Let’s Talk: Improving Racial and Cultural Relationships

by Rev. Marvin Hightower & Rev. Michael Brown
Interfaith Alliance of Central Illinois

To meet today’s serious challenges, people of goodwill need to be in dialogue.

The Interfaith Alliance of Central Illinois was formed in 1999, shortly before a follower of Matt Hale, the East Peoria native and white supremacist, went on a tragic shooting rampage. Our intention was to unite citizens of diverse faith backgrounds to build relationships, discuss sociopolitical issues and find areas of common ground. When tensions were high after the events of September 11th, the Interfaith Alliance took a leadership role in serving as a healing force in the community.

We have always believed that we need healthy interfaith relationships all the time—not just when there’s a crisis. If we only get together when there’s a crisis, we won’t be strong enough to really have a positive effect. Such groups tend to fade quickly. We need to be building those relationships all the time so we are always ready to respond in healthy ways.

A Silver Lining
In order to make our community and our world a better place, we need to understand that we are all in this thing together. Together, as the old adage says, we can accomplish more. And yet today, it seems we are more divided than ever. How did we get here?

The divisions so prevalent in our national politics began long before the recent presidential campaign. In many ways, they can be traced back to the birth of our country. These divisions intensified during the Clinton era of the 1990s, and continued throughout the presidency of George W. Bush—although, for a brief moment in time, the nation came together when the president spoke the following words just nine days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks:

“I... want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith… Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.”

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, there were celebrations all over the country and world, as it finally seemed that the late Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream had been attained. However, even as the President and First Lady were dancing to “At Last” by Etta James on inauguration night, the opposition party determined they would do all they could to make him a one-term president—and the wheels were set in motion.

The Tea Party was born with the objective of shutting down anything the president attempted to do, and for eight years, little got done by way of governing. All the while, the so-called “birther movement” was bent on delegitimizing his presidency. A racial line had been drawn in the sand that some didn’t even know still existed. During the recent presidential campaign, tensions were further enflamed as Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, the disabled and other vulnerable communities were increasingly marginalized through dramatic and careless rhetoric. All of this culminated in the November 8, 2016 election of President Donald J. Trump.

The country and the world were stunned! But out of such a divisive election, a silver lining has begun to appear. People are standing up, becoming aware and engaged. As we saw with the recent Women’s March, individuals from all kinds of different backgrounds are gathering to say they won’t be silent in the midst of hatred and fear of “the other.” We believe this is more than a moment, but the beginning of a movement—a much-needed wakeup call to address not only our national issues, but more importantly, our local issues.

Paving the Way to Real Solutions
The last year has seen a rise in hate crimes across the United States. Spurred by an emboldened yet vocal minority of extremists, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have spread their poisonous wings. Right here in Peoria, the Islamic Center of Peoria was recently vandalized with symbols little known to most of us, but prominent in neo-Nazi circles.

Peoria’s religious and community leaders are doing a good job of supporting our Muslim neighbors through a number of initiatives. Last year’s Peace for Peoria events brought together people of all faiths in solidarity to fight hate and celebrate the rich diversity of Peoria’s Muslim residents. Peace for Peoria was the precursor to The No Joke Project (nojokeproject.com)—a documentary film, 140-page book and subsequent tour that highlights the friendship between a local pastor, rabbi and imam. In addition, Peoria’s Islamic community has been very generous and welcoming, inviting the wider public to visit and learn more about their faith.

In an effort to continue this dialogue, the Interfaith Alliance developed a series of workshops called Let’s Talk: Improving Racial and Cultural Relationships, with a focus on developing our awareness of why racial tensions persist in society, and what we can do to help heal these tensions. At the first event, held on February 19th, two visiting trainers—lifelong educator Sherri Jones and Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson—led exercises and small group interactions to help participants see each other’s perspectives and learn how to effectively dialogue together. A second workshop is scheduled for April 23rd.

We live in a time of many serious challenges. To meet these challenges, people of goodwill need to be in dialogue. Most people we know, whether in business, education or religion, want to be helpful, but often don’t know what to say or do. We can be clumsy in our well-intended efforts, and sometimes we actually do harm when we don’t mean to. How can we learn to speak and act in ways that are truly healing and pave the way toward real solutions? The more adept we become at these skills, the more effective we can be in all kinds of settings—and the more we will enjoy our differences, rather than fear them.

Our world today is racially, culturally and religiously diverse, and we all need to be proficient in living in such a world. Everyone has the right to be treated fairly as a matter of justice, and our success as businesses, houses of worship and other organizations depends on our ability to make healthy connections with everyone. We hope that Let’s Talk is another step in that direction—a beginning of conversations that will lead us to a greater understanding of one another. iBi

Rev. Michael Brown is minister of the Universalist Unitarian Church in Peoria. Rev. Marvin Hightower is pastor of Liberty Church of Peoria and president of the Peoria NAACP. To learn more about the Interfaith Alliance of Central Illinois, visit facebook.com/Interfaith.Alliance.Central.Illinois. For more information on the Peoria NAACP, visit peorianaacp.com.

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