An Open Letter to the People of Joplin

Neighbor illustration, Picsfive /
Neighbor illustration, Picsfive /

The first violence happened on May 22, 2011 when a tornado killed 158 people, injured 1,000 more, and wiped out more than 25 percent of  your  town. That was nature's violence.

A human form of violence began 14 months later, with two attempts in 2012 to burn down the mosque of the Islamic Society of Joplin. The first attempt, which  took place on America's 236th Birthday, July 4th, only burned part of the roof. The second attempt on Hiroshima Day, August 6th, was successful in totally destroying the mosque.  

You are not alone. Around the country, other forms of violence have occurred this year — daily, weekly, monthly:

  • Chicago's daily shootings have led to more than 300 gunshot homicides so far this year.  (1/3  happened this summer.)
  • The July mass shooting in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colo., killed  or wounded 70 people.
  • The August shooting in a Sikh Temple by a neo-Nazi in Oak Creek, Wis., killed or wounded 10 people.  

What can I say to the good folks of Joplin?

First, you are to be commended for immediately reaching out to the Islamic community with aid of all sorts — including raising nearly $300,000 in less than a week to rebuild the mosque. What an expression of  concern and love from many faith communities. Christians of all flavors, Jews, Unitarians, and those of no formal organized religious expression are supporting you.

Second, continue to reach out to better understand the neighbors who are different from you. Non-Muslims, continue to extend hospitality. Open your churches, synagogues, temples to your Muslim neighbors. Learn — from them — about their faith. Share your own faith. Discuss the similarities and differences among your faith traditions. You will find your faith enriched, not diminished. Earn the right to establish long-lasting relationships.  

For Muslims, the best way to overcome the misunderstanding and fear of  your non-Muslim neighbors, is to open your mosque and share your faith. Hold informational sharing, dialogue meetings. Have community-wide iftars (the breaking of the Ramadan fast with an evening meal). Don't shy away from attending public meetings, running for political office, or volunteering for civic work. 

For Muslims and non-Muslims alike, invite those of differing faiths to your home. Share a meal, go to a movie together, invite them to a family gathering or celebration. Be real neighbors.

Third, consider forming an interfaith, inter-religious Joplin Faith Council. Bring the leaders and key persons from each faith community together. There you will get to know one another, share your understanding of the issues that you share in common and those in which you differ. When you are able, jointly address the issues your community faces, as people of faith.  Share with your congregants what you have learned and what proposed actions are being discussed. Faith communities acting together can be a powerful force in any community.

Fourth, keep in touch with your law enforcement officials. They work hard to help keep your community peaceful. Don't be afraid to let them know about issues and concerns in your neighborhood, your civic group, and your religious community. Establish a regular meeting schedule with them.  

All this takes time. Like last year's tornado, this month's arson of a sacred space points you to many of the same conclusions. Continue to share with one another the pain and sorrow, the joys and triumphs that bind us together in a common humanity. 

By doing so, you will continue to demonstrate the faith commitments each of you profess, that will build a stronger Joplin for the months and years ahead. 

Rev. Stanley L. Davis, Jr., is the Co-Excecutive Director at the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago.

Neighbor illustration, Picsfive /

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