Last night there was a state wide peace march at 5:00pm in five different cities around Montana, organized in the wake of the fear building up in our area around the possibility of becoming an area of welcome for refugee families affected by distant, raging wars. Recently, over 500 people packed into a school gymnasium in Hamilton, MT to attend a town hall meeting to help address a proposed letter to be sent by our state Governor, Steve Bullock, and our congressional delegates, to President Obama’s administration disapproving the bringing in of refugees. Having heard from someone in attendance at this meeting and in reading the news the overall energy was infused with hatred, scathing remarks, hostility, and, ultimately, underneath it all, fear. It was a meeting that could’ve easily turned violent and was not an entirely safe place for those in opposition to the vast majority in attendance at the meeting, who were adamantly against refugees coming into not only our particular part of the state but the country in general. The state wide march was in response, largely, to this town hall meeting.
Last week I was invited to attend an emergency meeting aimed at addressing the fear building up in our community and to help organize and plan for the peace march. The board meeting room we met at on campus was filled to the brim with concerned citizens, faith leaders, and local non-profit, student group, and community service representatives. The main organizer for the march, Soft Landing Missoula (a group dedicated to bringing a refugee resettlement office here to Missoula), had already crafted the main advertising message before the meeting which was: Stand against violence, stand against fear, stand against hate. The hash tags were StandUpMontana and RefugeesWelcome. There was considerable talk about the difference between being for something and being against its “opposite.” The energy of the room was very much geared towards the march being for peace, community, inclusiveness, love, compassion, and openness. However, the wheels had already been set into motion and Soft Landing, after having weighed both sides prior to the meeting, ultimately decided to go in the direction of the against mentality.
After having seen the poster and handbills attached in a group email a day or two after the meeting I felt very uncomfortable having signed on our local mindfulness center as a co-sponsor of the march. The most blaring words on the poster were: Violence, Fear, and Hate, scrolled at the top in red, white, and blue lettering. And before each one was the word AGAINST. To me, in looking at the poster, it was not at all clear that we were gathering for a peace march. The font, colors, and wording did not instill a sense of peace and unity whatsoever. It brought to mind a quote from Mother Theresa I read years ago:
“I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.” – Mother Theresa
Fortunately I attended the planning meeting last week and walked away from it having a good sense of camaraderie and a shared collective vision aimed at generating peace and understanding, not just for those in favor of welcoming refugees but for those who are fearful and filled with hatred as well. We are as entitled to our opinions and beliefs as are those who are on the other side of the issue, whatever issue that happens to be. Had I not attended the meeting I would not have thought to join the march myself, let alone sign up our mindfulness center as a sponsor alongside other faith communities. Had I only seen the advertising with the loud message of being against violence, fear, and hate it would not have inspired me to get involved.
I wound up composing an email to Soft Landing. Even though I understood it was too late to change any sort of advertising message and that it was out of my hands I felt it was important to voice my discomfort, especially as a faith leader in our community who’s group name would be added to press releases as a sponsor of the event. In my email I spoke about how being against something is not the most beneficial way to water positive seeds within our community and that I was uncomfortable rallying our congregation members to attend the march based on the messages being advertised. (It’s important to mention here that the meeting I attended was led by Soft Landing and I liked the energy of those who were leading it and the direction in which they were going – their hearts are in the right place for sure). They emailed back a rather lengthy reply, which I appreciated. It was a good dialog.
The sentiment behind being for something vs. against something else is different. Being for peace and unity is not the same thing as being against hate and divisiveness. The mentality and spirit associated with each side waters slightly different seeds in the garden of our consciousness.
The march went down the sidewalks on both sides of the main street running through the downtown area and ended up at Caras Park, next to the Clark Fork River, where a few speakers, including our local mayor, said a few words. There were a few opposing folks holding signs but there were no confrontations or escalating events, that I saw anyway. Hundreds of folks came out in support of the cause of moving forward with openness, coming together, and being a part of one global family. There were faith leaders, clergy members, people of all ages, and a healthy population of dogs. Some people carried banners, peace signs, and a variety of homemade posters. The energy was of oneness. It felt like a special time and one of sweetness to be a part of the stream of Missoulians gathering and marching for peace.