I haven’t been smiling much lately. In fact, I’ve been tearing up a lot. And not just because I lived through desegregation here in Tennessee girded in hope, yet now fear the destruction of my nation’s ideals at the hands of white supremacists and sixth-grade-style bullies (with fourth-grade reading levels). This near-crying thing is strange because I’m not a cryer.
But my home of twenty years in Houston has attuned me to Texas events. Catching my eye recently was news from Victoria Texas, about 90 minutes from Houston.
For years I’ve written program notes for the Victoria Bach Festival, an annual summer event of classical soloists and chamber music. It’s always seemed like a pleasant community of reasonable people. But these days, you just don’t know.
The fact that it had both a mosque and a synagogue, plus a university, was a good sign to me, yet not too long ago, the mosque was torched. Gutted. Just like the black churches in the Civil Rights-era South. And just like that era, there are no suspects. Uh-uh. No suspects.
As the UK’s Independent reports: “The fire took place just hours after . . . Trump announced he would ban citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, and halted the country’s refugee program for 120 days.” Perhaps a coincidence (if you noticed the smirk, I apologize).
Just like when my sister, her husband and then four-year-old son got their home torched when they were accidentally about to integrate a neighborhood. Decades after desegregation in our mid-size town in Tennessee, they thought they could just buy a house because they liked the house. It was near a park with a duck pond and a running trail. Since both my sister and her husband were marathoners, this house seemed like a good plan. Until it wasn’t.
Local firefighters couldn’t come to any conclusion, but my sister, a state employee of some stature at the time, had contacts. In just a few days, state-level investigators came down from Nashville and in just a few hours, easily determined arson. But there were no suspects. Uh-uh. No suspects. Except there were.
A white neighbor came by to reassure my sister that not all the neighborhood residents were “like that.” Turns out, some local white teens had (allegedly) set the house afire, but none of the neighbors would speak up. My sister found another house. In another neighborhood.
In the Victoria Islamic Center case, local firefighters hadn’t come to any conclusion either, but some citizens have spoken up (not about the culprits, of course) to reveal their humanity. One started a GoFundMe rebuilding account that exceeded $1 million in one single week.
More than 23,000 people from near and far donated. And as wonderful as this was, what really moved my heart was Robert Loeb, president of Temple B’nai Israel, who took keys for his temple to the local imam. You can almost hear the “no-big-deal” shrug in his words: “When a calamity like this happens, we have to stand together. We have probably 25 to 30 Jewish people in Victoria, and they probably have 100 Muslims. We got a lot of building for a small amount of Jews.”
So, I was already near tears, and then I started reading the comments at the GoFundMe site. Unlike most comment sites these days, there were no hate-filled racist right-wing trolls in the dozens of comments I read. None.
Instead there were practical comments on grants from a former Home Depot manager, volunteers from several states offering sweat equity and construction-trade expertise, atheists offering sympathy for the threat to religious freedom in the Land of the Free. And then there was the homemade sign: “Please Rebuild. We ? U. #LoveTrumpsHate.”
I suppose I should mention the Houston Chronicle article that calls it out: “After Fire, Neighbors in Trump Country Bridge a Divide.” A local civics teacher (oh, the irony) who also served as a national Republican delegate voting for the figurehead of so much hate, offered his church’s 40-foot trailer and tons of volunteers. I can’t feel so good about this though.
This teacher and his cadre put all minorities in this country at risk, supporting a known bigot endorsed by the KKK and Neo-Nazi groups. And this delegate goes to church? But still, he supported one of the most overtly immoral public figures to ever step into the presidency. And he still supports “the Wall” dividing us from Mexico and the Muslim and the refugee ban, but still considers himself to be a devout Christian. Apparently, they forgot Matthew 25:35 where Jesus says “I was a stranger and you took me in.” Let’s add “My place of worship was destroyed and you helped me rebuild.”
I’m with Salt Collective contributor Ulysses Burley on this one; I’m definitely looking sideways at all those Trump voters who say they’re Christian. Must be “alternative Christianity.” In my mind, if ever a determination is made concerning this mosque and it turns out to be arson that burned it to the ground, this Trump-supporting civics teacher has cinders on his hands, and no trailer or volunteers will ever make up for what his vote has done.
Muslims in Victoria Texas
I was ending this essay with tender joy and then got mad all over again after reading the Chronicle piece about the hypocritical alt-Christian guy in Victoria. But then I heard about what happened in Austin.
Every two years, Muslim high-school students go to the Texas capitol for a hands-on civics lesson, called Texas Muslim Capitol Day. Last time, in 2015, a racist white woman pushed a well-spoken Muslim teenager aside to rant about her allegiance to (alt)Jesus Christ and her determination not to have this country overtaken by Islam. This time in 2017, however, the good people of Austin and its environs formed a human chain of around 2000 people to protect the children. The chain was four-to-five people deep.
Protective circle of Austinites at Texas Muslim Capitol Day (2015)
And there were the signs: “Muslims, We’ve got your back” and “I am a Christian & my greatest commandment is LOVE. I AM WITH YOU!” And the blue t-shirts with strong white lettering: “I STAND WITH MY MUSLIM NEIGHBORS.”
One of the speakers facetiously thanked Donald Trump for the good turnout. I’m smiling again, still teary, but in a good way.
P.S. It was arson. Sigh.