Clergy vow to cast out racism
PROVIDENCE - Moving to end what one minister called the "silence" around the issue, more than 40 of that the state's leaders of faith pledged yesterday to bolster efforts to make racism in Rhode Island a thing of the past.
The "faith-leaders initiative," as it was described yesterday at a signing ceremony at the First Baptist Church in America on North Main Street, drew clergy and lay leaders from more than three dozen groups, including Muslims and Baha'is, Baptists and Episcopalians, Jews and Catholics, Unitarians and Congregationalists.
"Racism contradicts and offends most fundamental beliefs and values of our faith traditions," said the statement, which was similar in many respects to a statement that was issued last December at the national level by a group of interfaith leaders.
"Though we define and address holiness from different perceptions, we are one in our recognition that prejudice and discrimination should have no place among people of faith."
While some of the clergy described the initiative as timely and needed more than ever, given the controversies over racial profiling and stereotyping, which have been part of the debate both before and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, yesterday's statement was actually in the works for months.
Rob Jones, of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice, said organizers were hoping that participants will move beyond yesterday's signing ceremony and look for ways that they and their houses of worship can begin working with other congregations to find new and creative ways of tackling the problem.
The Rev. H. Daehler Hayes, of the Rhode Island Conference of the United Church of Christ, observed that since last month's terrorist attacks, people of all religions seem to want to be together and united.
"But I'm concerned about the long view," he said. "Six or 12 months from now, are we going to continue that in an ongoing and careful way that will affirm everybody?"
Yesterday, it seemed that some of the networking was starting to take shape. The Rev. Michael Devine, rector of St. George's Episcopal Church in Central Falls, was talking with Mohammed Sharif, the University of Rhode Island economics professor who heads the Southern Rhode Island Islamic Society of the Muslim Heritage Council.
"I was thinking of bringing some of our confirmation class to one of the mosques," said Father Devine. "'It would promote some understanding and give the youth in our parish a better idea of what Islam is all about."
Sharif said he recently told an audience that racist bigotry and prejudice are not likely to ever be eliminated, but they can be minimized.
He quoted from a verse of the Koran that is meant to remind Muslims that everyone is created from the same potter's clay, and another verse in which God declares that He has divided humans into many nations and communities to not despise each other but to celebrate each other.
Sharif said he and others have been struck by the large numbers of letters and e-mails from non-Muslims worried about how he and other Muslims are being treated in this time of fear.
He said they are doing well, since the harassment that some Muslims have encountered in other states is almost nonexistent in Rhode Island.
"I even got offers from non-Muslim women who want to wear head covers to show their solidarity with Muslim women. I think it's a great idea. It gives us the feeling that we are all human beings. When somebody suffers, others step forward."
Even as the religious leaders gathered in the First Baptist Meeting House,' another longtime foe of bigotry met with members of the editorial board of The Providence Journal to voice his opposition to the apparent refusal by law enforcement authorities to drop charges of carrying a concealed weapon that they brought against Sher J.B. Singh.
Singh, who was arrested at the Providence Amtrak station on his way home to Virginia the day after the terrorist attacks, is a Sikh, who in keeping with his religious tradition, was wearing a small ceremonial dagger.
Norman G. Orodenker, chairman of the Rhode Island Commission on Prejudice and Bias, said he has spoken with Senators Jack Reed, Lincoln D. Chafee and U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy and intends to raise the issue with Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. in a meeting next week.
"I understand why [the Providence police] arrested him because everyone was looking over their shoulders for anyone of Middle Eastern descent," Orodenker said. "But understanding something doesn't mean that you condone it. To continue to prosecute is what we can't understand."
Orodenker, a senior partner with the law firm of Tillinghast, Licht & Semonoff, said he also intends to urge the mayor to make sure that the Providence police receive hate-crimes training.
Police Chief Richard T. Sullivan was out of town yesterday, but John J. Partington, Providence's public safety commissioner, said his officers have received intensive training in racial sensitivity.
Orodenker appeared yesterday to draw a darker picture than the one offered by Sharif. Since Sept. 11, he said, there have been a significant number of racial incidents in Rhode Island from verbal epithets to property crimes such as graffiti and broken windows. "Since Sept. 11, every nut who ever hated anyone thinks they have a license to wreak havoc," he said.
Staff writer Linda Borg contributed to this report.
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