Giving Voice to Justice

The holiday season is upon us. As we prepare for the holiday season, we are pointedly reminded that we live in an imperfect world. Over the last number of weeks, our social landscape has been ...

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The holiday season is upon us. As we prepare for the holiday season, we are pointedly reminded that we live in an imperfect world. Over the last number of weeks, our social landscape has been entrenched in blood and infected with hate. The misguided seven from Patchogue-Medford encircled an innocent Ecuadorian because of the color of his skin, beat on him, and ultimately, one boy stabbed him in the chest. They walked away and left him to die.

In another community not so far away, a high school has been evacuated four times, because of bomb threats. A middle school was also evacuated because two thirteen year old boys wrote a note and threatened to blow up the school. On the Internet, a college student committed suicide and people were able to watch.

Since the senseless stabbing and beating of Marcello Lucero, there have been an increased number of complaints of racial harassment and violence. Unfortunately, the rhetoric in our larger community has fueled that hostility. Instead of building bridges in regards to our differences, we have built thicker walls between us.

The holiday season affords us a wonderful opportunity to give voice to the values of justice, love and forgiveness. During this time of year, no matter what our religious tradition, we are encouraged to think of the needs of others. As a community, we are exceptionally generous when it comes to giving material things.

Sometimes it's easier to give money or material gifts. We don't have to give up part of our heart to a person or to a circumstance. However, maybe this holiday season, we need to work harder at giving a part of our heart, by reaching out to others with compassion and understanding. Maybe we need to be more conscious of the words that we use, the jokes that we tell or the comments that we make, especially in front of our children.

Hate is a learned behavior. People are not born to hate. They learn that behavior from the environment that nurtures them. From an early age, children are very astute. They hear and see everything. The misguided seven did not fall out of bed one day and decide to beat up people who look Hispanic. Unfortunately, they grew up in an environment that either was silent on discrimination or used rhetoric that said it was okay.

When the District Attorney s office questioned the misguided seven and asked if they beat up Hispanics regularly, one boy said, no, just once a week! It almost made it seem like the tragic events that took someone's life were seen as a sport or game.

It is important to note that the misguided seven should not characterize an entire community. People from within and outside the Patchogue/Medford community should not stereotype that community because of this horrific circumstance. The greater majority of the students within the Patchogue-Medford High School are respectful, tolerant and caring human beings.

However, the unfortunate behavior of the misguided seven must be addressed. Unaddressed, it becomes infectious and spreads like wildfire. It is not enough for the school district to have a series of assemblies or parent meetings. It is not enough for 10 officials to hold a series of town meetings. Although commendable, it is not enough that the police commissioner named a Hispanic to be the new commander of the Fifth Precinct.

Hopefully, these are positive steps in a process that will be on-going to strengthen our community as a place that is respectful and tolerant of differences. If the tragedy that happened in Patchogue Village on that dreadful Friday night is handled only as a crisis of the moment, we have failed our community and we have failed to seize a powerful teachable moment about dignity and respect for all.

Right before Thanksgiving, the Patchogue-Medford High School Community sponsored an important assembly for its student body as a response to the horrific tragedy that seven of their students were allegedly involved in. They had two speakers, Johann Christoph Arnold and Hashim Garrett, an ex-gang member. These two men shared their stories about hate, intolerance and forgiveness. They had an overflowing crowd in the auditorium captivated. There was an intense silence and they were given the crowd s undivided attention. When these courageous men finished their presentation, the student body spontaneously gave them a sustained standing ovation.

Every student and faculty person that was present was given a very powerful little book entitled: "Why Forgiveness?" by Johann Christoph Arnold. The book contains 50 or 60 true stories about hate, violence and intolerance. Many of the stories have a happy ending, although some don't. In the book, why they don t is examined.

It's eye-opening simplicity stings the heart. It is not a book drenched with platitudes or moralizing psycho-babble. It is a book about real people and real tragedy. But more importantly, it offers us a snapshot of how people can engage in a process of reclaiming their lives through the gift of forgiveness.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that speaks the rhetoric of forgiveness but really misses the point. We forgive, we never forget. And we always get even! That's not forgiveness. That's a band-aid on a wound that will never heal.

Alan Paton said, "There is a hard law... when an injury is done to us we never recover until we forgive." To forgive is neither to excuse nor to anesthetize ourselves from the pain that attends life and love, but rather it's the challenge to reenter life and continue the journey. True forgiveness is the door to peace and happiness. It's a small and narrow door, one we cannot enter without stooping at times. It is also hard to find. However, no matter how long the search, it can be found!

It is time for us as a community to work on forgiveness, a forgiveness that is etched in our hearts; a forgiveness that empowers us to stay the course despite the hateful rhetoric and hateful behavior of a few. The forgiveness that we need to embrace will empower us to work harder for justice, respect and tolerance for all.

The larger Hispanic community of Patchogue is a powerful example of this call to forgiveness. I have been fortunate to work in the Patchogue community for more than 20 years as a Roman Catholic priest. I have seen firsthand the compassion and forgiveness within this community. Even though the landscape has been infected with rhetoric that is hateful and divisive, the Hispanic community with a loud voice has called for unity, peace and justice. At the vigil before Marcello Lucero s funeral, his grieving mother by way of a phone call encouraged everyone to realize that we are all human beings and need to be treated with respect!

The misguided seven need to be forgiven, but also held totally accountable for their despicable behavior. The great tragedy of this horrible act of violence would be to just cosmetically address the issues of disrespect and intolerance within the larger community.

We need to begin a conversation with our children about hate, discrimination and intolerance. We also need to speak about unconditional forgiveness and the need for all of us to give voice to what is right by the power of our example. That could be the greatest gift we could give this holiday season.