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The 'Letter'
an article by Jim Sargent

A rather small, inconspicuous mosque opened recently in downtown Lewiston, Maine. It‘s an indication that a group of Somalis have established a permanent home here. Is this of any great consequence? In itself, no. But the events leading up to it are extraordinary!

The Somalis, having recently fled their homeland because of a bloody civil war, had chosen Lewiston as one of several cities in America in which to begin to rebuild their lives.

A year ago Larry Raymond, the mayor of Lewiston, wrote a letter urging them to slow the present migration of their brethren to the community. He felt that “our city is maxed-out financially, physically and emotionally.”

The Somali community was dismayed and angered at his opinion and the national media quickly jumped on the remark as hateful and racist. City officials soon found themselves being interviewed by the New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, CNN and more. A national hate group saw the possibility of turning a minor squabble into a major victory for white supremacy so they announced that they would hold a rally in Lewiston on January 11th.

Surely Raymond, a father of two adopted African-American children himself, meant no harm by his remarks and it is impossible that he could have imagined the groundswell of emotion that his letter would cause.

But a few local people banded together in what would become The Many and One Coalition to stage a counter-rally in favor of diversity. The rally would be held at another location that same day. The culmination of the ensuing three months was a truly awesome gathering of four thousand (4,000!) individuals against only 30 at the white supremacists rally! Officials from all over the state, including the governor, representatives, senators and speakers from several NGOs came out firmly for the need for and celebration of diversity.

There was no violence that day; no confrontation between brightly-robed blacks and stiff-booted whites. The national media went away disappointed that they didn’t have a “story.”

They ought to come back. The real story is that a year after Mayor Raymond’s letter, our friends and neighbors, the Somali citizens, feel a growing sense of permanence here. The real story is that a small mosque now stands in the heart of Lewiston.


Question(s) related to this article:

Can a small, grassroots response make any real difference?,

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Another Peace Vigil

    In 1991, before and during the first Iraq war, a fair-sized group of citizens in and around Concord, Massachusetts demonstrated against the war at the town green and along a major highway.  Passing motorists were about equally divided between support and opposition to this demonstration.  Shortly after that conflict had ended, a few people decided to create a peace vigil which would bring attention to the human costs of war, partly motivated by the terrible destruction inflicted on the Iraqi people.  Vigil participants walk slowly in a circle around the town green, while two in rotation hold the poles of a banner which says “We walk with all who suffer because of war.”
    For a long time the vigil was held the first Friday of each month, from 8 to 9 am at the peak of the morning commute.  Hundreds of vehicles view the message since Concord Center is a crossroads.  All are welcome to join, and periodically one of the participants writes a letter to the local paper drawing attention to the vigil.  Since the current Afghanistan and Iraq wars, participants have decided to conduct the vigil every Friday.  Over the years there has been a gradual change in motorist sentiment – they are now expressing support by about 20 to 1. . ...more.

This report was posted on October 5, 2003.