“And in despair I bowed my head;
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;
‘For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.'”
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”
Words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I’ve written about “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” here before. I appreciate that way Longfellow wrestles with sadness, bitterness and disillusionment during a season that’s “supposed” to be all about cheerfulness and light. It seems real and honest to me in a way that a lot of the old Christmas hymns do. There’s so much melancholy and longing and struggle hidden behind those familiar melodies.
In previous years, I didn’t really take the “hate” part of the lyrics literally. But this year was different.
This year, I read the (mostly insensitive and heartless) comments about immigration and refugees that accompanied news stories. Xenophobic rants showed up in my newsfeed. When a man set fire to a coffee shop run by immigrants from Somalia in nearby Grand Forks, just an hour north of my home, the display of gleeful support for the arsonist was disgusting.
Now I don’t doubt that people hate. But makes me sick that it’s happening here, in my North Dakota. The voices of intolerance are part of a minority that suddenly seemed very loud and dangerously powerful. The worst are abusive and spiteful, hard to forget but easy to write off. But what really worries me is discrimination disguised concern, as reason. “We don’t want these people,” they say. “Let’s just help our own vets, our own people in poverty. Those people aren’t like us at all.”
I’m thrilled to see our neighbors who receive public assistance and homeless folks get a (hopefully not temporary) break from the judgement that is usually hurled at them. And I truly do hope that this discussion does inspire support and creative solutions to empower our poorest citizens and our veterans. The world needs as much compassion as it can get.
But it disturbs me to see so much anger directed at refugees, some of the most vulnerable and persecuted people on the planet. They are legal residents and many of them are proud new U.S. citizens. They are our own.
Our local Salvation Army chapter in Fargo still needed a lot of bell ringers to hit their goal. (“See?!” my cynical side sighed, “People say they’ll help the poor and the homeless…”) But rather than sit around and muse about the many ways people fail each other, I decided to do something. I signed up for a shift.
I didn’t really want to, honestly. I had just barely made my deadlines and I was exhausted. But I went anyway.
And I’m glad I did. I’d forgotten that an act of service can help the giver as much as the recipient.
I rang my bell in a cozy little alcove and had the privilage to watch people being overwhelmingly decent to each other on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. They held the doors for young mamas with strollers and a guy struggling with crutches. They smiled and wished me a Merry Christmas as they cheerfully stuffed coins and dollar bills into the red kettle.
One lovely man saw an elderly gentleman resting on a bench and made a beeline for him. “My father served in Korea,” he said, gesturing to the older man’s cap, which proclaimed his service. “Thank you, sir, for all you’ve done.” He pumped the serviceman’s hand and engaged him in conversation, sounding just as thrilled as if he’d just met his favorite celebrity. “That,” I thought, “is exactly how we should treat our veterans.”
I left grinning. That one experience was more than enough to get me outside of my own head and make me feel better about humanity. But the weekend wasn’t done with me yet. I grabbed my camera and headed to Moorhead to cover a car giveaway.
Earlier this month, Ray Bernard, the owner of Ray’s Certified Auto Repair, asked the community to nominate a friend or neighbor to receive a free used car. I cover a lot of these human interest stories for The Extra and the assignment was pretty simple — get in, grab a photo and a few quotes and get on with my to-do list. I said hello to the television reporters I knew and settled in to wait.
The winner, Jeff Klonowski, had no idea that the party in the garage was for him. He thought he was supposed to help a friend with a car. “He’s a pretty humble guy,” said Keith Huff, his co-worker at the Red Cross. “The only way we could get him here was to tell him he was helping someone else.”
Jeff started volunteering at the Red Cross in March. He’s logged thousands of hours giving back to an organization that helped him just a year before. Just last year, Jeff’s house in Hitterdal, Minnesota burned down. He and his family lost everything.
The family’s church helped a lot in the beginning — until it was damaged by a fire. Jeff’s current car doesn’t have working heat, so the family bundles up when they need to drive. Jeff’s coworkers didn’t think the car would last the winter without major repairs (which the family can’t afford) so they nominated him for the giveaway.
It’s hard for Jeff to work, since he lost half a lung to cancer and has limited lung capacity. He has to stop and rest a lot. But that hasn’t stopped him from becoming the lead volunteer for fleet maintenance and disaster response coordination at the Red Cross.
Jeff’s clearly been through more than his fair share of adversity. But not five minutes after being handed the keys to a free car, he quietly asked Ray if he could give his old car to someone who needed it more than him. He had so much and he was so blessed, he reasoned, that the only thing to do was pass it on.
Ray cried. Jeff’s wife Kate cried. His co-workers at the Red Cross cried. And so did I. It was a privilege just to be there.
The next day, I drove to the Meet Your Muslim Neighbors event at the Islamic Society of Fargo-Moorhead. My friends worship there and, given the recent climate of intolerance in the region, I was nervous for them. Would there be protestors? Would people ask stupid (and possibly offensive) questions? Would anyone even show up?
I didn’t need to worry. I could barely find a place to park. (And yeah, I cried at that too. It was that kind of weekend.)
You take of your shoes at a Muslim place of worship and this was the scene just inside the door. It was packed, a full house. (You can read more about it here.)
Young women in colorful headscarves, many of them born on other continents, greeted guests at the door, explained the program and whisked us off on a quick tour to make room in the entryway for the next wave of visitors. It was so successful, there’s already a second event planned for January 9.
Members and guests sat together in their socks and chatted. The speaker made the whole room burst out laughing during a lively presentation about the basics of Islam. We all ate a ton of food prepared by the ladies and served by the teenagers. It was beautifully ordinary.
And yet, it wasn’t ordinary at all. This moment was possible because a gesture of hospitality was met with a show of support. And our community is now that much stronger.
As the guests watched quietly, our hosts concluded the midday Asr prayer with the words “aslam alikom” — peace be upon you. There was a Jewish gentleman wearing a yarmulke standing near me. In Hebrew, you express the same sentiment by saying, “shalom aleikhem.” In my church, we greet each other with peace as well. We just happen to say it in English. My agnostic, atheist, Pagan and humanist friends express wishes of peace too.
And the fact that we were all there, together, focusing on our similarities instead of our differences, makes me think that everything is going to be all right.
The events of this weekend reminded me that we can — and we do — take care of our own. And it’s going to take a lot more than a few hateful people to shake our commitment to each other. This is our home. This is our community. And I’m proud of us.
“The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
Peace to you all tonight.
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