Towards a Beloved Community: An open letter to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler
This letter is in response to Portland, Oregon, Mayor Ted Wheeler’s remarks to commemorate the celebration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, given on January 13, 2018, at the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church in Portland. A transcript of the Mayor’s address can be found here.
Happy New Year! Your tribute to the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was incredibly touching. My heart sang at your reference to King’s idea of the Beloved Community. Given the present situation in Portland, however, I fully agree with you about how urgent the need is for us to come together in the face of adversity. We are not quite there yet.
The Trump administration keeps liberals, progressives, moderates, and even some of his fellow Republicans in a state of perpetual outrage. This “SHOCK DOCTRINE” approach is as effective as it is toxic. It would be one thing if Trump simply had diarrhea of the mouth, but so often his offensive statements coincide with a major offensive act overseas committed by or with the aid of our armed forces. One could even go so far as to suggest this is a deliberate strategy. His bluster got him elected, and that same bluster has become a political tool.
I also will echo your concern about complacency, that damning state of mind for too many bystanders, by positing that we are already too close to that dreadful state to not address it. Trump’s shock doctrine breeds an atmosphere of reactions rather than responses, and he is relentless. Last month’s statement about Haitians and AIDS has been buried by Trump and Kim Jong Un’s penis envy, and now the blatantly racist remark about “shithole” countries. (And this, coming from a man who has conducted so much of his business in New Jersey?! Sorry, I needed the levity.) The constant bombardment leads the public to cycle from issue to issue, and the result is a frazzled populace, losing so much hope. We need strong, assertive leadership to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity, violence, and political attacks on the way of life for Portlanders and Oregonians alike.
We must restore the Beloved Community, and Portland is the place to do it. I do not purport to have your skill set in the realms of finance, economics, or urban planning, but I do understand culture, society, political science, and the universal philosophies of the world’s faith traditions. To that end, I would like to offer my skills and services as a minister, teacher, and concerned citizen towards making Portland, Oregon, a Beloved Community.
I recently had the privilege of visiting New York City, my former home, on the occasion of my 31st birthday. I used to live in Brooklyn and later in Queens, two of the most culturally diverse locations in the world. As part of my personal celebration, my partner and I visited several Vedic temples in Flushing, Queens. It was remarkable to see the peaceful coexistence of so many different cultural backgrounds, ethnically and religiously. Within walking distance of our destination was an Islamic masjid, a Sikh cultural center, and just a few neighborhoods over, one of the few Jain temples in the world that houses space for the divergent sects of Digambara and Svetambara Jainism.
I share this for several reasons. Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired by the Jain tradition of ahimsa (nonviolence). The 19th century Jain saint Shri Rajchandra was a spritual guide to a young Mohandas K. Gandhi, eschewing sectarianism to instead encourage the young attorney to delve more deeply into his own Vaishnava Vedic beliefs. Rajchandra instructed Gandhi on ahimsa, which decades later would inform Gandhi’s campaign of satyagraha (principled nonviolence) as a vehicle to free India from British colonial rule. Gandhi would inspire King’s nonviolent campaign for civil rights. If Portland is to become a Beloved Community, it must heed the teachings of these and other people of faith whose only weapons were their convictions and, in time, the numbers to impact meaningful change. I recommend reading King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Gandhi’s Satyagraha anthology, and the Jain Sutras for inspiration.
I also wish to share about the Bengali saint Sai Baba of Shirdi, who has a Vedic mandir in his honor in Flushing. Sai Baba practiced both as a Vedic holy man and as a Sufi Islamic fakir, at the time unheard of and still rare today. During his lifetime, he fed multitudes, performed miracles, and offered spiritual counsel to whoever approached him, regardless of caste, religion, or ethnicity. In the Muslim community he is a much-lauded mystic, while the Vedic community considers him to be an incarnation of Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity who is the remover of obstacles. The obstacle that Sai Baba helped remove during his lifetime was the opaque veil of intolerance. As I meditated before Sai Baba last week at the temple, I felt my own calling from deep inside my soul: to promote unity, wherever I am, among various religious and political affiliations and to restore a more peaceful common ground so more meaningful dialog can take place in our city.
I often describe Rev. King’s mainstream legacy as having been reduced to a figure as harmless as Winnie the Pooh, a startling break from how he was received in his time. The FBI — who in the present we are entrusting to remove Trump from office (thereby leaving us with the theocratic nightmare of a Pence Administration) — thought MLK dangerous enough to stalk, wiretap, and blackmail him. They may have even played a role in his assassination. It is only in death that this holy man, who was as radical as his Savior, is venerated. (Gandhi, too, paid the ultimate price for his beliefs.) King’s legacy must be viewed in a realistic and fair context. The context today is that the Department of Homeland Security still considers black activists — this time around, they’re dubbed “Black Identity Extremists” — a greater risk than white nationalists, along with the environmental movement and anarchist groups.
We must view Rev. King less as a Disney character and see him as a proponent of the Perennial Philosophy, which posits there is a universal message found in all the world’s religions. That universal truth is that we are to love one another. This creed is the bare bones thesis of every major belief system from across history. This is not to say all religions are alike. Saying so cheapens and demeans the nuances of difference between these traditions. Rather, as Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, an American convert to the Vedic tradition, said, “Don’t say all religions are the same. All religions are good.”
Despite this truism, we have a local menace who is exploiting religion for sinister purposes. I have addressed City Council and supported friends at Council on the subject of the Washington-based Patriot Prayer group and their leader, Joey Gibson. In the name of Christianity and American nationalism, Mr. Gibson and his band of thugs — many of whom don hoodies with slogans that attack gay rights, women’s rights, and Allah (the same God of Moses, Abraham, Jesus, and St. Francis of Assisi) — have staged a number of controversial events. The result of these calls to action, which are always met with opposition by Antifa, anti racists, and other local activists, have been a number of arrests, countless acts of violence, and the Max murders last May.
How can anyone see these people as representatives of the religion of Rev. King? Mr. Gibson is on camera laughing about his associate sucker punching a young man, violently restraining a young woman, and harassing female activists by name at marches. These are hardly the acts of someone seeking to live a Christlike life. It is my hope that at some point Mr. Gibson cracks open that book he likes to wave around so much and actually bother to read it. I recommend he starts with Matthew 5:43–48.
Of course, that passage — which discusses loving one’s enemies — could serve to guide Antifa as well. There are troublesome entities on their side of the proverbial aisle. I have taken time off from activism to focus on my work in ministry, music education, and homeless advocacy, but to also get away from some harmful and even dangerous individuals in the Portland activist scene. Some of them still regularly disrupt Council meetings for seemingly no real reason other than to disrupt the flow of a functioning city government. You know who I’m talking about. A few of them have posted online about violence against the police. I consider those people to be unhinged and unsafe. Their presence at Council has been a deterrent for me, and I am sure others, to attend and provide meaningful testimony. They’ve been the reason I have had to cut down a three minute statement to two (no small feat!), and I personally recount your apologies in the past for the inconvenience. Thank you.
I am opposed to fascism, but I would never dare call myself Antifa at this juncture. Though they’re viewed as terrorists, in reality they function more like a gang. Last year on Sanctuary Day, 3/22/17, with a crowd of community leaders, men and women of the clergy, and a full anarchist black bloc behind me, I urged Council and the City Attorney’s office to establish a legal definition of “sanctuary city,” as the phrase holds little clout while detentions and deportations are occurring here. Work required me to leave (in fact, it was to teach the youth I mentioned in my testimony whose mothers tell them to not be out past dark), so I missed the testimony of a former friend, clad in black bloc gear while he gave an obscene, menacing, and rambling tirade, threatening insurrection.
When I saw the video, I was appalled. I had to stop rolling with that crew, as they didn’t represent my values. I raise these instances to say that in my experience on the Left, I have encountered as much intolerance, close-mindedness, and a disturbing proclivity for violence as I have seen on the Alt-Right. Frankly, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, Trump is right about fringe far-left elements and violence. Community self-defense I get and support, but this goes beyond that.
I believe white hate groups pose a greater threat to our well-being than insurrectionist potty mouths, but I will not deny that they share more in common than either side would care to admit. We have identified the problem, and these two sides must come together if there is to be a productive dialog that rises above pepper spray, slashed tires, and soda cans. We need peaceful coexistence. We need to provide space for opposing or competing sides to dialog, to thoughtfully exchange viewpoints, and for all parties to leave such a space more enlightened.
On the same day Mr. Toese, an associate of Mr. Gibson’s who has accumulated a criminal rap sheet over the past year for his violent actions, sucker punched a 19-year old kid in May 2017, I had a conversation with Patriot Prayer member David Fry. We and our spouses discussed the issues and came to realize we held many overlapping views, discussing Native American rights, our work to serve those in need in our communities, and the love we share for our country and how we want to see everyone in it do well. Coming to those agreements made it easier to disagree on so many other points, which we did. We parted ways with a handshake and a bro-hug. People on the Left have told me not to share this story.
The best way to honor Rev. King is not to quote him, but to live out his message. Beyond the theology of the Gospels, Rev. King represents a noble truth he learned from two other global faith traditions. He is as much an interfaith saint as Sai Baba of Shirdi. We should call upon our faith communities in Portland to help normalize the dialog, especially as Christian extremists continue to dominate the narrative with violence, intimidation, and gaslighting. The city should host debates, forums, and discussions that bring together disparate thinkers to seek and establish that common ground.
This is why I write you now, Mayor Wheeler. I don’t want to see anyone at a Patriot Prayer rally shot, or for another vehicular attack like Charlottesville to befall marchers, or for either side to produce another Jeremy Christian. Let us work together to promote Portland as a Beloved Community. We can do this.