When the practice tornado siren goes off the first Tuesday of every month, we shake,” said Wenger. “For the first 10 seconds our hearts drop to our feet. For that short period of time, we feel the fear that was present at Sandy Hook, Parkland, Las Vegas and Orlando. How can we make government feel that?”

Junior Tristan Bixby told the crowd how her brother was held hostage in the classroom at NCHS by the shooter six years ago.

 “I consider myself lucky. I still get to see my brother every day. I get to be a part of his life. That is not always the case in this country. It terrifies me to think that thought could have been a reality within my own community,” said Bixby.

As for future change, Bixby said “start small.”

 “Talk to leaders, send an email, sit down and have those difficult conversations. Find kids who don’t have anyone and be there for them,” said Bixby. “Before today we were just kids, but we are the future and we will be the change.”

As she encouraged her peers to vote and speak up, Wenger’s hand shook but her voice was strong.

 “We still need stricter background checks, need to raise the age to 21 for all guns, not just rifles, we need to focus on mental illness and protecting student lives and all lives,” said Wenger. “This is just the beginning for us, the generation of change.”

The students ended the event by chanting “spread love, not hate, we just want to graduate."

For the final minute of the walkout, the crowd took a moment of silence to honor students killed by gun violence.

Nearly 300 students at Kingsley Junior High School also participated.

Before the walkout, Kingsley eighth-grader, Sam Gathright, said she planned to hold a sign and have conversation with her peers to understand their views on the issues.

She said she chose to join the national walkout because “our generation has some of the most lives lost due to school violence and suicide.

Normal Community junior Ajitesh Muppuru, 16, organized students Wednesday in a demonstration in support of stricter gun laws following the deaths of 17 people in a school shooting in Parkland, Fla. on Feb. 14.

I’m not so much thinking about me and my peers, but for every generation after me that will benefit from my actions,” she said.

Students at BHS participated in a different way, leaving their classrooms to line the halls and stay silent for 17 minutes.

"It was a somber mood," said Fiona Ward Shaw, junior. "There's a time and a place for sitting in remembrance but we have to take action through legislative changes."

Freshman Jaylyn Haynes said it is "inconsiderate" for older generations to not take the students seriously because of their age.

"You're never too young to learn and express an opinion. That's one of the reasons behind so many of these shootings; people feel like they have to go to horrible lengths to get attention because they feel their voices aren't being heard," said Haynes.

School officials in some parts of the country have told students they will be disciplined for participating in the walkout.

But superintendents at Bloomington District 87 and McLean County Unit 5 said students weren't disciplined for practicing free speech without seriously disrupting the school day.

Young Voices From B/N Want to Shape Gun Debate

Ryan Denham


Ellie Diggins and her friends can’t drive a car. They can’t vote. They’re not even in high school yet. But they want to influence the public debate over gun violence.

Diggins is an eighth-grader at Kingsley Junior High School in Normal. Along with friends Ari Whitlock, Courtney Sims, and Maddie Beirne, they’re planning a school walkout demonstration March 14 as part of a nationwide movement sparked by the recent shooting in Parkland, Florida. They were inspired in part by the young Florida survivors who’ve lobbied publicly for stricter gun control.

Beirne said she moved to act after seeing the names and ages of those killed in Florida. Many of them were 14, just like her.

“I’m just kind of watching and wondering if my school is going to be the next one that’s going to be shot up or terrorized in some way,” Beirne said. “And I feel like I shouldn’t be afraid of that. I feel like I should be worried more about my next social studies quiz or what high school is going to be like next year, as opposed to whether or not I’m going to die when I walk into (school).”

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, March 14, the four friends and other students say they will walk out of class, then out the front door at Kingsley. They’ll hold signs during a mostly silent protest (so they’re not disruptive) focused on more gun control.

They want to see universal background checks, a full ban on bump stocks and assault weapons, and additional measures to stop those with mental illness from buying weapons, said Whitlock. They also hope to attract the attention of state lawmakers like state Rep. Dan Brady and Sen. Jason Barickman, who’ve visited their school before.

“We’ll be high schoolers next year, and after that we’ll be adults, and we’ll be voting,” said Diggins, who created an online RSVP for the event. “And right now we can’t hold office. But we want to change things that people in office can change.”

Sims said she wants to make a difference, regardless of her age, noting the impact the Florida survivors have had on the public debate around guns.

“I personally think it’s quite inspiring to see kids as young as we are stand up for themselves and try to make a difference in the world,” Sims said.

Whitlock agreed. During an interview with GLT, Whitlock name-dropped several court rulings and laws that she says gives the students precedent to act.

“I feel that the youngest generation can always make the most change. We’re taking control of our futures. Just because we’re not old enough to vote yet doesn’t mean we have no say,” Whitlock said. 

Ellie Diggins’ mom, Aleda, said she was very proud of what her daughter was doing.

She said they’ve talked about what happens if she’s disciplined for organizing the walkout. (Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel said last week that peaceful protesters who are not disruptive will not be disciplined, calling it a learning opportunity.)

“She has decided it’s worth it. And I back her on it,” Aleda Diggins said.

Demonstrations are expected at both Unit 5 high schools as well as Bloomington High School on March 14. Another rally on gun control is planned for March 24.

Amara: 'The Worst Part Is Being Unheard'

Knowing that it could be anyone is terrifying. The people in my school who are irresponsible and immature can at any time purchase a gun. They can bring that gun to school, and kill people. Knowing that any person in the classroom could be carrying a weapon on them at any time creates a paranoia that I wish I didn't have to feel. When I'm sitting in the classroom, I should be thinking about what's for lunch, my grades, the topic at hand. When I'm in the classroom, I should be thinking about my future, not the lack thereof. 

But this is not the worst part. The worst part is feeling unheard. The students from Florida have done a remarkable job of forcing politicians to take a stance on reforming gun laws and making this a national issue, but we still have so far to go. Now arming teachers is being pitched, but that's not what we're pushing for. Guns belong nowhere in school, and it is so frustrating that grown adults are unwilling to give up their their toys for our lives. It's like they're not even trying to hear our point of view. 

When you're sitting in the same place every day, feeling threatened, and you're told there's no problem, it starts to get to you. How can you learn if you feel scared but ignored? How can you live if you feel scared but ignored? I just wish I could get my education and make it out alive. 

Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts, and thank you even more for the support. It means so much. Thank you for your time.

Amara Sheppard


Heartland Students, Faculty Debate Gun Violence

A gun control protest brought proponents on both sides of the debate to Heartland Community College in Normal on Monday. The protest is a prelude to a national walk out on March 14th. Some H.C.C. faculty and students say it's important to take action now.

Armed with neon signs it was hard to miss the messages about gun control from a small group of students and faculty at Heartland Community College on Monday.

"I don't personally own a weapon. I wouldn't have one in my personal life. So the idea of being asked to have one in my professional life is very concerning. I wouldn't feel comfortable. I wouldn't feel like I was the expert in that," said Heartland Community College employee Jenny Crones.

"I'm retired military. I just don't see any place that high velocity or assault weapons have any place in the general public's hands," said Heartland Community College faculty member Mark Finley.

But not everyone attending the protest want to see tougher gun control laws.

"I think that we have the right to own the guns, what guns we want when we want, that says it in the constitution and the bill of rights second amendment and that's the whole argument for everybody," said Heartland Community College student Garrett Conaty.

Faculty member Ericka Hines organized the protest ahead of the national walkout scheduled for March 14th. She also reminded students of their right to vote in the upcoming elections.

"A lot of people didn't vote in the last presidential election, 49 percent and that as a nation is pretty pitiful. I hope a lot of kindness and common sense gun laws come out of it. The world can be a lot more kind and we could be better educated about guns and background checks could be better," she said.

Another national protest will take place March 24th in Washington D.C.

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.”

Gays Against Gun Violence BN Opens Dialogue on Community Safety

The epidemic of nationwide violence, including but not limited to last month's Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, has mobilized Gays Against Gun Violence in Bloomington-Normal, which meets initially at 7 p.m. tomorrow (Thursday) at The Bistro, 316 North Main Street, Bloomington.

The event is described as an "inaugural meet-up to brainstorm about how we can help make our community safer for one and all."

"Whether you are gay because you are LGBT or you are gay because you are part of the rainbow of love that we all share, you are most welcome," event sponsors stated. "We will begin by honoring the victims of gun violence at Pulse in Orlando and also the alarming number of victims of gun violence here in Bloomington-Normal."

As a member of Central Illinois' Prairie Pride Coalition, an LGBT advocacy group, Gary Gletty cites PPC's mission "to bring awareness and to reach out to people in our community who could use some help in dealing with issues." PPC was one of several local groups and agencies that appeared June 28 for Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal's 20th anniversary on the Old Courthouse square.

Gletty was gratified by the nearly 325-person turnout at the recent downtown Bloomington candlelight vigil for the Orlando nightclub shooting victims, and believes the LGBT community especially of late has "enjoyed quite a bit of support." Leaders of the local faith community participated in the vigil to demonstrate their support.

In mid-June, The Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. LGBT-rights organization, called for several measures to curb gun violence in the aftermath of the Florida attack that killed 49 Pulse patrons.

The HRC endorsed steps to limit access to assault-style rifles, expand background checks, and limit access to firearms for suspected terrorists and people with a history of domestic abuse.

A resolution on the gun measures was approved Thursday evening at a special meeting of the HRC's board of directors. The organization said it was the first time in its 36-year history that it had called such a meeting to address a policy matter that extended far beyond the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.

The HRC's president, Chad Griffin, blamed the massacre on "a toxic combination of two things: a deranged, unstable individual who had been conditioned to hate (LGBT) people, and easy access to military-style guns."

Michael: Reject Islamophobia, 'Meet Our Neighbors'

Michael Gizzi

Illinois State University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A salaam alikum.  Peace Be Unto You.    

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

IWU Commemorates Paris/Beirut Tragedies; Normal Vigil Planned Tonight

Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington Wednesday hosted a special event spurred by tragedy.


The inclusive chapel service housed several faiths, allowing reflection on last week's attacks in Paris and Beirut.

A gathering of peace is how organizers billed this service; a gathering that included people of all generations and faiths.

A mix of the campus community and the public sat quietly in the chapel as organizers discussed the sheer number of people killed by the terrorists.

"You know, in a time like this, it's nice to be able to express how you feel about something to a group when it's especially about peace," said Nicole Chlebek, a student at Illinois Wesleyan University.

There is also a Vigil for Peace and Human Rights scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Uptown Circle in Normal.

"Our speakers have connections to: Jordan, France, India, Turkey, and other countries whose people have recently been attacked," organizer Bob Broad explained. "Other groups who will be represented include our local (B-N) Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and non-religious communities. A student peace activist and a peace educator will share brief thoughts. There will be some poetry and music appropriate to the occasion and a minute of silence to recognize and honor the suffering of those who have experienced violence."

To honor the victims, IWU guests lit candles in remembrance.

"And In remembering them, also talk about the deep reservoirs of peace and hope and justice that exist in our religious and ethical traditions," said Elyse Nelson Winger, the chaplain at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Eight different religions were acknowledged during the ceremony and students say that cooperation is key moving forward.

"Emphasize how each of those have something to say about peace and humanity and kind of this shared community that we all have as humans," said Carly Floyd, a student at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Organizers say their goal was to remind people that love is stronger than hate.

'Run, Hide, Fight': Active Shooter Protocols Addressed

Lenore Sobota

The Pantagraph

Ideas are changing about the best strategy for reacting when an active shooter is in a school building, and faculty and staff at Illinois State University's lab schools recently had opportunities to practice the “run, hide, fight” approach.

The drill included barricading doors, throwing objects and even swarming a “shooter” — portrayed by an ISU police officer armed with a super-soaker water gun.

ISU Police Chief Aaron Woodruff said the standard practice has been to lock the door, turn out the lights and hunker down.

“A lot of times, that may not be the best option,” Woodruff said. “We're teaching teachers to look at options.”

Ryan Weichman, assistant principal at Metcalf Laboratory School, said the lockdown strategy was developed more to deal with outside threats coming into the school, but often the threat comes from within.

“We've been trained to continue to be passive,” said Weichman, but that approach and related strategies started to be rethought after the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999.

Weichman went through a training program called ALICE — Alert. Lockdown. Inform. Counter. Evacuate — at Heartland Community College last year.

“It was really eye-opening,” he said.

Metcalf hosted another two-day training session this summer. Then Weichman, Woodruff, University High School Assistant Principal Steve Evans and Eric Hodges, ISU's emergency manager, compared notes and adapted the training to local needs.

They adopted the “run, hide, fight” catchphrase because it's easy to remember in the heat of the moment, much like youngsters are taught to “stop, drop, roll” if their clothing catches fire, Evans explained.

The recent training sessions at Metcalf and U High included faculty and staff, including office staff and building services workers, as well as frequent substitute teachers.

It's easy in many areas to think “it can't happen here,” but Twin City educators remember when a Normal Community High School student brought a loaded gun to school in 2012, firing several shots into the ceiling before he was subdued and disarmed by a teacher and other students.

Woodruff uses the NCHS incident as a frame of reference in training.

At least one person, near an exit, ran out of the building when he heard the shots, Woodruff said. Most, not certain what was happening, locked themselves in their rooms.

The teacher in the classroom where it happened didn't have the option to run or hide, so he fought, said Woodruff, adding each did the right thing for their situation.

During the recent training at Metcalf and U High, the idea of having drills in which barricades were built, for example, was to build muscle memory and show people what they can do, Woodruff said.

Using desks, tables, filing cabinets and even belts, they had doors barricaded in minutes, he said.

Much like a flight attendant advises you before takeoff to note the nearest exit, Woodruff and the other trainers told teachers to note where the nearest doors and windows are.

Among questions participants were asked to consider were: Can you get out the window, if necessary? Can you jump? Are students in the room old enough to help or follow directions to get out quickly, or is it better to keep them in place?

Evans said, “The next step is getting our students prepared for a situation.” Such training would have to be age-appropriate, Weichman said, acknowledging, “It's a sensitive topic.”

The schools also are upgrading the ability to communicate in every room, so people know what's happening and where the shooter is located, Evans said.

Woodruff also talks about prevention and “communicating concerns or threats to the appropriate authorities so we can intervene before there is a major incident,” he said.

Evans agreed that “the No. 1 piece for us … is prevention.”

One Billion Rising Mobilizes Against Violence

YWCA McLean County's Stepping Stones assists and counsels local victims of sexual assault. The Y focuses on fighting violence and ending racism.

YWCA McLean County's Stepping Stones assists and counsels local victims of sexual assault. The Y focuses on fighting violence and ending racism.

Leave your work, leave your school, interrupt the day, rise for revolution, dance, drum, and demand an end to violence against women!

Members of the community are invited to participate in One Billion Rising on Friday, February 13, from 12 to 1 p.m. at Heartland Community College's Community Commons Building, Room 1406, for Zumba, drumming, yoga, community resources, raffle items, refreshments, and more.

One Billion Rising Revolution is an escalation of the first two stages of a YWCA-supported campaign, One Billion Rising and One Billion Rising for Justice. The last two years, organizations have "mobilized, engaged, awakened and joined people worldwide" to end violence against women. The campaign highlighted the fact that violence against women is a global human issue "not relegated to country or tribe or class or religion, further exposing it as a patriarchal mandate, present in every culture of the world."

 The community agencies sponsoring this year’s event are Children’s Home + Aid, McLean County DVMDT, Mid Central Community Action, The Om Tribe, and YWCA McLean County. To learn more about One Billion Rising for Justice, visit or