2010-05-21 Holland Sentinel "Front line report from the Lakeshore Region Summit on Racism"

Front line report from the Lakeshore Region Summit on Racism
The Holland Sentinel

“If you talk about race long enough, people are going to get uncomfortable,” said our morning keynote speaker, Beverly Tatum, in a question-and-answer session at the Lakeshore Region Summit on Racism on Thursday.

It didn’t take long for me to get uncomfortable. But, as I went on to learn, feeling uncomfortable sometimes means that you’re making progress.

The Lakeshore Region Summit on Racism is held every two years by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and is attended by hundreds of area leaders to discuss ways to make the community more racially inclusive. Headlining at the summit this year with Tatum was internationally-known author Tony Campolo.

In the course of the day’s events, I attended the small group on faith and religion, and connected right away with panelist Zahabia Ahmed-Usmani, who said, even in Islam there are divisions — between Muslims from different traditions.

The thing about the Dutch that is often overlooked is that we’re not very accepting of any religious difference at all — even our own. Over lunch, a Hispanic friend tried to understand why the Reformed Church in America and Christian Reformed Church are separate, even though they share the same heritage and have a similar theology. And that’s something you can’t explain in five minutes over a quick lunch; such complexities do still divide us.

So I thought I had a rapport with Ahmed-Usmani until I caught up to her later in the day. It turns out, I had it wrong: At least in West Michigan, the divisions among Muslims aren’t theological as much as they are cultural — Muslims from Pakistan don’t even speak the same language as Muslims from Bosnia, and many don’t know much English. It’s a similar to “tensions” that Father Charles Brown described at St. Francis de Sales Church, between the Latino, Spanish-speaking members of his congregation and the Caucasian members.

“For the people who don’t speak, you can say a lot with a smile,” Ahmed-Usmani said. “But beyond that, how long can you keep smiling?”

What I learned is: Race relations are hard work. Don’t presume to know someone’s story until you take the time to listen. And, as Tatum, our keynote speaker said: Talking about racism is like taking medicine — it works only if you finish your prescription.

“If you don’t take the whole dose, what happens?” Tatum asked. “It comes back.”