Community Prayer Vigil

A hymn is sung

at the Community Prayer Vigil for Refugees in Billings Tuesday.

BILLINGS -- Helena wasn’t the only city in Montana that took part in a rally or prayer vigil Tuesday as part of the “Stand Against Violence Fear and Hate” Day of Action.

A variety of faiths and organizations in Billings, Missoula, Kalispell and Bozeman also joined together to speak up for refugees and condemn prejudice toward any specific faith or culture. It’s part of a broader attempt by the Montana faith community to support refugees and minority religions.

The effort is partially in response to anti-refugee, anti-Muslim activities and sentiment around the state, said Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network.

“So many people were emailing and calling and reaching out and saying we feel like we need to do more,” Rivas said in a telephone interview from Helena. “After you get enough of those, you think ‘all right, it's time to do more.’ ”

It’s time, she said, to let others know that concerned people are coming from a place of compassion, standing up for those who are being targeted.

“There are times when you can’t be quiet,” Rivas said. “This is a time not to be silent in our opposition to the hate.”

Rivas pointed to anti-refugee, anti-Muslim rallies that have taken place in Missoula and Helena. A Feb. 24 rally in Missoula brought about 100 people together to protest attempts to resurrect a refugee relocation center agency in the city.

Rivas also mentioned a letter written by the Ravalli County Commission opposing the settlement of Syrian refugees in Ravalli County. The commission approved a modified version of the letter after it held a town meeting in Hamilton that drew an estimated 500 people, many who were in favor of the letter.

“Then up on the Flathead, there is a group, Act for America, that has a chapter,” she said. “They have been doing events for over a year, and that group is particularly anti-Muslim.”

Rivas was pleased to see Tuesday's rallies drawing strong support from the state’s faith community.

“That’s no surprise to us, and I think that’s an important part of the conversation, she said. “Religious freedom and the ability to practice the faith of your choosing is foundational to our country.”

Julie Cahill, one of the founders of Soft Landing Missoula, the organization that is working toward setting up the refugee relocation center, said Soft Landing was the catalyst for the march and prayer vigil. But 28 groups altogether sponsored the event Tuesday night.

It is being held in a “spirit of openness and warmth,” Cahill said, to support refugees in every way possible.

Soft Landing Missoula is a group of citizens, business owners, nonprofits and others who have come together with a goal of opening the city’s arms and hearts in sustainable ways to refugees, Cahill said. Montana and Wyoming and two of the only states that don’t have that infrastructure in place, to help with the relocation process.

“We’ve seen this uptick of angry and sometimes scary, violent rhetoric toward refugees and immigrants,” she said. “We want to support them, and we believe that’s a really important part of our mission with the refugee relocation center.”

Paige Rappleye, a Love Lives Here organizer in Kalispell, an affiliate of the Montana Human Rights Network, said her group was formed nearly 10 years ago to speak out against anti-Semitic groups.

“They were showing some Holocaust denial films at our library and we had a rally of 200-plus people who came together to have a peaceful protest,” Rappleye said.

The Flathead Valley tends to be conservative, she said, and it draws pro-white groups that want to keep out people of color and of other nationalities. She has also seen a wave of anti-Native American sentiment flow through the area.

“My grandmother was raised in Montana,” she said. “And I like to think we’re just better than that here. We are not hate-mongers; there are plenty of people not like that here, and I would like to show a better face.”

Rappleye called Love Lives Here a kind of watchdog organization that keeps an eye on any kind of hate activity in the area. It also rallied for the passage of a nondiscrimination ordinance in Kalispell.

The group organized a rally for downtown Kalispell that will include clergy, students and others in the community. She asked her two teenage children also to come to the event.

She told them to picture what it would be like to be a youth from a war-torn country who has lost home and family and, after going through a long process, was assigned to come to the U.S.

“Getting off a boat would be horrifying, with screaming Americans not wanting you here,” she told them. “I think as Americans we can do better. Certainly, that’s my goal.”

Sarah Krumm, who is helping organize a peace vigil in Bozeman, said it’s important for people who stand on different sides of the refugee issue be able to hold a civil and compassionate conversation about it.

“We can talk about disagreements while moving toward being a welcoming community,” she said.

Clergy from different faiths planned to gather Tuesday, including those of the Muslim and Jewish religions. And even though Bozeman hasn’t seen the same level of protests that other parts of the state have, Krumm said, the ripple reaches far beyond.

“We’re a small state and when something like that happens a few hours away, it affects us here,” she said.

The faith response to the refugee crisis goes beyond Tuesday night’s rallies. In December Montana’s two Catholic bishops released a statement regarding the Syrian refugee crisis.

“Consistent with our history and mission, the Catholic Church in Montana will seek ways to assist incoming refugees and those who are in desperate need of assistance,” the bishops wrote.

On Tuesday, Matt Brower, executive director of the Montana Catholic Conference, said he has had people approach him with questions about refugees entering the U.S. He points out that with the vetting process that helps insure the safety of citizens, “it makes sense to respond to the needs of refugees.”

It may be, he added, that few if any Syrian refugees will be directed to Montana for resettlement. But if they come, they should be welcomed, he said.

“These are people of whatever religious background who are part of the common human family and are equal in dignity,” Brower said. “They deserve help anyway we can provide it.”

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