Lost amid the bustle of the holidays was a news story detailing the fact that more than 24,000 people — including 7,000 religious leaders of all faiths — have signed a letter of support for America’s Muslim communities, promising to build a “circle of protection” to defend them from hate and violence. Copies were delivered in New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and other large cities.
The gesture comes at a time when anti-Islamic sentiment is on the rise. Fueled by a new wave of fear and mistrust in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., assaults on Muslim women wearing hijabs, desecration of mosques and Muslim-owned businesses are more frequently reported.
Even in Minnesota, with our long history of welcoming new immigrant populations, there has been backlash: a Muslim woman is assaulted at a restaurant for not speaking English, a small-town mayor in neighboring Superior, Wis., writes hateful messages about Muslims on his Facebook page, and a Minnesota attorney is harassed at a recent Vikings game by someone who thought he might be a refugee.
It is easy to dismiss these as unfortunate, isolated incidents. After all, Minnesota has a rich history of building community by welcoming diversity. We were among the first in the nation to welcome Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, followed by Hmong and Somali, when each was facing persecution due to political events in their home countries. Today, refugees from Myanmar, Iraq, Congo, Sudan, Ukraine and Syria continue to seek refuge here for the same reasons. From Minneapolis and St. Paul to Willmar and Worthington, businesses, organizations and farms led by immigrants are making our state stronger.
Minnesotans should be proud of our history of giving refuge, which is why we must not ignore the fear that often accompanies change; fear most often directed at the newest members of our communities, those perceived to be most different. In many Minnesota communities, that fear and mistrust is today directed toward Muslims.
We acknowledge that the world is filled with pockets of darkness where hate and violence, ignorance and intolerance abide. As leaders of Minnesota’s largest community foundations, our role is to invest in agents and agencies of change, those able to reach these dark pockets and introduce the value of reflection and the restoring power of light, love and unity.
That is why we have committed to investing in opportunities that seek to educate people about the richness of our community’s spiritual diversity and that emphasize the universal themes of unity, understanding and connectedness. What a powerful combination these ideals represent — what wondrous transformative powers they hold. Fully embraced, they will shape a community and a world in which we truly believe we are our brother’s keeper and where compassion, concern and kindness prevail.
As community foundations, honoring and continuing Minnesota’s rich history of building community by welcoming diversity and building bridges of cross-cultural understanding is our everyday work. Like the farsighted donors whose gifts were the origins of our foundations, we honor a future we may not see, but a future that we hope will be awash with love for all peoples and rich with possibility. That is the Minnesota to which we give voice and the Minnesota that we celebrate — a Minnesota built of community and caring.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Today we affirm our foundations’ commitment to, and history of, giving shelter to each and every person who joins our community. We believe that we become a stronger community when we join together in times of stress and uncertainty, when we share our good fortune with the struggling. Our goal is to help continue that legacy of grace through community.
Sandra L. Vargas is president and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation. Eric J. Jolly is president and CEO of the St. Paul Foundation and Minnesota Community Foundation.