I love the ethnic diversity of the place where I live. Although the population is mostly European, it's been enhanced by waves of immigration, starting in the 1840s, that provided labor for coal mines. It's a place where it has always been possible to hear a variety of languages spoken on the street, where interesting foods are available (we have the world's largest frozen pierogi factory!), and where for the last half-dozen decades, most of the old ethnic unpleasantness has died down.
Until July 12. That Friday night, a group of current and former high school football players went into the woods for some serious drinking. When they came back to town, they stopped in at the Polish American Fire Company bazaar and then walked down a side street where they encountered Luis Eduardo Ramirez, an undocumented worker from Mexico.
An altercation ensued. Ramirez was beaten -- kicked so hard, in fact, that the impression of a religious medal he wore was left on his chest. He died two days later when life support systems were removed. As the killers walked away, they threatened the girl walking with Ramirez with an expletive-filled rant.
Was I surprised? Not exactly.
Do I think the football players set out that night to kill an undocumented person, or a Mexican, or anyone? No.
Do I think that an underlying culture of violence had something to do with it? Sure. One of the more telling remarks was from a local who said, "Street fights happen. I had my buddy in a coma for three days once, but you gotta know when to stop." Still, five football players on one 125-pounder?
Do I think that the killing was racially motivated? Of course.
There were lots of people out that night, most of them Anglo, but it's the Mexican who was attacked.
Everyone who has interviewed me since then has asked, "Are you afraid?"
I always say, "Not much. No more than usual."
Thanks be to God, there is a net of goodwill extending throughout the community -- a net that seeks to protect those who are different. I think of people with obvious cognitive difficulties who are visible members of the community -- they are simply not fair game for violence. I remember also how the community rallied around the order of African priests who were here in the '90s -- especially when someone greeted one on the church steps after Mass with a nasty epithet.
But no safety net is perfect, and Ramirez's death showed that ours is in need of some serious repairs.
Still, there is penitence among most of the community. At St. John's, our doors were open from the killing until the first arrests 13 days later. One of our town drunks stopped by one afternoon. He started into the sanctuary and then turned back and said, "Pastor?"
"You know I'm German."
"Yes." (And fifth- or sixth-generation American, by the way.)
"But I'm not for this killing." Then he went inside to pray.
And that, I think, is where healing arises. Someone willing to put aside his own considerable stuff for a few minutes to affirm his own humanity, basic values, and dependence on God.
Go and do likewise. Then we'll be able to celebrate community once again.