By Jody McDevitt, a resident of Billings, Montana
In a small town in Northern Ireland, surrounded by farmland where sheep and cows graze the green hills and valleys, the story of Billings, Montana is gaining an important audience. Northern Ireland was known in the second half of the twentieth century as a place of sectarian conflict, widely called the “Troubles,” in which a Protestant majority with British political allegiances (Loyalists) clashed with a Catholic minority with an Irish cultural identity (Republicans). The peace process which was set in place in 1998 has resulted in greatly reduced violence and significantly increased prosperity for this small country–and for the first time, opened the country to migrant workers from other parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
The town retained its Loyalist identity throughout the “Troubles,” but recently a trickle of new immigrants has exposed a reactionary element. Polish and Lithuanian workers seeking employment were threatened by graffiti and run out of town. A Zimbabwean woman found Ku Klux Klan graffiti on her home. A Bulgarian pizza shop owner experienced a series of harassing events. Windows of the shop were broken, a building next to his shop was burned, his family cars were torched in front of his home in a nearby village, and finally his shop was burned out. When he left town, word spread in the community that the man was a pedophile, and that the violence was a directed at this. These rumors were later proven to be unfounded. The links between these anti-immigrant attacks and more familiar sectarianism became clear when violent graffiti appeared on the door of the Catholic church. Some in the community began to speak publicly about putting an end to the intimidation and bullying, sparking another graffiti message: “This is not a hate crime.”
The community Peace Group, made of representatives from area churches, turned to outside resources for help. Leaders of the Corrymeela Community, a Christian community of reconciliation in Northern Ireland with many years of experience in peacemaking and community relations work, suggested The Working Group’s “Not In Our Town” video. Members of the Peace Group screened it first and saw potential in their community for a similar united response to the hate crimes. They asked the ministers of their churches to watch the film, who then agreed that a community viewing and discussion were in order. The proposed event was publicized in the churches and community, and on a stormy night in late November about 70 people gathered in the Presbyterian Church in the heart of the town to see and discuss the film and begin a process for uniting against hate on behalf of their neighbors of all backgrounds.
It is important to remember the Northern Irish context of this story, for all who gathered in that church hall have lived for more than 30 years in a society dominated by the random violence and intimidation of paramilitary groups claiming to represent the opposing sides of sectarian conflict. The positive model of standing in solidarity with neighbors, which the city of Billings demonstrated, is a refreshing alternative to the silence of fear or the defensiveness of apathy which continue to dominate communities in Northern Ireland. While the wind blew fiercely and rain pelted the roof of the church, the room buzzed with energy and renewed commitment to stand together against hatred and bigotry. Police officers, ministers of all the community’s churches, the community relations officer from the local district council, and ordinary community members agreed that a strategy is needed to make their town a welcoming place to live and work. Ideas being discussed include opening the discussion in the schools, local council, and other community forums.
“Not in our town,” the people of this small town are learning to say to hate crimes and violence against neighbors. Peace-loving community leaders are hopeful that instead of hostility, newcomers of all backgrounds and identities will receive the traditional greeting of warm Irish hospitality, “You are very welcome here.”