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When All’s Right with Our Brothers and Sisters

Khleber150x150I’d never been to a mosque here in Florida, so when the Islamic Society of Sarasota and Bradenton (ISSB) advertised an International Food & Crafts Festival a couple of weeks ago, I decided to head up and see what it was all about.

On the drive there, my spouse and I wondered aloud about the anxieties American Muslims must feel in the current political climate. As we turned onto the street that would take us to the mosque, we spied early signs of trouble: the flashing lights of police cars in the distance signaling that something had gone terribly wrong. We got closer and could see officers standing in the roadway and said to each other, “But it’s so early on a lovely Sarasota Saturday morning, what could have gone wrong already?”

As we waited in the resultant traffic jam, inching closer to the entrance of the Islamic Society, it became apparent that there was nothing at all wrong. The flashing lights and the police presence meant that something was, in fact, very right: there were so many people trying to visit the festival that police officers were in the street directing traffic to help the hordes of visitors who had to park across the busy street cross safely onto ISSB’s grounds.

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Letting God Visit

Khleber150x150One of my ancestors came to America from Holland many years ago, leaving me a legacy, a surname, and some genetic material to try to pass on. He (the one who left me a name must have been a ‘he’ because of our patriarchal culture) had to have arrived sometime before 1740 since I can trace much of my lineage here in the States back to that time.

Of course that’s not my only claim to biological fame. Being an American, I probably carry all kinds of genetic markers from all kinds of places. I’m pretty sure of some Welsh and Scottish forebears, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find I had other Euro roots, with some African and maybe even Asian DNA mixed in for good measure.

This is the United States, after all, where all of us immigrants have intermingled in close quarters for several hundred years now.

Throughout those centuries, many new immigrants have faced difficulties when first setting foot here. Waves of Irish, Italian, and Chinese immigrants, among others, were made to feel supremely unwelcome, preceded by boatloads of Africans who were dragged ashore already in chains.

Our history with many immigrant groups is not pretty. The Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II; the Haitians who were turned back in their tiny rafts; the Bosnians who faced discrimination in our Midwest after Yugoslavia broke apart - the list goes on and on.

Which brings us to the recent discussion of whether or not to allow today’s Syrian refugees on our soil. Listening to all the name-calling in the media, it sounds in some quarters as if we’re allowing fear to change our most basic American values, which happens to be one of the terror groups’ main goals. If we change our values, the terrorists have already won. And that’s too bad.

If my genetic ancestry is necessarily nebulous, my religious ancestry is more clear. One of my adopted forefathers is Abraham, the first patriarch in the biblical text, a nomadic immigrant who left his tribal lands in Ur to traverse ancient Palestine. Abraham is considered a common ancestor of the three religions known as the “People of the Book” - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and as such is an example of faith for countless Jews, Christians, and Muslims. 

One of the legends I like best about Abraham is that, no matter where he set up camp, he left all the walls of his tent open because he never knew from which direction God might come to visit.

There is reason for us in our post-modern society to be afraid of our current batch of terrorists. The madmen ironically calling themselves the Islamic State (they’re not actually Islamic, and ‘state’ is a reach) are indeed dangerous precisely because they have become so adept at using modern technology to radicalize young people to help them in their quest to drag society back into the dark ages.

But as afraid as we are, we play directly into their hands when we slam our doors shut to immigrants who come seeking refuge. This is not the American way.

And neither would it be Abraham’s.

Where Will You Stand?

Khleber150x150It has generally escaped notice here on the Sun Coast, but a further tragedy has been unfolding around Ferguson, Missouri, as over a recent one-week period, six churches have been burned.
Six churches. In one town. In one week.

Do we still think we don’t have a “race problem” in this country?

The fire-ravaged churches are all traditionally Black congregations, all putting themselves out there on the front lines to one degree or another, all now targets of racial violence and hatred. As I wondered what there is that you and I can do for our neighbors to the north, I ran across an open letter from some of my minister colleagues to the members and friends of those six congregations. I’ll quote the heart of that letter:

We are heartsick and heartbroken at the profound violation of your houses of worship in the past week. We have seen the pictures of your damaged buildings, scarred with the hatred of those who seek to terrorize you. We can only imagine the fear and anger this has brought to your communities. Please accept our sincerest condolences.

We know that for generations Black churches have been targets of such acts of terror. From the burning of Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church in 1822, the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963, the rash of church fires that followed the mass shooting at Emanuel AME this past June, in addition to hundreds of others throughout the United States, these are intentional acts of racial violence meant to violate, intimidate, diminish and overpower.

But God is good and the House of God cannot be diminished by the cowardice of racism. The Church cannot be broken by the flames of hatred. Instead, our hearts burn with the power of a love beyond imagining that is greater than any act of hatred. Our shared faith and commitment to the power of love will bend the arc of the universe towards justice. When we join hands and hearts and spirits we will enter the promise of a new time, a time of unity and justice, with dignity and worth for all. We yearn for that time and wish to offer our energy, our love, and our heartfelt commitment towards its realization.

We stand with you. We offer you our hearts, hands, and minds. We offer you the moral power of our religious communities, standing on the side of love. Please do not hesitate to come to us if you are in need. You are not alone.

You will surely note that denomination plays no part in this epistle. Indeed, the charred churches are Missionary Baptist, Churches of Christ, and non-denominational Christian, as well as Roman Catholic and Lutheran. And the ministers who signed the letter are Unitarian Universalists, some of whom are Christian but many of whom are not.

More than simply an issue to be politely debated in the comfort of our segregated communities, such racial violence and hatred slashes at the very fabric of our country, whether it happens here on the west coast of Florida or up north in the heartland of America.

In the third chapter of Mark, Jesus is reported to have said, “If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” If we don’t stand together, we may not stand at all.