The Impact of the Graffiti
It is almost one year since we had the hate messages spray painted on our building. When I drove up to 1035 Wade St. Iowa City on that Sunday morning, I discovered the graffiti of condemning scripture references, swastikas and hate messages targeted towards people whose skin is different than mine. I remember feeling so many emotions but mostly my need to cover these messages. Every day, people from many different backgrounds come to this building for help, comfort, hope and community. I desperately didn’t want them to be greeted by racism and hate.
This building houses two amazing organizations: ICCompassion and the Greater Iowa City Church of the Nazarene. Many of you know that ICCompassion responds to people around the world who come to make Iowa City their home in hopes of finding peace and safety. For 14 years, we have served the community with transportation help, food, immigration legal representation, English learning classes, citizenship, improving job skills and specific programming for refugees in our community. On any given week, we have approximately 100-200 individuals walk in this building.
The other organization is the Greater Iowa City Church of the Nazarene. This church and its leadership were key to ICCompassion’s beginning and sustainability. They have been a supporter financially, spiritually, as well as sharing resources and the building. Many who we see in ICCompassion are Christians and over the years, they have formed congregations to meet and worship in their language. On Sundays, there is a United in Christ service in Spanish, Chinese Community Fellowship in Chinese, First African in French and Pentecostal Holiness in Swahili. We have partnered with them, welcomed them, shared with them, done the hard work of “living together’ and loved them. In the church, the divisions of ethnic backgrounds have been replaced by our shared common identity of our faith.
Hearing many immigrant and refugee stories of violence, torture, war, poverty, gangs, fear, separated families and prejudice, I couldn’t let them see another unexpected message of hatred and rejection especially in their house of worship.
After calling the police, we quickly covered the signs and then in the next few days removed the graffiti. I spent a lot of time reassuring people that we were taking measures to make the building safe including installing more cameras. We received community support through cards, emails, Facebook, financial aid and other gifts.
One of our board members, Cheli Morgan brought a new sign that still hangs on the building. It was a powerful response to the graffiti. It said “Dear Friends, let us love one another for love comes from God. 1 John 4: 7”.
As the Executive Director of ICCompassion, I was grateful for the many levels of encouragement from volunteers and community members. Our mission is to equip people at their point of need to move out of poverty and inspire them to be of service to others. Although some of the words of our mission statement have changed over the years, the heart of our work has not changed. In the past, the Board of ICCompassion has faced days of no money with only faith to keep on serving the community. We have worked hard to earn our place as a key organization for immigrants and refugees in Johnson County. A few messages of hate were not going to change our hearts. It wasn’t going to change the hearts of over 400 volunteers, 6 Americorp service members, three staff.and the dedicated board. The question was where the church would stand with these messages of hate including the many congregations that meet in the building.
For the past three years, I have also served as one of the pastors for the Greater Iowa City Church of the Nazarene. Being a pastor wasn’t in my plans but in my faith, I became aware that God had this unexpected purpose for my life. I love being a pastor in a church that cares about the poor, the immigrants and marginalized in our world.
The two roles have gone together well. Our doors at ICCompassion have been opened to serve all people no matter what beliefs they have. This welcoming work is grounded in our Christian beliefs including loving others, treating each person with dignity and welcoming the stranger.
As a follower of Jesus, I know that loving others is a command and it is the proof of this identity. The love I have for others comes because God first loved me. I am thankful for His love.
No, it isn’t easy loving those who don’t look, act, think like us or have different opinions, lifestyle or cultural norms as us. But there is not an exception when we are called to love each other and that includes the one who wrote the messages of hate on our building.
It is easy to focus on our divisions: middle class/low income class, educated/uneducated, black/white, Protestant/Catholic, Republicans/Democrats and our different ethnic backgrounds, etc. But we are part of a bigger group. We have a shared common identity. Each of us who come to this building are imperfect people looking for peace, safety, a better life and to belong.
Over the weeks following the graffiti, I was inspired by the resolve of the church. There were no conversations about changing who we were or questioning the partnership with ICCompassion. There were a few conversations about metal detectors, and other security measures as a response. Eventually decisions were made that increased safety but didn’t make it harder for people to access help at ICCompassion or worship in the church.
The unexpected result of this graffiti is that it made two organizations along with many people determined to continue to seek ways to remove barriers of oppression, to facilitate forgiveness, promote reconciliation, and empower those who have been marginalized. ICCompassion and the Greater Iowa City Church of the Nazarene did and will continue to do the right thing as we serve the community which we love.
The graffiti brought strangers together. After this graffiti incident, faith community leaders and people came together in an interfaith service. It was an impactful demonstration of Catholics, Muslims, Jews and Protestants standing together against hate. We were no longer strangers but friends.
This incident made me more vocal and firmer in my beliefs of welcoming and loving others. Here is my challenge to you and me in 2020:
a. If you have a group of people that you struggle with or not comfortable with, seek to develop a relationship with someone identified in that group. Hear their story and value their worth. If you see messages of hate towards someone or a group, cover it up with a message of welcome and love.
c. Volunteer at ICCompassion helping someone who is new to this country.
d. Do something kind for someone that hasn’t been kind to you.
My parents taught me that you always leave a place better than when you found it.
May that be so for all of us.
With love, Teresa