Walking in MLK’s shoes
By Anya Cordell
(January 17, 2012) – Martin Luther King, Jr., the renowned American civil rights activist, said, “Men hate each other because they fear each other, they fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they are often separated from each other.” Americans commemorated his legacy on 16 January, a fitting moment to ask, how can we interrupt this cycle?
Reflecting on this question, I recalled my community confronting this issue when my black neighbour was murdered by a white supremacist. For months we convened each night of the week where the murder occurred to walk and talk together. This simple practice became a transformational, ongoing event. It was our response to communal trauma in order to support the family of the victim, reclaim our neighbourhood and reframe our lives in the wake of the shock that hate had interjected.
Two years later the 9/11 attacks exposed trauma and fear laid bare on a global scale. We felt the horrifying reverberations worldwide. Soon we saw fear congeal into stereotyping and generalised suspicion. Initial incidents of hateful backlash were directed at innocent individuals throughout the United States. Bias, bullying, smears and physical harm have continued to target Muslims in particular and to impact others – Sikhs, Hindus, South Asians and Arab Christians – in the United States and beyond. In my work, I became closely connected to the families of innocent men who had been murdered in this backlash. I feel tremendous concern over the virulent voices now reaping profit, votes and notoriety from fomenting bias.
What practical initiatives can heal the all-too-common dynamic King described, which plays out in racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and other prejudices? Is there something more effective than dialogue, which can easily get bogged down in discord?
I believe the ongoing walks my community enacted, and another initiative called “sharing events”, are more engaging than programs analysing faiths or contrasting cultures, and are more easily orchestrated in communities, schools, universities, organisations and corporations. The simplicity of these initiatives undermines even entrenched separation and misinformation between those of different religions, ethnicities or backgrounds.
Sharing events — which are free and family-friendly—can take place in living rooms, community halls, faith communities, school auditoriums or corporate lunchrooms. In communities, such events can rotate venues monthly. Participants are invited to share music, art, poetry, stories of hopes and dreams, their “work-in-progress”, or even a “play-in-progress”, in order to give expression to something moving, personally meaningful or evocative.
At one such event a Bangladeshi American regaled participants with tales of confronting identity while confronting groups-within-groups. Growing up, he was the only brown-skinned Muslim child in his school. He was amazed to learn there were Christians and Jews, not just “whites”; then discovered a local mosque filled with light complexioned Bosnian Muslims. He became adept at humour to break through these divisions. Such “sharings” create surprising portals through which we glimpse the “other” as equally human and discover possibilities for caring and friendship.
Similarly, ongoing walks differ greatly from single marches or annual interfaith walks, which have become commonplace. In my community we learned the advantages of these serial events. They attracted even reticent neighbours, who had hesitated to cross anyone else’s threshold or enter unfamiliar houses of worship. Those not drawn to dialogues or meetings but simply wanting exercise took comfort in walks they could drop in and out of. Yet because the walks were regular and ongoing, unlikely relationships developed.
Most of us hold unacknowledged suspicions or stereotypes of other groups. However, when parents push strollers together and find themselves comparing notes on child-rearing, the fact that one wears a headscarf and another a yarmulke becomes less overwhelmingly divisive. We might even envision becoming allies who are willing to “go out on a limb” for others and imagine them taking similar risks for us.
While it is challenging to create movements or political action campaigns, these initiatives are easily replicated. They can move us toward opportunities in which something interesting and extraordinarily precious takes root between humans, the antidote to disdain and destruction.
In their simplicity these practices elicit the promise of the ideals that King exemplified: that we encounter one another with openness to our essential and common humanity, and acknowledge our shared longing for a world in which we all feel valued and safe.
* Anya Cordell is a Jewish speaker and writer, recipient of the Spirit of Anne Frank Award and the author of Race: An Open & Shut Case. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).