The Danger of Judging by Appearance and the Power of Reaching Out

They call themselves the OWGs, Old White Guys. The oldest is 78, the youngest 65. Their profile fits the pundits’ picture of Trump voters: white, Christian and born before the Vietnam War. Their home is Raleigh, North Carolina, in the old Confederacy, which allegedly breeds bigots. But these white senior citizens are doing more than the police or social services to oppose the bigotry that breeds violence between races and religions. It started with three murders on their doorstep.

It was just after 5 p.m. on Feb. 10, 2015, prosecutors allege, when a 46-year-old white male named Craig Stephen Hicks entered his neighbors’ apartment in Chapel Hill, about 30 miles from Raleigh, and shot dead three unarmed university students. The victims were sisters Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha and Yusor’s husband, Deah Barakat. The women were 21 and 19. Deah, a lanky 6-foot-3-inch basketball lover, was 23. Photographs taken while they were alive portray three healthy, smiling young Americans who happened to be Muslim. Before Deah and Yusor had completed their dental studies at the University of North Carolina or Razan could earn her architecture degree, they were dead. Hicks is expected to face trial on murder charges this summer.

“I was immediately angry and felt for the families,” said Steve Braun, a self-declared “65-year-old white male” and congregant at Raleigh’s Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. “I was soon to find out that the three young people had attended Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, next to where my wife and I live. Our nephew attended high school with them.”

Standing in Solidarity

Braun was not alone in his anger or shared grief. His friend Thomas Henderson, another OWG, recalled, “I think I was appalled, but not terribly surprised.” Braun, Henderson and a half-dozen of their friends belonged to what Braun called “a men’s retreat group that started meeting twice a year in 2009.” Their retreats were not religious, just thoughtful interruptions of hectic lives — a kind of group mindfulness. They spent much of 2015 discussing the murders, racism and religion. “At the time of the shooting,” Braun said, “I did not have friends or colleagues who were Muslim.” That was about to change. In December, the OWGs went together to a conference at the Islamic Association of Raleigh, a mosque and educational complex.

“This community meeting was in response to Islamophobic rhetoric from the then-Trump campaign,” Braun said. “Many religious leaders from the Jewish and Christian communities were present to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters.” Among those joining hands across the religious divide were Baptist Pastor Nancy Petty, Temple Beth Or Rabbi Lucy Dinner and Imam Abdullah Antepli from Duke University. They mourned the three murdered youngsters, while resolving to find ways to save others from the same fate.

The meeting introduced them to Muslim residents of Raleigh, who did not seem much different from themselves. They also met the mosque’s imam, a dynamic cleric from Maryland named Mohamed Abu Taleb. He was everything that Muslim clerics were not supposed to be in the minds of some Americans: an electrical engineering graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tolerant, funny and open to people of any creed or no creed at all. His congregation includes Sunnis and Shiites and believers from the Arab countries, Pakistan, Somalia and the rest of the Muslim world. The OWGs were impressed. Braun told me that Henderson decided one meeting was not enough, but Henderson said it was Braun who told him one day after their Baptist service, “Why don’t we vote with our feet?” Thus, the OWGs became a regular feature at the mosque on Thursdays. Henderson said, “When we know that it is people whom we know and love who are being hurt by irrational fears, then perhaps we can begin to understand and become more able to change long-standing prejudices.”

Bearing Witness

One member of their group is my oldest friend, Dr. Robert X. Morrell. He and I attended Catholic schools together from age 5 to 17, grew up in Republican families and campaigned when we were 13 to make Barry Goldwater president. Rob probably had the best brain — and without doubt the sharpest sense of humor — among the 200 or so boys who graduated from Loyola High School of Los Angeles in 1968. He has practiced medicine in Raleigh for the past 35 years. He told me, “There is a real importance to bearing witness.”

To prove his point, we drove the next Thursday to the corner of O’Kelly and Atwater streets in a quiet residential neighborhood. It’s a place where an old Christian church would not be out of place, but the building perched on a hill above the shady street was an imposing, modern white mosque. A parking attendant and a man at the door greeted us with the words, “Welcome. Thanks for coming.”

The interior looked like any suburban sports center with a foyer where we registered at a counter. The prayer room was a low-ceilinged auditorium, where 12 rows of chairs were set in the back for non-Muslims. About a hundred people filled the chairs, their ages ranging from infancy to the 80s. They looked like the sort of people who would sing “Amazing Grace” at their churches on Sunday. A large carpet covered an open area at the front, where the prayers would soon take place. In the meantime, a kind of warmup speaker delivered a primer on Islam: its articles of faith, its traditions out of Judaism and Christianity, the story of Abraham and his son Ishmael.

Imam Abu Taleb soon took over. He was tall and dressed in a long brown thobe, or tunic. His beard had no mustache, and his dark brown hair was topped with the kind of hat India’s Jawaharlal Nehru used to wear. He urged the non-Muslims among us to “get to know a Muslim well.” It seemed odd to him that a study showed that 50 percent of Americans had never met a Muslim. “Those who have not met Muslims must never have been sick – or taken an Uber.”

He said that, a few days before, he was waiting in the checkout line to pay for his groceries when someone hurled abuse at him. He did not repeat the word. “That curse was lobbed in my direction, but I could not see where it came from.” He realized the elderly white matron just ahead was shouting at him. “I was shocked, especially with my young son. I pulled our cart back and stepped forward to help her.” She refused his help and cursed him again. He looked at the other people in the line for support. “I saw behind me the stereotypical American in a cowboy hat with a beard. I felt I was surrounded.” There he was, a Muslim preacher dressed like a Saudi Arab in a Southern town with a woman insulting him on one side and an apparent redneck on the other. But, Abu Taleb confessed, he was mistaken. “That man whom one may have stereotyped looked at me and gave a wide, open smile and communicated that this was not OK.” The cowboy was with him, for which he was grateful but also ashamed. “For that fleeting moment, I was guilty of judging the other by appearance.”

That was the essence of a dilemma that this year saw 50 Muslims massacred in Christchurch, New Zealand; racist slogans daubed on a memorial to the African-American laborers who helped to build the University of North Carolina; and anti-Semitic diatribes planted in the university’s Davis Library. So, don’t be too hard on the Old White Guys. They are not always the problem. Once in a while, they are the solution.

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