Human nature looks to pivotal moments in history imagining the role we might have played had we lived then. Born in 1959, I can only hope I would muster the courage to drop everything and risk all to fight Fascism in Europe and the Pacific. A boy in the 1960s, I can only wonder if an older me would have bravely joined southern whites to march with black brothers and sisters for civil rights in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and across the southeast.
These things I will never know, for my history was not then. And courage is always easier in the mind than in the flesh. But my moment is now.
With the racist rhetoric and xenophobic rants surrounding Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump, a defining moment has been building. But general discontent and weariness with the 2016 election have made an abstract rallying point to those who sense something amiss in America.
This week — in my community of Newton County, Georgia — the abstract gave way to the imminently real. A defining moment was thrust upon us.
Public backlash to a proposed Islamic mosque and cemetery in rural Newton County is all over Atlanta TV news and in the pages of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. Sadly, coverage of Monday night’s “town hall” gathering of several hundred citizens has reached national outlets like The Economist, CNN, and Buzzfeed.
To onlookers, the face of my community is one of ignorance, misinformation, hatred, bigotry, and fear. Calling my neighbors names is not my intent, but I know our community is better than what we displayed Monday night in our historic courthouse.
Like many with a gentler view towards our would-be Muslim neighbors, I avoided Monday’s fiasco. I was present for the last Board of Commissioners meeting where the mosque was first discussed. I saw the grandstanding some of some elected officials, I witnessed lack of courage by all of them, and I heard the anger and disrespect of the assembled crowd. It was enough to know the “town hall” was ill-conceived, legally pointless, and sure to be poorly managed.
Still, I’m not content to let that stand as the Newton County broadcast to the world. I’ve taken to social media like many others to express support for the First Amendment rights at the heart of this matter. I’ve written columns for local media outlets. And, on Tuesday, I joined fellow citizens (including several Christian pastors and an elected official) to visit the Doraville mosque which has purchased the property in Newton County for a cemetery, a burial preparation facility, and a mosque. We were greeted warmly by Imam Shaikh Mohammad Zahirul Islam, the young people, and the elders of Masjid At-Taqwa mosque. We broke bread together, shared stories of our backgrounds and beliefs, and embraced a mutual desire to live as peaceful neighbors.
The First Amendment and federal/local laws protecting freedom of religion should be enough to end the fighting over this particular development. But, beyond the law, there are more basic human considerations.
I wasn’t yet four years old when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 to tell the massive crowd:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
I was young then, but it’s been my dream too. It should be a dream for people of every race and religion that we transcend differences to become that nation where character is what matters.
To realize that dream, it’s up to us to bring that nation into being now. The bumper sticker version of Gandhi’s advice has evolved to “we must be the change we want to see in the world.” His actual words were:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. We need not wait to see what others do.”
We need not wait, nor can we simply accept that which is larger than ourselves. We could all wish to live in more peaceful times. But, I am increasingly aware of the chance to participate in an historic and defining moment. This time is our time. The role we play and the legacy we leave for future generations is ours to choose.
It may seem impossible or imprudent to stand unafraid in the face of anger and hatred spawned by ignorance and misinformation. We must each find our own unique way. But, I encourage everyone to heed the words of the poet Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes:
“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.”
May we never underestimate our reach.