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Missoula Together rally celebrates diversity, inclusiveness

Choir director Moses Bushiri, right in white T-shirt and cap, leads the Congolese Choir in joyful song at the first Missoula Together anti-hate rally in Caras Park on Sunday. Other leaders in the adult-child combo choir include lead singer Deborah Noyota, in red dress at far left, and interpreter Dedieu Mugondozi, left front in white shirt. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

Reflecting the multilingual “Together We Are Missoula” posterboard proclaiming “together” in two dozen languages, several audience members stepped to the microphone to share their “hello” in 20 different languages.

The eloquence of the simple gesture epitomized the tight sense of inclusiveness and community at the first Missoula Together rally on the last sun-blessed Sunday afternoon of summer.

Local clergy, advocacy groups and Mayor John Engen teamed up to share traditions and reinforce inclusiveness after a flurry of anti-Semitic leaflets and graffiti shocked Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley last winter.

At the time, leaflets were found on the University of Montana campus and at private residences across the city, plus several churches discovered anti-Semitic fliers taped to their doors. 

The leaflets included “truly disturbing, terrifying images,” said the Rev. Jennifer Yocum, pastor of University Congregational Church – one of the churches targeted during the hate speech spree.

“You would tend to think in Missoula we’re in this little progressive bubble and there’s a good deal of tolerance and a good deal of acceptance,” said Yocum, who served as emcee at Sunday’s rally in Caras Park.

“Last winter/ spring, we were reminded that’s not always the case,” she said in an interview. “The initial response was to leaflet back. There were some groups that went back and put other leaflets saying, ‘Missoula is a place of tolerance and inclusion, spread some love around.’ But there was a second set of leaflets that were even more horrible, so we realized that was not going to be appropriate for an approach.”

Salish-Kootenai elder Arleen Adams opened the event with an encompassing Salish prayer: “Each and every one of us has a right to this land. We are to take care of Mother Earth, the water and the air. We come from a creation story.” 

Rabbi Laurie Franklin of Congregation Har Shalom, among many local leaders who spoke, said Adams’ song carried so much deep content that even though listeners may not understand every word, they can hear it in the spirit of the music.” 

Franklin gave a Jewish prayer that embraces “deep introspection this time of year, returning to our best selves, a time to uncover the spark of holiness within us that is a reflection of the holy creator.”

Reconnecting with your highest ideas and values is the goal, she said, and reconnecting with your beloveds on a personal level. 

The Rev. John Daniels of Missoula First United Methodist Church reaffirmed the importance of unity, the commonality among strangers and a common place in the family of God.

Jameel Chaudry, a UM campus architect, spoke on behalf of Muslims.

Riley Mentel, Soft Landing intern, left, and Soft Landing Director Mary Poole yarn a Montana sign containing a big heart that will hang in the new Missoula Soft Landing youth center at 939 Stephens. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

Engen recited his anti-hate proclamation, focusing on the danger in perceptions of inequality. 

“Hate is real … No place is immune to it. Every couple of years, in sick, dark, anonymous forms, it emerges from the shadows here, testing its surrounds to see if there’s room to spread,” said Engen. “We, the city of Missoula, Missoula County and the University of Montana, people of faith in God and people in faith of our humanity as citizens stand that it’s a reminder that hatred’s seeds will not find purchase here.”

He said we’re good at trying to get better in an imperfect world, adding that we should stand up for those seeking refuge and those persecuted. 

One of the highlights under the Caras Park tent was the Congolese Choir, comprised of 12 adults and five children from five different refugee families singing prayerful and joyful songs that nearly lifted the canvas off its moorings. Lead singer Deborah Nyota, resplendent in a stunning red dress, led a soul-lifting, introspective prayer-song. 

Members of the Missoula Alliance Church, the Congolese Choir included grade-school children who attend St. Joseph’s Elementary and Paxson Elementary, plus Ziana Wivine, 16, among the adult leadership.

“It’s good for us because it’s the first time we came here … to meet together,” said charismatic choir leader Moses Bushiri. “We like Missoula, but it’s very cold.”

Altogether, 10 Congolese families have lived in Missoula for about the past 18 months.

The Gamelon procession opened the ceremonies with a grand entrance after encircling the park and the Celtic Dragon Pipe Band played in what Missoula Together hopes will become a traditional peaceful event.

“We recognized that this would be a really profound opportunity for us as religious leaders and community leaders to come together and say, ‘No. This is not who we are,’ ” said Yocum. “’We are a community that celebrates and encourages diversity in our town – where people can find strength in our diversity and recognize that that is what community is all about.’ ”

“I’d like to see more people here, but it’s a great start,” said Betsy Mulligan-Dague, Jeannette Rankin Peace Center director since 2005 and one of the Missoula Together partners. “It’s a good idea for overcoming our differences. 

Franklin tagged the event “this pilot of creating community called Missoula Together.”  

“Hopefully, people will be inspired to take it out to their work places and neighbors and to grow the feeling of being part of a community,” added Mulligan-Dague.

Other Missoula Together partners on site were Soft Landing, Zootown Arts Community Center, several other churches and other community organizations.

The Missoula Together event marked the final event in a string of nine Welcoming Week events that began on Sept. 13, said Soft Landing Director Mary Poole.