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COMMENTARY: Let’s help end stereotypes Laurie Haller, Oct 6, 2010
By Laurie Haller Special Contributor
How curious that Florida pastor Terry Jones has received so much attention over the past several weeks. What does it say about our country that if you want to grab the headlines, all you have to do is make outlandish threats, display ignorance and stereotype those who are different than you are?
Mr. Jones, head of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., believes that Islam is evil and said that God was calling him and his church to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11, the ninth anniversary of 9-11. He later changed his mind, but not before the story went around the world.
It’s outrageous that a religious fanatic with 50 followers can capture the world’s attention. The original plans of Pastor Jones to burn the Quran are not of Christ, who always advocated the way of love. His remarks were dangerous, given our country’s long history of racism, the tensions over the proposed Islamic center, and ongoing violence in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Jim Crow exhibit
Recently I had the opportunity to visit the traveling exhibit of Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. The exhibit was sponsored by Cascade Engineering, one of our country’s most socially conscious businesses.
Led by Fred Keller, a member of First UMC in Grand Rapids, Mich., Cascade has taken intentional steps to become an anti-racist company. All new employees go through training on appropriate behavior concerning race. They must participate in a hands-on “diversity theater,” where actors role-play situations involving racism. Every leader at Cascade must attend the Institute for the Healing of Racism in Grand Rapids.
The graphic nature of the Jim Crow exhibit took my breath away. Having lived a fairly sheltered life, I can’t even imagine the kind of hatred and humiliation that others have experienced because they were deemed “inferior.”
The Jim Crow laws were state and local regulations in the United States passed between 1876 and 1965 to enact racial segregation in all public facilities, as African Americans were supposedly “separate but equal.” The result was institutionalized racism.
While the exhibit’s primary focus was on racism against African Americans, it also depicted discrimination against women, immigrants and homosexuals. Most of the artifacts dated from the early to mid-20th century, but it’s amazing how many racial, ethnic and religious groups are still caricatured today in ways many of us don’t even recognize.
Walter Brame, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Urban League, spoke at an exhibit reception about how negative caricatures become so embedded in our psyche that we take them for granted. A prime example is the persistent rumor that President Barack Obama is not a Christian. According to a recent Pew survey, 18 percent of Americans believe that President Obama is a Muslim.
The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastor of the 14,000-member Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, has said: “Never in modern history has a president said, ‘I am a Christian,’ and others said, ‘No, you’re not.’ It’s stupid and an insult to him.” Once we are labeled, it’s very difficult to dispel the myths.
Fred Keller pointed out that there is a deep hunger for racial healing in our country, and business can lead the way. Hiring a diverse work force and creating a safe environment where people can talk about tough issues fosters creativity and innovation, which is good for business and customers. Mr. Keller believes that when businesses are true to their values and extend a hand, it has a positive impact on our culture.
Why are we still talking about race, homosexuality, sexism and religious differences in our country? It doesn’t go away, does it? We’re still talking because these issues cut to the core of what it means to be a human being.
As long as people dehumanize, caricature, stereotype and hate those who are different, we have work to do. As long as the privileges accorded to some are denied to others, we have miles to go. As long as injustice and oppression exist anywhere in our world, those of us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ are required to speak out.
How do we address these issues? By talking and acting differently—one person at a time, one story at a time, one incident at a time. Healing the heart of our world is a process of continual improvement. John Wesley called it going on to perfection. Christian theology calls it sanctification.
I am convinced we are making progress. A great sign of hope is the new five-year $75 million racial equity initiative, “America Healing,” by the Kellogg Foundation right here in West Michigan. The foundation has already extended a hand to 119 organizations around the country that have received $14.6 million in grants.
Businesses and non-profit organizations are being proactive in working toward racial equality, but where is the church? Have we lost our identification with the basic humanity of all people? Why is the church lagging behind instead of being out in front? Why do too many of us remain silent?
Here are a few suggestions for pastors and churches as we respond to the call of Christ to work for the day when all of God’s children the world over have equal opportunities to become who God created them to be:
• Look at yourself first: How do you consciously or unconsciously contribute to racism?
• Seek out opportunities to dialogue with those of a different religion, race, culture, gender or sexual orientation.
• Preach, teach and model that differences do not have to lead to hatred or division but can enrich our communities through the sharing of common values.
• Partner with local businesses, schools and non-profit organizations to offer workshops on racism.
• Initiate a relationship with an ethnic church, synagogue or mosque in your area.
• Offer classes or book studies on issues that tend to divide.
Terry Jones is not news. The Jim Crow exhibit is news! Cascade Engineering is news! The Kellogg Foundation is news! The sensitive and compassionate dialogue around the proposed cultural center near Ground Zero is news! Jesus’ insistence that we treat all people with respect and dignity is news!
What is one thing you can do to extend your hand to build peace and harmony?
The Rev. Haller is the Grand Rapids District Superintendent of the West Michigan Conference. Reprinted from her blog, Leading From the Heart.