‘By their fruits you will know them’

By Craig Strobel

On Friday, Oct. 29, several persons had gathered to check voting machines, including a representative of the Republican Party, Ralph Lillig, and a representative of the Democratic Party, John Perryman. Lillig told a long anecdote that included a comment about Father’s Day being the hardest holiday for black children because they don’t know their fathers.

The comment offended Perryman and he said so. Apparently Lillig contacted several persons who were in the room to apologize, as well as a representative of the local chapter of the NAACP. In the evening a press conference was called and a smattering of local media were on hand to hear statements from Perryman, Lillig, Michael Pettaway of the NAACP, and Christopher Cooke, representing Pocatello: Too Great for Hate.

Lillig expressed to the press and to me that he has realized that his telling of that story in the particular context reflected poor judgment, and it provided offense to Perryman. I can only speak for myself, but I would like to make a statement as a representative of Pocatello: Too Great for Hate that we are willing to accept his apology and to further clarify:

1.     In no way do we wish to impugn his character, and if he is sincere in his apology and his explanation, then we accept his explanation of the context in which he made the comments and commend him for acknowledging his misstatements and his apologies to various members of our community.

2.     We trust that he understands the sensitive nature of the words we use and the stories we tell about one another, and that he has learned about what is appropriate and inappropriate.

3.     This is a lesson for all of us to increase our sensitivity to one another, and especially to those who are of a different ethnic, racial, religious, socio-economic or gender identity group from us.

I am not sure, however, that Lillig quite understands the reason for the offense taken against his joke or anecdote. As a fourth-generation Idahoan, I am aware of the troubled past of race relations in our state. When I moved to Pocatello, I was impressed to learn that, because of the presence of Union Pacific as an employer, Pocatello at one time was the most ethnically and racially diverse community in Idaho. Along with that diversity, however, came the ghetto-ization of non-whites into an area called the Triangle. During this time the Ku Klux Klan regularly conducted parades through town, including the streets of the Triangle.

Incredibly, a vital multicultural sub-community developed in Pocatello. The Lasting Legacy Monument at 3rd and Lander testifies to this community. The days of the KKK marches and red-lining are hopefully over, but our continued vigilance is necessary to continue the work of multi-cultural community-building, and to assure that the rights and dignity of all persons are protected.

It is because of this history and our commitment to establish a community based upon respect, diversity and tolerance that we must be aware of how our comments and words create a climate that fosters certain behaviors and attitudes. What Ralph Lillig and I both need to understand is that as members of a privileged group, acknowledge it or not, what we say or do is part of the perceived norm of society. It behooves us to pay careful attention to how our attitudes and behaviors affect those persons who are not part of our “normative” class.

This was brought to my attention forcefully during my graduate school days when I attended a church in Oakland, California. This church was avowedly multi-ethnic and multi-racial. The pastor, a colleague and friend of mine, was Haitian-American, her husband was Chinese-American, and the congregation included people who had African ancestry in various forms: Jamaican, North American, Central American, recent immigrants from Africa, etc. They were doctors, accountants, teachers, social workers, single parents, unemployed and fully-employed alike. However, on the streets they were identified primarily as being black. As a consequence, they experienced things that I as a white person would never experience.

But it was also in the context of that faith-filled community that I experienced true grace and forgiveness. These persons understood the application of their faith, and they were willing to apply its teachings of love, mercy and forgiveness, but they also insisted upon the application of its teachings on justice, accountability, and practicing what one preaches.

On Friday night at the press conference, I witnessed some members of our local African-American community extend words of forgiveness to Lillig. It was a grace-filled moment. But I also know that these persons know their Bible and that they will be watching for fruits that befit repentance. They know full well that “by their fruits you will know them.”

The Rev. Dr. Craig Strobel is the convener for Pocatello: Too Great for Hate, and serves as the pastor at Pocatello First United Methodist Church. The website for Too Great for Hate is www.2great4hate.org.