Mainers Stand Firm Against Racism in Gatherings and Vigils Across the State

Jan 16, 2003 06:26 PM EST

Last November, when the Rev. Larney Otis called upon Episcopalians across Maine to saturate the City of Lewiston with prayer, she had no idea just how seriously Mainers would take her request.

Just days before, city officials gave permission to a white supremacist group, World Church of the Creator based in Peoria, Illinois, to hold a rally in Lewiston on January 11. Lewiston attracted international attention after the widespread reporting of an open letter written by Lewiston's mayor Laurier Raymond in October. The inflammatory letter urged the city's growing Somali community to discourage other Somalis from moving to Lewiston. He wrote that Lewiston was "maxed-out financially, physically and emotionally" and called on the Somalis to "exercise discipline."

With that letter, Raymond drew the ire of the Somalis, as well as many long-time Lewiston residents, church leaders, and other minority communities. He also focused the spotlight of the World Church of the Creator and other hate groups, such as the National Alliance, and their interest in the nation's whitest state.

Otis is priest-in-charge of Trinity Church, a small Episcopal congregation in the heart of the city whose Jubilee center offers much-needed services to the city's most needy residents. Almost immediately, Otis and the Rev. Nancy Moore, executive director of the Trinity Jubilee Center, joined with other ethnic community and religious leaders to plan their response.

Out of the initial discussions, a coalition called Many and One was born, based on the motto "We are Many; We are One." At an early meeting, Moore took issue with the name of the white supremacist group. "I want to reclaim the word creator. The Creator didn't create just one color, just one kind or just one view of the world. I want to reclaim the diversity that is creation," she said. "In Lewiston, our neighbors are named Abdi, and they're named Jose. We are all a part of this community."

Saturated with prayer

The Many and One Coalition emerged with a plan to hold a counter-rally in a gymnasium at Lewiston's Bates College at the same time as the hate rally was scheduled at the National Guard Armory across town. Otis, a member of the event's steering committee, through email and the diocesan website, urged Maine Episcopalians to pray for the people of Lewiston and the fearful Somali community and to hold prayer vigils in their own towns and cities. "Our hope is that the Lewiston-Auburn community becomes so saturated with prayer and peace that there is no room left for hate, fear and violence," she said.

Congregations across the Diocese of Maine took her words to heart. Plans to ring bells in solidarity with the people of Lewiston at churches across the state from 8:25 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on January 10 began to take shape. Ecumenical prayer vigils in churches and on below-freezing village commons were planned. Delegations from congregations began to arrange carpools.

On Friday evening, January 10, vigils in Lewiston, Bar Harbor, Brunswick, Newcastle, Waterville, Southwest Harbor, and other communities drew hundreds of people. On Saturday, January 11, people gathered to support the Many and One rally in Episcopal churches in neighboring Auburn, Norway, Portland, Camden, Rangeley, Falmouth, Windham, York Harbor and others.

The Rev. Anne Stanley, rector of Christ Church in the western Maine town of Norway, described their ecumenical event. "We showed that Maine's outlying areas believe diversity is God-given and makes us strong. What a gathering! Jews, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Unitarians and Episcopalians. We had much laughter, tears and a tremendous sense of wanting to be together. We signed a colorful poster which we later delivered to the rally."

Germs of hatred and bigotry

In Lewiston, security tightened with more than 150 police from Lewiston and neighboring towns stationed around the city and at both venues. Streets around Bates College were closed and 3,000 folding chairs in the Merrill Gymnasium were fastened together to prevent them from being used as weapons. Before the 1 p.m. start time, the gym's seating capacity of 3,200 was filled to overflowing with a celebratory crowd enjoying the music of a drumming group. Speakers included the newly elected governor John Baldacci, members of the Somali, Latino, African-American, Native American, Franco-American, gay and lesbian, Jewish, and disabled communities.

State Attorney General Steven Rowe, who oversees the state's enforcement of civil rights, told the crowd his message to hate mongers, "You are wasting your time here. Your germs of hatred and bigotry will not live." Rachel Rodrigue, a granddaughter of one of the thousands of French-Canadians who came to Lewiston in the nineteenth century to work in the textile mills, challenged those gathered to remember the importance of the day, "Do you remember where you were when a small community in Maine taught the world how to live together?"

A chance to celebrate diversity

Maine Episcopalians were well-represented at the Many and One rally. Henry Male, senior warden of St. Ann's Church in Windham, attended the rally with his young daughter Katie and his wife Donna. "We live in a state that, for the most part, lacks diversity, so any opportunity to celebrate it should be taken. I want my daughter to learn that."

The Rev. Larry Estey, vicar of St. Brendan's the Navigator in the down-east fishing community of Stonington, drove three hours to attend the Many and One rally with several members of his congregation. "We wanted the island and our congregation to be represented here and to take back what we experienced," he explained.

As the rally unfolded local children recited prayers from their respective traditions and high school youth told of their positive and broadening experiences in making friends with students from other ethnic groups. The entire Maine congressional delegation attended as participants. Noticably absent was Lewiston's mayor, Laurier Raymond, who was on vacation in Florida. Hundreds of people sported stickers that read, "Where's the Mayor?" or, appropriately for the high Franco-American population in Lewiston, "Oy est Le Mayor?" Later in the day, Somali leaders gathered on the front steps of City Hall to call for his resignation.

Cultural and religious diversity

At least 1,500 people remained outside the gym unable to gain entrance. Despite the cold January temperatures, the outside crowd transformed into an event in its own right: from atop enormous snow banks they sang civil rights-era songs and waited for the speakers from inside to come outside to deliver their speeches via blowhorn. After two and a half hours of speakers and music, thousands of Many and One ralliers marched in a three-block procession to the city Armory to raise the final cheer in support of the Somali community and the future of cultural and religious diversity in Lewiston.

Across town, at the heavily police-protected National Guard Armory, the World Church of the Creator rally was coming to a peaceful, restrained close. Of the 36 people present at the rally, housed in the culinary arts classroom of the armory, most arrived with the event's substitute speaker, Jon Fox. The group's leader, Matthew Hale, was arrested in Chicago on January 8 for soliciting the murder of a federal judge who presides over a trademark lawsuit he is involved in.

Outside the armory about 450 protesters and observers gathered, both anti-racist and racist sympathizers. One man was arrested after a confrontation with a person trying to enter the building. At the event's close, police whisked those attending the rally away in police vans to their cars outside the security perimeter without the knowledge of the protesters outside the building. The crowd quietly dispersed.

At the Trinity Jubilee Center, Moore and program staff served the regular Saturday meal and provided a haven for anyone who wanted a safe place to stay. After lunch she took a "cold, long walk" to the Many and One rally at Bates. "Several people warned me along the way that it was full, but I wanted to go and get a sense of the atmosphere. It was definitely worth it just to stand in the parking lot for a little while. People were enjoying music and drumming, talking to one another and just being together. I never made it inside the building, but I don't feel like I missed a thing," she said.

Otis said later in the day, "I am convinced that events unfolded as they did, peacefully and safely, both at Trinity, at the Many and One and at the World Church rally in large part because so many people were praying for us. Granted that police, city officials and the Many and One Coalition worked hard to assure the success of the rally, but the prayers coming our way, holding us in our work, sustaining us during tense and tiring moments, was palpable."

By Heidi Shott