According to FBI statistics, hate crimes against Muslims in the United States increased by nearly 67 percent from 2014 to 2015 — the worst it's been since right after the 9/11 attacks. Hundreds more of these crimes were reported in the days immediately following the 2016 presidential election. Though Muslims are frequent victims, we see rancor and animosity spreading beyond religious targets to those of a different race, ethnicity and even political opinion. How do we stop it?
There was a time in Billings when we were rocked with hate and city residents responded with courage. For a year, they fought violence with non-violence – and won. It was a seminal moment in our history that showed us who we were and what we could accomplish together.
Maybe the story of Billings a few decades ago can be helpful in finding a new path today.
Starting in January, with KKK flyers placed on car windshields, we were assailed by incident after incident in 1993. Swastikas and epithets were spray-painted on the home of a Native American woman, a young single mother. Self-proclaimed skinheads intimidated the congregation at Wayman Chapel, a small, mostly elderly and African-American church on the South Side of Billings. Homosexuals and Jews were singled out for harassment. Our Jewish cemetery was vandalized. Crosses were burned on the lawns of white Christians who spoke out.
The people in our town did not ignore this hate activity. They responded to it.
The painters union showed up to scrape and re-paint the vandalized house, free of charge. Members of white congregations started attending Wayman Chapel to show their support and ease the anxiety of those older folks. The Billings Human Rights Coalition organized a march of several hundred people down Poly Drive to gather on the green at Rocky Mountain College.
Incidents and responses continued all year. In early December, someone hurled a piece of paving stone through the bedroom window of a 6-year-old Jewish boy who had placed a menorah there to celebrate Hanukkah. This attack on the safety of a small child galvanized us, and Margie MacDonald distributed copies of a picture of a menorah which we duplicated and circulated throughout the community.
Menorahs started appearing on Gentile buildings all over town, but not without negative consequence. Christmas decorations destroyed, a church window broken, another shot, car windows smashed in. A bomb threat was made against Beth Aaron Temple.
Still, menorahs kept going up.
On December 11, The Billings Gazette published a full page, color picture of a menorah, and thousands of them started blooming like flowers throughout the community.
Just as suddenly as it started, the vandalism stopped. The menorahs stayed up, and the vandalism went away. Something powerful happened in Billings that year: love defeated hate.
Our story was all over the national news. Charles Kuralt did a special on ABC. A documentary titled “Not In Our Town” was broadcast on PBS. A children’s book was published. A made-for-TV movie was produced and titled “Not In THIS Town.” An anti-hate movement called Not In Our Town was established and continues to grow throughout North America and beyond.
Fast forward to 2017 and Billings people, along with Americans across the country, are seeing conflict and acrimony everywhere, including at our highest levels of government. Public Policy Polling did a survey in 2013 that showed Congress ranks lower in popularity than lice, colonoscopies, root canals and cockroaches.
Social media make it easy for users to express the worst of their natures every day and cast aspersions against people who don’t believe exactly as they do. One could start to believe that Americans hate each other. But there is so much that we all desire: the love of family and friends; a safe neighborhood where we can raise and educate our children; the opportunity to enjoy success in our jobs and businesses; the chance to pursue our dreams - in peace.
With all these things we have in common, we must try to be an American first, instead of a liberal or conservative first. Be an American first, and reach out to those of a different religion,race, party or ethnic group. And when you do, you must do one thing above all.
I don’t mean listen so that you can form an argument against what you hear. I mean listen for understanding - why is someone saying what he or she is saying? Listen with your mind and your heart. Have the discipline to keep quiet, except to ask respectful questions for clarification.
Listen for facts. Discern what are facts and what are opinions. Go out of your way to listen to someone who has a different world view. Don’t just compare it with your own world view, but try to understand why the other person has his or her view.
Why is this so important right now? Because if we listen with respect we don’t represent a threat to the other person - and at some point he or she may want to listen to you, too. When you finally get to explain your point of view - and maybe even tie it together with the other person’s - trust grows. As we build trust we also begin to create real community and a more civil society.
When that happens, we will have started to thwart those who are trying to drive us apart. When we create a more civil society, we can heal our country.
I saw this on social media recently:
Live without pretending
Love without depending
Listen without defending
Speak without offending
Maybe this is where we start.