During my Lenten journey this year, I will be looking to my Muslim brother, Congressman Keith Ellison, to understand what it truly means to live a life grounded in love, respect, inclusivity, and justice. Yesterday, I watched Rep. Keith Ellison testify at a hearing on the "radicalization of American Muslims" on Capitol Hill. I felt sadness, anger, and an incredible sense of pride.
Watching my friend Keith tear up while telling the story of a young man who sacrificed his own life in service to others tore at my heart. He described Mohammed Salman Hamdani as an individual with an All-American story. He was a man who loved Star Wars and worked part-time driving an ambulance in order to pay for school. Mohammed's story is one that reflects the very values that America professes to be built upon. Unfortunately, due only to his ethnic and religious background, some questioned his motivation when he rushed to the aid of others. It wasn't until his body was recovered that the murmurings of him being associated with terrorists ceased. Mohammed Salman Hamdani was a hero, but unfortunately, he needed to make the ultimate sacrifice for some to believe him.
Keith Ellison didn't need to testify today. He didn't need to stand up in the face of ridiculous, racist sweeping generalizations of an entire ethnic group. Too often, those of us who are Native American, people of color, or identify as a member of a religious or ethnic group end up speaking on behalf of our entire community. It can be exhausting to speak truth to power in the face of injustice, but Rep. Ellison does it all the time. No one asks him to do it. He does it because it is the right thing to do. He stood up to the hate, the fear, and the racist assertions of Rep. Peter King. He stood up for you. He stood up for me. He stood up for all of us.
Watch a video of Rep. Keith Ellison's testimony here:
From the day he first started campaigning, Keith Ellison was labeled by some as radical, extreme, and even a terrorist. When he first arrived to the United States Congress, he was sworn in using Thomas Jefferson's Quran. Then Rep. Virgil Goode of Virginia called on Congress to support immigration reform to ensure that no more Muslims were elected to Congress. Keith Ellison never lashed out or fired back at those who spewed racist and hateful rhetoric. He simply educated those who were willing to listen and did the best he could for those he represented.
I remember door-knocking with Keith in the summer of 2004 when I was running for the Minneapolis school board, and he was seeking re-election to the Minnesota House of Representatives. We knocked on the door of a woman who was apprehensive to vote because of her religious beliefs. I spoke to her for a long time about my own personal faith and how Catholic social teaching is deeply tied to my progressive politics. Keith spoke to her about how we need every voice in the community to be part of the process if things were to improve in our neighborhoods and state. We walked away from that house as a team united in our shared values of love, respect, inclusivity, and justice. These are the values that I have seen Keith Ellison demonstrate every day.
As we reflect on our faith and grow closer to God and to our community, let us also remember what it means to be American -- to live out the values of justice and inclusivity. I will reflect upon the fact that only in America could a Catholic Native American be represented by a Muslim African American in Congress. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Peggy Flanagan is the director of the Native American Leadership Program at Wellstone Action! and serves on the board of directors for Sojourners.