On Jan. 20, 1998, a cross was burned on the Tokay High School campus, sending shock waves throughout Lodi.
The incident woke up the community, where incidents like cross burnings just don't happen.
But it did, on that one January day, and the incident spurred the birth of an organization - the Breakthrough Project - dedicated to ridding Lodi of prejudice and any further hate crimes. Nine years later, the group is still going strong, and today, the Breakthrough Project will conduct its annual Martin Luther King observance beginning at noon at Millswood Middle School, 233 N. Mills Ave.
"I feel like we've made real progress over the years," said David Hill, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church and last year's Breakthrough Project president. "The subject we're dealing with is a difficult one. I feel there are some good strong leaders coming on board. With the new officers, I feel revitalization and commitment."
The Breakthrough Project was initiated shortly after the cross burning by Lodi attorney Randy Rosá and Norm Mowery, a former Lodi Unified School District trustee and pastor of First United Methodist Church who has since moved to Carmel.
Mowery, Rosá, retired Lodi High teacher Art Raab and others gathered shortly after the cross burning in Rosá's law office to determine what to do in the aftermath of the Tokay High incident.
"Within two weeks, we pulled together and tried to develop bylaws and develop a name for the group," Raab said. The 'project' is to break through walls of hatred and prejudice."
From that initial meeting, leaders from several Lodi groups organized annual events such as today's Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. Other Breakthrough Project events include an annual essay contest and participation in Pakistani Independence Day, Mexican Independence Day, Caesar Chavez's birthday and Celebration on Central.
Although it wasn't an official Breakthrough Project activity, several of its members participated with the Pakistani community in the aftermath of 9/11 by creating a "Celebration of Abraham," in which the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths banded together in friendship to celebrate what is common to their faiths - Abraham.
Breakthrough Project members also quietly comfort victims of hate crimes and other forms of racism, which happen every two or three months, Raab said.
"I think it's really matured," Rosá said of the Breakthrough Project. "It started out with a sense of outrage and injustice with the cross burning. A lot of town leaders stood up, met together and said 'That's enough. We're going to stop this.' "
The Breakthrough Project includes members of the City of Lodi, Lodi Police Department, Lodi Unified School District and local businesses, churches and other community-based organizations, said Judy Alva, who just became the organization's president.
Breakthrough Project at a glanceVision:
• To make Lodi a community that is free of bigotry, racism, prejudice and intolerance.
• To foster a community that celebrates diversity and values the uniqueness of each member of the human family.
• To act intentionally to develop friendships with people of all faiths, races, cultures and ethnicity.
• To offer guidance and educational programs to break through prejudicial barriers.
• To respond promptly to hate crimes and acts of intolerance, offering assistance as required.
• To foster communitywide acceptance of our unique cultural diversity.
• To celebrate oneness.
Source: Breakthrough Project.
However, the group hasn't grown as much as Raab would like.
"It has not expanded greatly," Raab said. "We have an 11-member board. We don't have good communication beyond the board of directors. We haven't done as well at reaching community organizations as we would like to."
Alva, vice principal of Borchardt Elementary School, added that Breakthrough Project leaders need to get to know each other better.
Rosá sees it differently, saying that individuals continue to step up after Breakthrough Project leaders leave for various reasons. Two major leaders, Mowery and James R. "Bo" Crowe, have left Lodi. Mowery left Lodi in 2003 to become pastor of a Methodist church in Carmel, and Crowe left United Congregational Christian Church the same year for a larger church in New York City.
"There's no organization I'm more proud of," Rosá said. "They're an amazing group of men and women.
"This is not the town of my childhood," said Rosá, who admits he grew up a racist. "We have a wonderful black man, Richard Jones, on the school board. And Maria Elena Serna is elected year after year to the Delta College board of trustees."
However, Lodi-area residents have vocally criticized Hispanics, especially when the topic of immigration surfaces and people with Spanish surnames are arrested.
Rosá said that, as Americans, people have the right to believe as they wish as long as hate crimes aren't committed.
"It's our human nature to be fearful of differences," said Father Rick Matters, vice president of the Breakthrough Project and pastor of St. John's Episcopal Church in Lodi. "We need to actively and intentionally counteract that."
Matters recalls being given the opportunity to expose the Breakthrough Project on a national level during a radio interview shortly after the FBI arrested Hamid and Umer Hayat, plus former Lodi Imams Mohammad Adil Khan and Shabbir Ahmed, and Khan's son, Mohammad Asan Adil, in 2005.
Matters said the radio interviewer wanted him to talk about the civil unrest and demonstrations taking place in Lodi, but Matters broke the news that no such activity was taking place. Instead, he talked about the positive influence of the Breakthrough Project.
"The Breakthrough provided very positive leadership for us to not overreact," Matters said.
First published: Monday, January 15, 2007