Friday, June 19, 2015

Charleston: It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness

Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200mm @ 157mm, 1/13 sec. @ f/16, ISO 200

The intolerable atrocity in Charleston, South Carolina has predictably resulted in more useless speeches, calls for legislation, finger-pointing and race-baiting as people struggle to comprehend this act of terrorism in a house of worship by a deranged young man full of hate.  Some say -- and the evidence suggests -- that he is a racist but on balance that's way too simplistic, way too convenient and way too incomplete of an explanation with no realistic answers.

This young villain is, unfortunately, neither unique or simple.  We've seen his ilk before.  We know that terrorists and bullies rely on shock and intimidation to bolster their cause, whatever it is.  And in typical responses we are often sucked into this tornado of hate.  But it doesn't have to be that way.

This tragedy has many analytical challenges.  We know this perpetrator is a racist.  But one can be a racist without being violent.  We know he's likely mentally imbalanced.  But there are many mentally ill people who are not dangerous.  We know that he singled out black victims, which suggests racism and a hate crime, but then it is carried out in a church, which implicates an additional level of deranged hate.

I am going to resist -- and I encourage you to do the same -- the temptation to offer knee-jerk reactions or solutions.  If we want to overcome this then we will need to work at it and I surely don't have all the answers.  But I do know that we've seen this before and we'll likely see it again and thus it calls to mind the old proverb that it's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.  In spite of prejudice, instability and hate there can be good triumphing evil and it can be ordinary people who rise to the occasion.  These are not platitudes but real world experiences that happened not far from us -- things that brought out both the worst and best of people.

Stuart, Iowa -- a small town of maybe 1700 people -- is a little west of Des Moines off Interstate 80 and just down the road from where I was a police officer nearly 40 years ago.  Stuart was the home of All Saints Catholic Church, an ornate and beautiful "cathedral on the plains" built by skilled immigrants in 1908.  It was an impressive work of art in a most unusual place -- the type of edifice normally found in some major cities.

All Saints was a house of worship, of course, and the center of the area's Catholic community for 87 years.  But the worst came on August 22, 1995.

A man consumed with deep rage for the Catholic church poured gallons of gasoline throughout All Saints, igniting an inferno that required the efforts of more than 20 fire departments from a 50-mile radius to suppress.  The beautiful copper dome was gone.  Police had to shoot out stained glass windows in order for firefighters to get their hoses in position.  

The arsonist, who boldly bragged of his deed, was arrested, tried and convicted, serving 13 years in prison before he was paroled.

The architects and insurance company said it was too costly to rebuilt All Saints, so the parish took the insurance check and built a nondescript new building on the end of town.  The insurance company, Diocese of Des Moines and parish council may have walked away from the old All Saints but the people of little Stuart, Iowa did not.

For whatever reasons -- maybe Iowa stubbornness had something to do with it -- it just didn't seem right to let someone get away with torching a church.  It didn't matter if you were Catholic, it still wasn't right.  Walking away from the old All Saints was tantamount to letting a terrorist win.  The people of Stuart didn't want that to happen.

Another team of architects went through old All Saints.  Despite the massive damage done to the church's interior, windows and dome somehow miraculously the shell of the 1908 structure remained sound and, ironically, the fire actually strengthened the steel beams in the walls. Consequently the repair estimate was revised dramatically downward.

It took years to raise the $4 million to complete the project but donations, grants and $1.7 million approved by the voters in this town of 1700 saw the Saints Center for Culture and the Arts open its doors in 2009.  Not only is the old All Saints a community center but it houses a museum devoted to religious tolerance.  

“We wanted to show that in the end, tolerance is much stronger than hate,” said Liz Gilman, who headed the museum project.

Probably most folks have never heard of Stuart, Iowa or it's just a dot on the map.  But the people of Stuart taught the world a lesson or two.  Tolerance is much stronger than hate.  And we're not going to let a terrorist destroy a house of worship.

History teaches us that the predictable reactions in the days, weeks and months following the despicable hate crime in Charleston will likely generate more heat than light, more anger than love, more problems than solutions.  We need to tune out these unproductive messages and instead turn to the people of Stuart who showed us not only that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness -- but also that it can be done by ordinary people who rise to the occasion.

The Emmanuel AME church in Charleston wasn't torched but it was nonetheless desecrated by a hate crime that left nine of its people dead.  It won't take years of fundraising to rebuild but rather perhaps the nation's churches could demonstrate that tolerance is much stronger than hate by delivering this message at home and staging pilgrimages to Charleston to stand in solidarity with the people of Emmanuel AME church.

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