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A table for 350, please: Longer Table event draws people together in Hudson

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Hanadi Chehabeddine and Naaima Khan speak with Rev. Barb De Souza from United Methodist Church in River Falls about talking with her adult education class about Islam. "I think (the conversations) are vital," De Souza said. "Our country is going through a divisive time." Jackie Renzetti / Rivertown Multimedia2 / 7
Chalk art in multiple languages at the "Longer Table." Jackie Renzetti / Rivertown Multimedia3 / 7
Child attendees play with the rainbow parachute at the Longer Table event in Hudson's Lakefront Park Sunday, Aug. 5. Jackie Renzetti / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 7
Celia Olson, 18, walked up and down the 160-foot table area playing violin at Hudson's Longer Table event Sunday, AUg. 5 in Lakefront Park. Jackie Renzetti / RiverTown Multimedia5 / 7
Bob Kobylarczyk, who is in his 70s and said he has lived in Hudson for 45 years, said he wants to know his neighbors better. Here he peruses food selections at Hudson's Longer Table event Sunday, Aug. 5. Jackie Renzetti / RiverTown Multimedia6 / 7
Darla Meyers handed out brochures calling for Christians to speak out against Islam near Lakefront Park Sunday, Aug. 5, and white roses, which she said were a reference to the White Rose resistance in Nazi Germany. Jackie Renzetti / RiverTown Multimedia7 / 7

HUDSON — Seated around a stretch of picnic tables spanning over 160 feet, more than 350 people shared potato salad and stories at Hudson's Lakefront Park Sunday.

The event, hosted by the Hudson Inclusion Alliance, was designed as an opportunity for people to build stronger ties with area residents and discuss ways to make Hudson — a town of 12,700 which is 95 percent white per U.S. census data — more inclusive, said HIA co-leader Tony Bol. Attendees were encouraged to bring a shareable dish and sit with those they didn't know. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., people gave 15-second shout-outs to hits like the jalapeno artichoke dip and the peach-rhubarb pie, decorated the sidewalk in chalk, played music and spoke with local government representatives, including several members of Hudson Common Council and Mayor Rich O'Connor.

"May the food we share nourish our bodies, may our time together nourish our hearts, and may the connections we make today strengthen the fabric of our community so that all will know Hudson as a warm and welcoming place," HIA co-leader John Ramstad said in his opening remarks.

Between learning zumba dance and chowing down on oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, attendees shared their thoughts on community relationships in Hudson.

"(The Longer Table) is a complete success," said Petrona Melgarejo, who has shared in previous interviews and at a Common Council meeting accounts of anti-immigrant language in Hudson. "It refreshes my heart to see that people are tolerant of people and appreciate coming together regardless of who they are or what they look like."

Bob Kobylarczyk, who is in his 70s and has lived in Hudson for 45 years, said he has seen relationships between neighbors weaken over time, adding that he probably knows about half the people on his block.

"There are misunderstandings that can pop up when people don't want to relate," he said. "We wouldn't have nearly all the disagreements we have if people could understand different cultures ... How do you know what you have in common if you don't talk with these people?"

The event drew Muslim Americans from across the St. Croix River in Minnesota, who spoke of the impact of having a welcoming event hosted in Hudson — which has seen a spike in anti-Muslim language spread through pamphlets, speeches at public meetings from residents and online content over the last year and a half.

"Now that we're in Afton, Hudson is right in our backyard," said Naaima Khan, who serves on the boards of the Twin Cities-based Islamic Resource Group and the Eastern Twin Cities Islamic Center, which recently opened a mosque in Afton. "We really see Hudson Inclusion Alliance and similar efforts as supplementing our work. We can only do so much as an organization ... If you're talking about building bridges, you need something on the other side to come meet you."

Hanadi Chehabeddine, who works as a public speaker on Islam and as a diversity consultant, also came from Minnesota.

"I am so happy to see the Hudson community reaching out to Muslims, saying, we want to put a face and a name to Muslims. We don't want them to just be the 'other' or 'them.' Now it's 'Hanadi,'" she said.

In addition to a stamp of approval from the YMCA, several local organizations supported the event with supplies, including Bethel Lutheran Church, which loaned tables and chairs, and Little Free Libraries, which supplied 200 free books.

"I truly believe that the 'Y' can be a centerpiece of the community," Hudson YMCA executive director Chris Kost said of his decision to support the event. "We want our community to grow stronger together ... We want to see how we can all live together peacefully in our community."

'This is America'

Darla Meyers, one of the organizers for the group Citizens for the St. Croix Valley, which has expressed its stance against Islam at Common Council meetings and on the web, passed out white roses and pamphlets with content including calls for Christians to "speak out against Islam."

The flowers were in reference to the White Rose resistance, which was a nonviolent movement in Germany against Nazis, Meyers said.

After an attendee called the police, an officer briefly visited and established that Meyers could continue handing out her materials at the park outside the boundaries of the event, for which HIA had a permit.

"Someone called and asked for someone to be removed from the park for expressing a different viewpoint. We could not do that as it was peaceful, non-threatening, and nonviolent," said Police Chief Geoff Willems in an email.

"Citizens for the St. Croix Valley is an educational group that is promoting, supporting, and trying to uphold the Constitution of the United States, which is the supreme law of the land ... Islamic and Sharia Law usurp the Constitution," Meyers said at the event. "We want to pray to God and the Holy Trinity for the victims of rape, sex slavery, honor killings, female genital mutilation and executions under Islamic Sharia law (sic). And that's why we exist."

Meyers' statements reflect common misconceptions about Islam, Chehabeddine said, adding she hopes such beliefs can be changed through conversations.

"I wouldn't take it against her in any way," she said. "The main misconception is (that) what people (think) Sharia law is is different from what Muslims know about Sharia law."

A more accurate term for Sharia or Islamic law is Islamic legislation, Chehabeddine said. This term refers to religious guidelines on contemporary issues set by Muslim scholars and experts, which are based on the Quran and the teachings of Muhammad.

Chehabeddine said that the issues Meyers mentioned need contextualization and an understanding of which country they are being applied in and whether those laws are triggered by the religion itself.

"It's important to point out that there are a lot of injustices being done in Muslim-populated countries ... Whether they are done in the name of religion or not, is the issue. This is what we need to discuss. What does Islam say about honor killings? There is no such thing about permissible honor killing in Islam."

In addition, the values of Islam — including the freedom of religion, of happiness, of security, of intellect, and of possession — do not conflict with the Constitution, she said.

"The religion obliges committed Muslims to abide by the laws of the country they live in," she said.

Chehabeddine stressed the importance of boosting Muslim voices and talking with Muslim experts rather than spreading misconceptions.

"In a democracy, there needs to be conversation," she said. "This has got to end. Really, this is America. This has got to end."

Earlier this year, the SPLC added Citizens for the St. Croix Valley to its national map of hate groups, citing its anti-Muslim conspiracy theories promoted at public meetings, letters to the editor in the Hudson Star-Observer and on the group's social media and websites.

Meyers has since said that this characterization is defamatory. She has also said at multiple Common Council meetings that the SPLC is a hate group.

Moving forward

Elizabeth, whose last name has been withheld under special circumstances, said she decided to attend the potluck after first hearing about it at church and reading about the inclusion discussions in the Hudson Star-Observer. Upon discovering the anti-Muslim rhetoric in the area, she said, she wanted to become more involved with inclusion efforts.

She arrived at the event with some potato salad, where she was greeted by Meyers and handed a pamphlet.

"We're at a pivotal point in our political history right now," Elizabeth said afterwards. "I believe the best antidote to hate speech is more speech."

Bol had said in a previous interview that he hoped the event would spark more awareness among residents about the importance of proactively building an inclusive community.

"We're trying to mobilize the moderate middle," he said. "We're inviting people that are coming down on either side of the political fence that care about communities and embrace diversity."

Khan, from the Islamic Resource Group and the Eastern Twin Cities Islamic Center, said that the "Longer Table" event was an example of an effective way to counter intolerance.

"You're basically saying, hey look, we have this vision of a really great, integrated, diverse society. And we're moving forward with it. So you can either come and sign on, or you can stay where you are," she said.

With a strong collective understanding of what it means to include all, communities can make more progress towards concrete changes, such as supporting representation of people of color in government, she said.

"From the perspective of a person of color, there is a lot of work to be done (in all communities)...in order to build that intercultural competency," she said. "But I think the very first step in that is coming together and recognizing the common goal. I think this event is really loud and clear about that goal, which is to be an inclusive community for everybody."