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In the wake of synagogue shootings, multicultural coalition seeking unity

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People listen to Faris Dixon, district attorney-elect, speak during a planning meeting about fighting prejudice and celebrating diversity as a response to the Pittsburgh shooting. About two dozen people attended Friday's meeting.

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By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Five days after a deadly mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, people gathered in Greenville to share their sorrow. Two weeks later, some members of that same group have come together again to show their solidarity.

About two dozen people gathered Friday at Unitarian Universalist Church to talk about ways to respond to the shootings. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians were represented at the meeting, which proposed the creation of “a multicultural coalition to fight prejudice and celebrate diversity.”

“I'd hate to have to get together again for yet another vigil because of another mass shooting, arson, bombing,” said Congregation Bayt Shalom Rabbi Harley Karz-Wagman, who facilitated the discussion. “I'd rather we get together proactively and talk about what can we do.”

The hourlong meeting served as a brainstorming session of sorts for the group, which included clergy members, civil rights leaders and advocates for the LGBTQ community. Among those attending were Pitt County Commissioner Ann Huggins, District Attorney-Elect Faris Dixon, Center for Family Violence Prevention Executive Director Laura King, Pitt County NAACP President Calvin Henderson and Human Relations Council Chairwoman Joyce Mitchell.

Mitchell said that the council's subcommittee on dismantling racism has been working toward many of the same goals that this group wants to address.

“We have been working for a number of years with different people from different backgrounds so that we can understand one another and appreciate one another,” she said. “That's the only way that we can get along.”

Karz-Wagman said it might not be necessary to start a new group to fight prejudice. He mentioned that leaders for the effort could potentially come from the Human Relations Council or the local Interfaith Clergy because both groups already have the necessary organizational structure in place.

Mark Rasdorf, associate director for the LGBT Resource Office at ECU, said he supports the stance against prejudice but objects to some of the language used to describe the effort.

“I would advocate for not using the word 'fight,'” he said. “I think we don't need more violence in the language of what it is we're trying to do.”

Karz-Wagman disagreed.

“I will fight a little bit for the word 'fight,'” he said. “What I don't want to see happen out of this is the danger of falling into appeasement. We are a group of people who stand for compassion, for civility, for respect. And people who stand for that also tend to want to compromise, work things out, not confront, which too often leads into appeasement. Standing up is hard.”

Henderson, who has been involved in civil rights work since the 1960s, said it can be a battle to get people to acknowledge the issues facing the community.

“I picked up the paper this morning. Front page, another killing. A young lady died,” Henderson said, referring to the shooting death of Shantelle Pope, 27.

“We don't, many times, do anything or try to be proactive,” he said. “We react when it knocks on our door. But we have got to do something different.

“I think if we want to see something different done, we've got to do something different,” Henderson said. “We've got to lay down hate and pick up love. It's just that simple.”

Human Relations Council Vice Chairwoman Samar Badwan has seen evidence that different groups in the community can be supportive of each other. She relayed a story about how how Bob Hudak, former rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, offered his congregation's assistance when the Muslim community was experiencing prejudice.

“A few years ago we were faced with Islamophobia in this community,” she said. “... This (hatred) is not going to be accepted in our community.

“Whether you accept or not, we're all living together,” Badwan said. “That's not going to change. You're not going to be able to take a group out of this country. That's what this country stands for.”

While no formal action was taken, there was consensus that a first step in standing against prejudice was to forge friendships among the diverse members of the group. Some cited today's 17th annual Interfaith Alliance Community Thanksgiving Celebration as a demonstration of how diverse groups can work together for a common goal.

Mike Goff, interim pastor of First Christian Church, said representatives of different groups need to spend time talking and getting to know each other.

“It's dawned on me that I don't have any real relationship with Jewish people,” Goff said. “Somewhere along the line, we've got to hang out together.”

Karz-Wagman agreed.

“We all have our silos,” he said. “Jews fight anti-Semitism. Blacks fight racism. Gays and lesbians fight homophobia. We've all got our own issues that are real, that we are appropriately passionate about, but it also takes us away very often from working on other issues.

“I want today to be a chance for us to think about how do we get out of those silos more often, connect more often,” he said.

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