'Walk out': Willmar church stands in solidarity with refugees
WILLMAR -- As national news organizations broadcast live footage of protests around the country Sunday afternoon, members of Willmar's Unitarian Universalist Church staged a protest of their own. Walking in a straight line out the doors of their ...
WILLMAR - As national news organizations broadcast live footage of protests around the country Sunday afternoon, members of Willmar's Unitarian Universalist Church staged a protest of their own.
Walking in a straight line out the doors of their church on Fifth Street Southwest, near downtown Willmar, they gripped bright yellow signs. "Love Trumps hate." "Standing on the side of love." "Were your ancestors allowed to immigrate?"
Like sister protests nationwide, the church hoped to show its opposition to President Donald Trump's executive order issued Friday banning immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries, and solidarity with immigrant community members in Willmar who were affected by the ban.
"This is an especially important time to show our belief in social justice right here in Willmar," said David Moody, congregation president. "We oppose this kind of religious discrimination, and we're proud to stand with our Muslim neighbors in opposition to that discrimination."
Approximately 20 people walked from the church to the Somali-owned Bihi's Restaurant downtown, and sat down at tables and bright red booths for coffee and conversation.
Trump's executive order indefinitely banned Muslim immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States, affecting travel for legal U.S. residents with green cards and people with dual citizenship.
Proponents, like U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, have praised the ban as a way to block "potential terrorists" from entering the country. But opponents, like U.S. Sen. Al Franken, called the ban "possibly, very probably, unconstitutional" for targeting religion and country of origin.
The people who gathered at Bihi's on Sunday agreed with Franken. A television behind the counter was set to CNN, showing large crowds of protesters.
"As a community elder, I'm very happy that you guys have come to express your solidarity," Mohamed Abdi told the group, through translator Elmi Mohamed. "Terrorists have no faith. Evil people have no faith. Anyone from any community can be a bad person or a good person."
Only a handful of people were inside the restaurant around 1 p.m., when church members first arrived. But the crowd inside steadily grew as the minutes passed. People walked in the door, saw the signs, and eagerly waved hello with big smiles.
After a half an hour, over 40 people packed the restaurant, half church members and half East African community members. Every seat was taken.
"We are a team. We are one nation. We are here together," a Somali man chimed in as he left the restaurant.
Marilee Dorn offered the church's assistance to anyone who may have been affected by the ban.
"I talk to your kids all the time, I'm a substitute teacher," Dorn said. "And I know how scared the kids are. And not just the Muslim kids, but the kids from Central America and Mexico, too."
One man said relatives of a Willmar family had been detained at a Dallas airport over the weekend but were released with the help of human rights lawyers. They were set to arrive back in Willmar Sunday night, he said.
"When they arrive here... you can have a conversation, and talk to them," Mohamed said.
The location for the walkout was intentionally chosen, Moody said. Not only is the restaurant a common gathering place for the community members they wanted to support, but it was also historically a gathering place for political discussion in Willmar as the Town Talk Cafe.
The church itself is also no stranger to political discourse. When eight female employees of the Citizens National Bank in Willmar went on strike on December 16, 1977, protesting sex discrimination, the eight organized the strike at the same Unitarian Universalist Church in Willmar.
"It is very important to our church that we stand up and work for social justice," Kay Slama said.
Sunday was intended to be a more casual kind of political demonstration.
"We were there to be a friend," Moody said. "That, we accomplished."
The city of Willmar was also mentioned at a statewide Sunday event organized in opposition to the executive order: a press conference in St. Paul hosted by Sens. Franken and Amy Klobuchar.
Franken mentioned Willmar as a positive example of America's diversity.
Willmar High School 2016 graduate Muna Abdulahi, Franken's former U.S. Senate page, was chosen as one of Willmar's class speakers at her graduation, which Franken attended. Her sister, Anisa Abdulahi, was voted Willmar's 2016 homecoming queen.
"That is our country. That is the strength of our country," Franken said. "Here, you're an American when you're a refugee. And we vote you homecoming queen."