Colorado faith leaders talk of ‘opening people’s eyes’ to racism

Colorado voices join national race conversation from varied religious views

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Across the country, demonstrations over the past several months buoyed up a conversation about race and unequal treatment that protesters say still runs rampant in the lives of people of color.

A pertinent question for a nation of many faiths: Where does religion fit into the conversation?

Five Colorado religious leaders gathered in a virtual live talk on Jan. 17, discussing everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to Asian Americans experiencing discrimination because of COVID-19 to how to faith leaders can wade into the challenging space of addressing racism.

“For Buddhists, one of the most important things is to look at the self,” said Rev. Diana Thompson, a Kaikyoshi minister at the Tri-State/Denver Buddhist Temple.

If you’ve been called racist, “you need to just sit and listen — you need to be with them, you need to understand the perspective that they’re coming from,” Thompson said.

“We see self-reflection as the beginning of our social engagement,” Thompson said. The talk was put on by the nonprofit Colorado Humanities.

Worshipers should ask: “Where did we come from, or how did we come together?” said Kamel Elwazeir, president of the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs.

“If we can agree that the creator created us from clay, from dirt, and that we all belong to Adam, then we are all connected, and there is no” difference between one another, Elwazeir said. “It is considered a sin in Islam and talk down to (someone) or look down on him because of skin color.”

Rev. Joan Bell-Haynes, executive regional minister of the Central Rocky Mountain Region of the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, brought up her organization’s effort to “eradicate racism within each (part) of our church.”

“Our concern is based in our theology that all people are created in God’s image, and that is the image of humanity, not one race or another,” Bell-Haynes said.

The local faith leaders touched upon the Black Lives Matter movement, which opposes “state-sanctioned violence” against Black people, along with “anti-Black racism,” according to its website.

Adrian Miller, executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches — an organization that aims to work “together for justice” in the Christian community — referred to the “All lives matter” response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“When you say, ‘Save the whales, nobody says ‘all fish matter,’” Miller said.

When some began attributing COVID-19 to Chinese people, Thompson said a member of her temple was called a “COVID (expletive)” at a grocery store. Thompson also lamented former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric regarding the coronavirus but argued that conversations about social issues shouldn’t break down by party affiliation.

She knew of older generations who refused on principle to vote Democratic because it was a Democrat who put Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II, Thompson said. But some in the Asian community said Trump’s presidential race was the first time they had voted Democratic since the 1940s, she added.

“We can’t say that just because you are this political affiliation, you’re a piece of junk because things are far more complicated than that,” Thompson said.

How to lead faith congregations in conversations about race also came up in the discussion. Bell-Haynes asks those in the faith community to inquire about what racism looks like in their own community context.

“Some of them may say, ‘I don’t have experience with racism.’ Well then … who are the people being marginalized?” Bell-Haynes said. Worshipers should be helping others “to open their eyes that there are people in our own communities that are being treated inferiorly.”

Colorado Humanities, a nonprofit, provides educational programs about topics such as history, literature and religion, according to its website.

The discussion was the third event in the nonprofit’s “Changing the Legacy of Race and Ethnicity: Conversations for One America” series aimed at driving a discussion about the legacy of race in America.

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