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In honor of Martin Luther King Jr., Lodi celebrates unity

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Posted: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 12:00 am

During Monday’s 16th annual Celebration of Unity, Lodians had the opportunity to learn that taking steps towards tolerance of neighbors of other ethnicities and religions may mean asking more questions.

Hosted by the Breakthrough Project for Social Justice, the event serves as a way to spread a message of tolerance and understanding for area residents who may face discrimination and hate.

This year’s event shifted focus from African Americans to Muslims, with the idea that just like people came together to support Martin Luther King Jr.’s quest to end racism, the community must come together again to end hatred towards others.

Two Muslim speakers explained to a 100-person crowd their experiences in dealing with ignorance about their faith, and dispelled some of the myths associated with Islam.

“Being Muslim in elementary school, a lot of kids focus on ‘You can’t eat pork.’ And then they ask, ‘Well, how do you imagine bacon tastes like? Because it’s awesome,’” said Hana Nasser, Response to Intervention and WASC coordinator at Aspire Benjamin Holt Preparatory Academy.

Nasser, who was born to Yemeni parents, grew up in Stockton.

It wasn’t until high school that Nasser decided to wear a head covering, called a hijab, although she was quick to point out that she does not feel oppressed by it or pressured to wear it.

Her goal in her decision was to ensure people still saw her for who she was.

“I wanted to make sure I didn’t let the hijab wear me,” she said.

However, Nasser’s hijab and modest dress have proven to be source of gawking for her and others, she said.

When Nasser and a friend were once enjoying a sauna while wearing their hijabs, her friend overheard people speaking about how Nassir and her friend must be hot in their clothes and that they believed Muslims didn’t shower frequently. Her friend quickly let them know they were wrong, Nasser said.

Nasser told the crowd she opposes the media’s portrayal of Muslims as a harsh religion. Islam’s underlying message has always been about peace, she said.

“Every time I hear anything (said) by Martin Luther King Jr., I think how that is the Muslim way.”

Another speaker, Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Sacramento office, greeted the crowd with the Arabic phrase “As-Salamu Alaykum” — similar to greeting someone with “May peace be with you” in English.

In his work with CAIR, an organization created to dispel myths and stereotypes of Islam, Elkarra often deals with a lot of hatred toward Muslims.

“If I ever receive a hate call, I let them talk it out,” he said.

One of his strategies in dealing with the hate is to concede that there have been Muslims who have done wrong, but then offers more information and the opportunity to learn more.

“A lot of people with hate calls call back later to ask questions. They just want to understand,” he said.

Elkarra was born and raised in San Francisco and comes from a Palestinian background.

He prides himself on his interfaith background. Many of Elkarra’s relatives practice different faiths, and for much of his life he attended Christian schools.

He said that once the Persian Gulf War began, there were a lot more misconceptions about his faith.

“One of the sisters said to me, ‘Islam is a cult, because they all live in the same house,’” said Elkarra, who said he told the sister that this was incorrect.

The two speakers then took questions from the audience that allowed them to explain some of their similarities to non-Muslims in the community.

Elkarra explained that Muslims believe in all the prophets. He said Jesus Christ has a large role as a prophet in the Quran.

He said that the best way for people to learn about Islam is to read the Quran. Through CAIR, anyone can request a free copy.

This event brought with it some firsts for the Breakthrough Project, including the new speakers and the decision to have a question-and-answer session, but Lusandra Vincent, the project’s leader, believes this Celebration of Unity was a success.

“What we wanted to know is how it is for them to live in our community. Are they understood? Are they welcome? Are there things about their faith that the media hasn’t accurately described? How do they as young Americans today feel they can carry on a legacy?” Vincent said.

For some community members, the Celebration of Unity was an eye-opening experience.

“I always find it interesting that I don’t always think of Lodi as being particularly diverse, but we are,” said Becky Hamner of Lodi. “I wasn’t aware that the Quran devoted so much attention to Jesus.”

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