Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #144. First published in the St. Cloud Times online July 5, 2019; in print July 7

How long ago last month seems.

My June column was hope fueled by kids. This July column is anger fueled by adults – or rather, that’s how it starts. It will take a turn to hope at the end.

June was about the appealing picture of St. Cloud’s future danced and sung and painted and tumbled at the Paramount by kids in the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota Spring Showcase. “The things that make us different are the things that make us beautiful,” they said and demonstrated.

Here’s what I wrote a month ago: “I suspect that these young people, when they are adults, will not forget what was so impressively displayed at the Paramount. When someone suggests to them that they should be wary of people who don’t look like them, don’t pray like them, don’t dress like them, who speak with a different accent, they will respond, ‘That doesn’t make any sense to me.’”

And then.

The June 20 New York Times article: “‘These People Aren’t Coming From Norway’: Refugees in a Minnesota City Face a Backlash.”

About adults in our midst who tell kids and everybody else to be wary of people who don’t look like them, pray like them, dress like them, or speak with a different accent.

To be wary of those people, as one unnamed resident was quoted as saying, when their offense is “They were just walking around” – the most revealing and disturbing line in the whole article. It’s as if “they” have invaded “our” space and their very “walking around” in it is a threat.

People who feel and think and talk this way aren’t a majority by any means. The New York Times is clear that the numbers are small. A Star Tribune editorial on June 28, “Telling the other side of the St. Cloud story,” highlights the good things that are going on.

Still, the tiny group that rants against Somalis and Muslims (Concerned Community Citizens, or “C-Cubed,” has about a dozen members, according to the article) taps deeply enough into others’ fears so as to appear to many to make sense.

Near or at the foundation of this panic is theology.

Almost a decade ago in April 2010, Pastor Dennis Campbell of Granite City Baptist Church, which has given a platform to speakers invited by C-Cubed, bought an ad in the St. Cloud Times headlined “Does the Islamic religion represent a threat to America?” His answer is a shrill yes, grounded in the well-debunked claim that we were founded as a “Christian” nation.

At an April C-Cubed meeting some of the approximately 10 in attendance said they “would only be comfortable in their community if the Somali-born refugees converted to Christianity.” This begs the question: What sort of Christianity would they convert to?

Would it be the sort that treats Islam (and anything other than Christianity) with the suspicion stoked by Pastor Campbell?

Or would it be the sort that is practiced by the Greater St. Cloud Faith Leaders Group? Writing for them in the St. Cloud Times in 2016, following the appearance of an anti-Islam speaker, Bishop Donald Kettler said that “Here in the St. Cloud area, we would profit far more as a community by creating opportunities to meet and learn about – and from – one another, rather than holding speaking events that only end up tearing people down and building walls between us.”

You sometimes hear, “We worship ‘God’” and “They worship ‘Allah.’” That’s like saying we worship “God” but the French worship “Dieu,” the Russians “Bog,” the Finns “Jumala.” Each of these is simply that language’s term for what in English is God. So for Allah in Arabic.

I believe that when, in Yankee Stadium on Sept. 23, 2001, a service called “Prayer for America” featured priests, rabbis, imams and representatives of other faiths, it was not only the Christian prayers that made it to their goal, with the others going into a dead letter box. All the prayers for America got delivered to their destination.

Claims made by C-Cubed members as reported in the New York Times are deplorable and outrageous – Muslim refugees innately less intelligent than the “typical” American; the introduction of non-pork options in the local public schools an attack on “our” way of life; Somali-Americans “disposed” toward violence, though all research demonstrates otherwise.

I initially thought nothing good could come of the New York Times article.

I was wrong.

There is the brave editorial in the St. Cloud Times published June 23 calling out the fear-mongering as cowardice.

There is the Star Tribune defense of St. Cloud.

There are ringing declarations of opposition across the community, including a forceful statement from United Way of Central Minnesota.

To the Somalis and Muslims among us: This is our place – and by “our” I mean yours and mine – no more mine than yours. It’s for all of us to walk around.