By Ed Chasteen
Thursday, April 29, 2010
My wife and I were in Texas for her high school reunion when the call came. Jessica was calling from her home in Clinton, Missouri to tell me about a Neo-Nazi who planned to open an under 21 nightclub in Odessa, Missouri. Jessica’s friend, Amy, lived in Odessa and was concerned for her children.
Two days later I sat with Amy at a restaurant in downtown Odessa and heard her concern. The man’s name was Charles Juba. He had come to the Kansas City area a few years ago from Pennsylvania to open a national headquarters for a Neo-Nazi group. Rapid and massive community opposition stopped him. He professed to have changed and wanted now to open a nightclub for young people. The Black Flag Club he called it, named for the flag carried by Civil War guerilla fighter, William Quantril. Amy and the town thought he would use the club to recruit their children to his cause.
A special meeting of the city council had been called for that evening at 7 PM. Amy asks me to come. She would arrive early and save a seat for me. I would ride my bicycle around town for a couple of hours and meet her there. When I arrive at 6:30 the parking lot is full. By meeting time every seat is taken and the room is packed, with people standing. The mayor calls the meeting to order and introduces two ordinances affecting business applicants that the city attorney has drawn up since the council meeting three days earlier, when Mr. Juba had appeared before them with his plan. The council tables the ordinances, and the mayor opens the floor for comments.
One after another for almost two hours speakers come to the mic. The first is a state representative who promises state action to help the town. The second is a young woman who speaks on Mr. Juba’s account. He is not present. She says he has changed and wants only to teach young people. Following her come parents, teachers, townspeople and students. Several speak directly to the young woman representing Mr, Juba, all denying he has changed and opposing his plans. Applause and shouted support follow.
Amy asked me at the restaurant if I planned to speak. I said I had come to help and wasn’t sure I needed to speak. After half a dozen have spoken, Amy taps me on the shoulder and asks me to speak. She has gotten us front row seats. I stand to speak.
“I was invited here tonight. My students and I at William Jewell College started HateBusters years ago. We promise never to say no when asked to help where hate has come. I’ve come tonight to offer help. We give HateBusters membership cards to everyone who wants one. When people ask how many members we have, we say, “No one is born hating. So everybody is a natural born hatebuster. If you choose not to be a member, send us your name, and we will take your name off the list. Otherwise, you’re one of us. I have brought membership cards. They will be here on the table. Take one. Send me an email. I’ll put you in our HateBusters address book.”
The mayor thanks those who have come. He announces that Mr, Juba has not completed the necessary paper work with the state and his planned opening tomorrow will be delayed ten days to two weeks.
The next morning, the mayor receives a phone call from Mr. Juba. He withdraws his request for a business license. He will not be coming to Odessa.
Saturday, May 1, 2010
Brian and I strap our bikes to the back of his car and set out for the 50-mile ride to Lawrence. We arrive two hours early at the Islamic Center on the edge of the KU campus, unstrap our bikes and go for a ride. We’re back at the center when Diana arrives with three of her children about 10:20. Diana has planned today’s Pedal Against Hate bike ride. We will pedal through the University of Kansas campus to a city park, where we will have lunch and I will speak.
Diana met Bassam Helwani when they both were students at KU. Bassam is from Syria; Diana from Kansas. Bassam is Muslim; Diana was Baptist. She converted. They have been married for years, have six beautiful children and live in Lawrence.
I met Bassam a few months back when I went to visit long time friend, Yahya Furqan. I had called Yahya a few days earlier to tell him about a video I had ordered and just seen. The video, Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims, tells about Baptists and Muslims working together on community problems in five different places across America. Yahya had invited Bassam to come to his house to watch the video with us.
When the video ended, the three of us went to lunch. We laid plans. Four Friends we would call ourselves. Yahya is African-American and a Muslim Imam. I’m Caucasian-American and a Baptist preacher, Bassam is a Syrian-American. And we will invite Al Ansare to join us. Yahya and I have known Al for years. Al is African-American and a Muslim chaplain at Research Hospital. A few days later Al invites the three of us to lunch at the hospital. We Four Friends hope to visit area churches and masids to tell about our friendship and build bridges.
Bassam tells me over lunch about Culturally Speaking, an organization he and Diana started some years ago. A few days later I get an email from Diana asking me to come to Lawrence for an event she is calling Pedal Against Hate. Thus Brian and I have come today.
Promptly at 11, five of us mount our bikes and head onto campus along Naismith Avenue, past Owen Fieldhouse where the Jayhawk basketball team plays. One of our Greater Liberty Saturday riders had called Diana to ask how far we would ride today. “Three miles each way,” she told him. He was training for a triathlon and needed a longer ride. He wouldn’t be coming.
We’re not far onto campus when the road turns gently upward. For some reason, my legs turn to rubber. I have to walk. Several times. Everyone waits. “Shall I get the car?” Bassam asks. “I’m fine,” I say. “There are no more hills.” He says.
Red pepper humus, homemade pita bread, gyro meat and homemade sauce for lunch. Bassam once owned a restaurant in Kansas City. We are the beneficiaries of that history today. Yahya has come from KC. Deb from Topeka. Baha, Director of the Islamic Center of Lawrence, is here. Nineteen of us in all. Fewer than we had hoped. But we have the enthusiasm and attentiveness of hundreds. When we have eaten, Bassam calls us together. “I want us all to meet the Pedalin’ Professor. I went to Brother Yahya’s house not long ago and met Professor Ed. Now he has come to tell us about his bike ride across America and about HateBusters. Come Ed, and talk to us.”
“My aim in life is to meet every person I can and expect to like every person I meet,” I say. “I have always believed that inside every person on the planet burns a spark of goodness. I look for that spark in every person I meet. I grew up in the church. I learned that we all are created in God’s image. No one ever told me exactly what that meant. But I figured it must mean that each of us has at least a spark of goodness inside us. So I wanted to see if I could find that spark.
“The only way I could think of to find that spark was to ask for help. So I got on a bicycle in Orlando, Florida intending to ride to Seattle, Washington and down to Anaheim, California. By myself. With no money. I would ask the first person I saw in every town I came to for exactly what I needed at that moment: a drink of water, a sandwich, a bed for the night. I would expect them to say yes. If they had that spark of goodness, they would. If they said no, I would know that I’d been wrong in assuming that spark of goodness to be there.
I could take all our time today telling you about my ride. It’s a story I love to tell, and you would be inspired and encouraged by it. Disney dubbed me The Pedalin’ Prof after the ride. But we have not come here today for that story. I’ve come to tell you about HateBusters.
“I was teaching Race Relations at William Jewell College the year after my ride when a Klansman won election to the Louisiana Legislature. My students and I wanted to help the state redeem itself. We started HateBusters. The Governor of Louisiana invited us to come. We went. Word got out. We began to be invited by governors, mayors, colleges, universities, religious leaders, police departments and concerned citizens. We never say no when asked to help where hate has come. We never charge fees. What money we need is given to us by folks who like what we do.
“Now I have drawn a 125-mile circle around Liberty, the town where I live. I call every place within that circle Greater Liberty. The City of Lawrence where we are today is in Greater Liberty. I may not have chosen that name did I not live in Liberty. But the name is not meant to describe a place. It’s a principle. It is greater liberty I seek for all of us to live above and beyond those limitations of heart, mind, soul and body that we too easily accept because someone tells us we must.
“I had another reason for riding alone and without money across America. I was looking for more than that spark of goodness. I had been told six years before I got on my bike to begin that ride that I have Multiple Sclerosis. The doctor said, ‘It’s a damnable disease and you can’t be active.’
“I was depressed for years. Then one day three years into my diagnosis, I saw Brian’s old bicycle in the garage. And a crazy idea invaded my head: Get on that bike and ride. I did. Made it down the block. I was exhausted. Every now and then I’d get back on the bike. And make it a little farther. Three more years passed. I attempted a century, a hundred mile ride in one day. Half way through that ride someone said to me, ‘Ride your bike across America. If you do, MS will live on your terms.’ I looked around. No one was there.
“Now bike riding is the only medicine I take to keep my MS at bay. If I don’t ride, I can’t walk. If I ride, I can run. Not far. Not fast. But some. I ride to keep my body physically able to move and do. But my purpose in living is not simply to be healthy. My purpose is to oppose hate and teach people how to like people. If I don’t ride, I won’t have the physical fitness I need to do this. This is why all our HateBusters work is built around a bicycle.
“We have ridden to this park today so I can tell you about HateBusters and so I can give you some cards. One is your HateBusters membership card. Then I have three other cards to give you. I wrote a book called How To Like People Who Are not Like You: The Three Step Formula. I can’t carry books on my bicycle, so I reduced the book to three cards. They have the look and feel of playing cards. I just got them this week. You will be the first people I have given them to.
“Each card is a different color. The blue card is Step One. The light purple card is Step Two. The yellow card is Step Three. Step One is To Like Yourself. Step Two is To Like people Like You. Step Three is To Like People Who Are Not Like You. Each step has three parts: Believe these things; Think about these things; Do these things.
“After seeing the trouble I had riding here today, Bassam may wonder how I rode across the country. I’ve grown old doing this work. Sometimes I wish I could give it up. Sometimes briefly I do. But something always pulls me back. It’s my reason for living. I cannot quit. I invite you to join me.
“May we all be blessed.”