Love Thy Neighbor

Attendees held up signs like these Saturday.

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On Saturday several hundred people gathered in a unity rally on the Courthouse Square to show vandalism with racial slurs will not be tolerated here and the community stands in solidarity with those affected by it.

Speakers for the rally included comments by those affected by the vandalism and reactions by clergy, law enforcement officers, politicians and others.

“We gather here today to show that person or those people (responsible for the vandalism) that we will not stand for the destruction of our city’s property,” said Bryce Dolan, who organized an effort to help clean up the property. “We will not stand for the destruction of our private citizens’ property. If you’re like me, you saw those messages earlier this week and you were disgusted, disappointed in those messages.

“But for others, those messages were a threat -- a threat to their lives, to their livelihood,” Dolan added. “So, if you felt threatened by those messages, we want to tell you that your life matters, and the Clay Center Community will stand with you.”

Not new  to Clay Center

Erin Mellies said she decided to organize the rally to show where Clay Center stands when it comes to hate, in all of its forms, “especially racist hate.” She called the vandalism that occurred across the community in at least 15 locations “a hate crime.”

Mellies, the mother of a young black man, said she has experienced racism toward her son and shared a candid example where a 6-year-old called her son the n-word when he was 6.

“What’s even more difficult is when you call the school and the principal says, ‘It’s just name-calling.’ No it’s not,” Mellies said. “I have two sons and only because the pigment of their skin is different and there is a slight variation in their genetic code, their experiences in this country will be vastly different. The conversations about safety I have with them will be different. The worries that keep me up at night wondering about their whereabouts and safety will be different.”

Mellies said despite that experience, she has loved this town since she moved here seven years ago.

“Clay Center is a community of progress, supporting improvements that keep our town alive and well ... This feeling of community we have, it offers a sense of support and safety. We know our neighbors care about us and our community. There are so many kind, good-hearted people here, but unfortunately that’s not enough, because there are things happening in our town that undermine all of this. When there are words and symbols of hate used to cowardly deface property, it creates a feeling of unease, uncertainty in the safety we once had in our town.”

Racism is not new to Clay Center, Mellies said.

“The use of hate language is not new to Clay Center,” she said. “Often when we witness racist behavior, we don’t say anything. We may change the subject, look the other way. We might make an excuse or minimize it. Sometimes we may not even recognize it, because we don’t see it, or we don’t know about it.”

And even though we don’t want to make a big deal about it, it is a big deal, Mellies said. She encouraged people in the community not to be silent when they see racism.

“Intentional and unintentional acts of racism are hurtful, harmful and traumatic,” she said. “And when it’s not called out, people of color are not going to feel safe in our community.”

We all matter

Mellies shared words from Cassie Hayworth who said in a letter, “I have watched Clay Center rally around each other like I have never seen before. This rally is another example of why I am proud to be part of our family/community. We lock arms around each other when some are weak, we stand firm in support when there is a need and today we stand.

“I am a woman. I am a black woman. I am most importantly a child of God,” Hayworth said I do not see color, I see hearts. This is not an issue of standing up for only black lives,  I see this is an issue for all lives. There are thousands of different opinions flooding social media and into our homes, but I am here to say every one of us, young and old, all ethnicities. We all matter.”

Hayworth said she too has experienced racism while living in Clay Center -- once in the last eight months since moving home.

“There have been many fabulous, wonderful days when I have been welcomed and loved by hundreds of Clay Center folks that have loved me and my children without any question,” Hayworth added. “I want you to know, I believe my family is safe in Clay Center. I am black and I am not afraid. The vandalism that took place was an act of intimidation. I will not bow down in fear, nor will I respond with hate or anger. Whoever tagged these properties, they are hurting. They are being deceived in trying to cause division in our community; and in reality they have brought us all together. They have given us a reason to teach and educate and support all.”

Hayworth asked if anyone else struggles with racism “to receive this truth” said by Martin Luther King Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

Treat others better

Hayworth wasn’t alone in asking for the community to pray for those responsible for the vandalism.

The Rev. Paul Tessaro, pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, said the vandalism last week “isn’t Clay Center” and is the result of “one or two people who need to be loved.” He also asked the community to pray for them.

“Maybe we can find them and show them they can be loved -- one way or another that they too are loved and they’re not left out,” he said. “Let’s consider that and how we spur one another on to that love and acceptance, to show mercy, care and patience to all.”

Tessaro said among the two great commandments that Jesus gave us is to “love your brother as yourself.”

“I think we can do better than that,” he said. “St. Paul actually goes a little further and he says ‘Consider others better than yourself. Look for ways to serve, look for ways to build up and look for ways to build others up by serving them and loving them and caring for them.”

Legislators proud of response

A couple of legislators serving in the Kansas Legislature, Sen. Tom Hawk and Rep. Susan Carlson, commended the community for its response to the vandalism.

“This unity gathering and the responses to the vandalism (last) week are exactly the reaction I would expect from the leaders and citizens of Clay Center,” Sen. Hawk said in a letter read by Michelle Tessaro. “I have read and heard many comments that define our true hearts.”

Hawk listed some of those comments, some of which were reported in The Dispatch, by KSNT and some through social media. Hawk said he was especially proud of Dolan for organizing a clean-up effort, for Police Chief Bill Robinson and Mayor Jimmy Thatcher for instantly condemning the vandalism.

Rep. Carlson said the reason she and her family have lived in Clay Center is because the community has shown it supports and loves one another. She encouraged people to reach out to, talk to, watch out for and  love each other.

“God created our skin tones with beautiful varieties but our souls are one color,” she said, showing those in the community a meme she found online. “Is that not true? We come in all shapes, all forms, all sizes, all colors, but we all came from the very same place. And like what has been already stated today, many times, and it was in a song, ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ And another quote from an old Beatles song, ‘Ebony and Ivory come together in perfect harmony.’

This article originally ran on ccenterdispatch.com.

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