Love Your Granite City Neighbor

My body was extremely angry at me last Thursday. In the morning, as I talked to folks in the community about the meeting I was to attend that night, I began to feel like I was going to throw up. As I arrived on the scene, and pulled up to the person at the end of the driveway that greeted me with questions about whether I was there to “really listen” or just there to protest, I could hear my heart beating loudly in my head.

“Well, ok, I guess I’ll have to believe you,” the man said, “but, I hope you are really going to learn something here tonight – you sure need it.”

As I parked in the back of the church and turned off my car, I sat, frozen, wondering what it would be like to walk out of the meeting, in the dark, back to my SUV sporting #LoveYourNeighbor and “Respond with Love” bumper stickers. I made myself get out of the car and, as I walked toward the protest area, a man from the church greeted me. We talked for a long time about our shared faith and about my reason for being here and for calling my community to come inside with me.

“I’m glad you are coming inside,” the parishioner said. “I just don’t understand why these protesters are out here! We are not white supremacists. This talk tonight has nothing to do with skin color.”

“Have you talked to any of the protesters yet?” I said. “Have you listened to their story, to their reason for being here? Have you asked a person of color what their life is like in St. Cloud? White person to white person, we need to understand that WE DON’T GET IT. The daily, hourly, minute-by-minute struggle of what it means to be black in St. Cloud. To be black in this nation.”

I felt myself getting angry, so I excused myself from the conversation, explaining that I was going to walk around the church and pray for peace and open hearts.

“Give me one minute, and I’ll be there to pray with you,” he said.

I walked away realizing that my whole body was inflamed and that I needed to either cry or scream. Instead, I laid on a grassy hill next to the church, and began asking God for strength and for my body’s visceral reaction to calm down so that I could be fully present for my community. As my body began to relax, the Christian brother I was talking to came up to me and said he was making good on what he said – that he was there to pray with me. And he asked me to start.

So, we sat there, 2 white Central MN Christians, hearing the faint chanting of the protesters in the background and the sound of cars filling the parking lot, praying. Both praying for peace. Later on, we would be told by multiple speakers that one of us was a fake Christian. But, in that moment, we were united in our faith, united in our desire for peace, and united in our reliance on God to make a way for this community to work through decades of pain.

I thanked him for praying with me, and told him that I looked forward to seeing him inside and would be glad to meet his wife who would be playing piano during the hymns. As I got back to the protester area, a man came up to me with a copy of the St. Cloud Times. I knew this man – he came to Summertime by George last year to tell me that I was “losing my religion” and that I sure had strayed far from the Lutheran faith I was raised in. He demanded that I sign the Times next to my quotes in the article about tonight’s speaker. I said no thanks, I am not a celebrity, and that doing so would just be plain weird.

“Why not Natalie? I mean, you made up a phrase so I want your autograph by it. Christian supremacy? I mean, who ever heard of such a thing?” he said in such a biting tone that I began to feel like I was a child again.

“Actually I didn’t coin that phrase,” I explained. “Those are Shahram’s words, the speaker who is here tonight. Take a look at his social media. He talked about it last week.”

For the first time, the man was silent, and looked off into the distance. “Well… are SO IGNORANT. I mean how unintelligent can you be?” From behind me I heard a couple SCSU students say “She is not unintellegent. She started #unitecloud and we are here to stand with her. And with our neighbors.”

“Oh, great,” he said, “a whole group of unintelligent people. I’m out of here.”

I turned around hugged the college students who had bravely stood up for me. They told me they had my back anytime, anywhere, and that they were so thankful I had come to speak to their class last year.

A couple hundred people packed into the church. Former Muslim-turned-Christian Pastor Shahram Hadian spoke on the “Trojan Horse of Interfaith Dialouge”, preceded by Dr. Masid, a Muslim-turned-Christian who spoke about his conversion experience. The pair was introduced by Ron Brantsner, a local organizer for the alt-right, and the Pastor of Granite City, Dennis Campbell, led times of singing, prayer, and reading from the Bible.

Overall there was a heavy focus on ensuring that everyone in the building knew that they loved their non-Christian neighbors enough to rescue them from eternal burning in hell. “Heaven isn’t won by giving pie to your neighbors,” Pastor Campbell said to which the majority of the church responded in a chorus of “AMEN” and generous applause. I get confused by statements like that, seeing as Jesus told his followers that giving clothing, food, and shelter to our neighbors is EXACTLY what we are supposed to do.

The lies continued, and I began to feel sick again.

“There are places of worship in town that do not allow Christians to come in.” – Ron Branstner

“When Muslims become Christians, there will be no more raping, no more stabbing at the mall, and no more 9/11.” – Dr. Masid.

“The best way to share Christ with a Muslim is to invite them over for dinner. But, make sure it is a non-halal meal. I explain why in one of my DVDs.” – Pastor Hadain

“We can’t invite Muslim leaders into the church. That will confuse Christians. We are not called to dialogue or debate – we are called to declare.” – Pastor Hadian

“Is Obama a Muslim? Yes. If we in America and good and repent, God gives us Trump. If not, God curses us with Obama.” – Dr. Masid

“It is not OK to yell at Muslims in this area to ‘go back to your country.’ But, we should all take up an offering to send Linda Sarsour back to where she came from.” – Pastor Hadian

I knew things were wrapping up because the guy to my left turned off the video camera that had been pointed directly at me for 3 hours. You see, when we were “let in” to the church after having our bags checked and being told by the bouncer that he wasn’t sure if the church wanted us there or not (I asked him if that was what Jesus would say?), we were told that “everyone with Natalie” had to sit in one designated section. When I asked why, the answer was: “Because I said so.” When we saw the video camera pointed at us turn on as we entered the church, we understood why.

I stayed long after the speakers were done, talking with my neighbors that I love from Granite City Baptist Church. I ended my night by talking to the new Associate Pastor – he’s only been there for 3 months. He inquired about what the community’s perception is about his church. I was honest. I told him that Granite City has brought much pain to our area, all in the name of Jesus. He seemed surprised as though he had never heard that before. I told him that I would be happy to continue conversations with him and gave him my contact info. He said he would be contacting me, and, man, I hope he does. I will meet with anyone in that church and, I will show love to them. And, that love is not fake, just as much as my Christianity is not fake. I am a strong believer that love drives out hate and lessens fear. And that’s what we need in our community, in our nation and in our world. More love, less fear. I don’t care how hippy-dippy-trippy that sounds. It is just the darn truth.