"Where Change Can Take Place"
[Monday, February 3, 2014]
The town of Rutledge had voted
to accept a hundred Syrian refugees,
and Ibrahim Khaled had agreed to come
with his sons Darwish and Nadir, bringing
whoever else he could entice to Vermont.
That was the easy part. Rutledge
still had to prepare for the refugees,
who would arrive here in April.
Mayor Theodore Castle wrapped up
his official day of work at City Hall, then
went downstairs to the multipurpose room
that now had a block of time every evening
for volunteers to work on the Syrian project.
Theodore found a crowd already there,
with Everline organizing things gracefully.
"How's it going?" Theodore asked her.
"We're off to a good start," Everline said.
"Irene's team is taking up donations of cash
and clothing to make capsule wardrobes.
Gideon's team is working out how to sort
the refugees into the available housing.
Francis' team is developing a range
of trauma care resources for them."
"So there's three basic needs in
good hands," Theodore said.
"What about the food supply?"
"Hawthorn is filling out the forms
so we can get halal boxes delivered
from My Diet," said Everline. "Meanwhile,
Katie brought over a bunch of people from
the Muslim Men's Group and Women's Group.
They're listing local suppliers of halal groceries
and figuring out how to approach shopkeepers."
Then sharp voices snagged his attention.
Theodore looked over to see several folks
hovering near two clusters of Muslims.
"That is meant to be a business hotel.
I'm just saying if you put them all there, then
nobody will be comfortable," Constance said.
"Certainly not if you keep talking like that,"
Gideon snapped. "Get out of our hair."
"The decision is made, Constance,"
said Theodore. "Going out of your way
to make people uncomfortable is rude."
"We're just trying to stop anyone
from making preventable mistakes,"
said Peter Pettee, who was the pastor
at Cross on the Mountain Catholic Church.
"Oh, I know exactly what you're doing,
Father Pettee. If you keep trying to derail
the arrangements, I am going to call
the National Hate Crimes Office,"
Theodore warned. "Both of you go
home, people are working here."
"I'm a priest! I have a right
to look after my flock and keep
them safe," Father Pettee protested.
Ramon Temple looked up. "Sometimes
a Bible in the hands of one man can
be more dangerous than a gun in
the hands of another," he murmured.
"And a servant of Satan is worst
of all!" Father Pettee said.
"Enough," Theodore said,
stepping between them and
urging the priest toward the door.
"Leave now, or I will have you
arrested for disturbing the peace.
Constance, that goes for you too."
Both of them huffed and grumbled,
but at least they walked away.
"It's okay, Theodore, I'm
used to it," Ramon said.
"You shouldn't have to get
used to it," Theodore protested.
"This is your town too. I'm sorry
that it hasn't been more welcoming."
As hard as they tried to attract
new residents, that wouldn't do
any good if people picked on
the few that they got.
"I didn't come here for
welcome," Ramon said.
"I just wanted a quiet place
to raise some goats in peace.
I thought folks would be willing
to do business, though, and
for the most part they aren't."
Theodore looked at him.
Ramon was one of the few
who had actually dressed up for
this meeting in a black button-up shirt
and slacks. The only spot of color
was the scarlet tie which had
a black pentacle at the tip.
Theodore really needed
to have some sharp words
with the Chamber of Commerce.
Just because Ramon was a Satanist
didn't make it okay to ostracize him.
"If the devil is nicer than the church folks,
then we've got a problem," Theodore muttered.
"In my experience, that's always how it is,"
Ramon said. "Why do you think I became
a Satanist in the first place? They're safer."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Katie.
"Religious intolerance is rough."
"Well, maybe people will
come around," Theodore said.
"I offered to help finance
the new business incubator,"
Ramon said. "It's a good idea.
One reason we moved here is
exactly what they're pitching --
cheap housing for computer work
that could be done from anywhere."
"What did they say?" Theodore asked.
"I know they need some startup cash."
"Fred won't touch me with a ten-foot pole,
not even for my money," Ramon said.
"Oscar seems more reasonable."
"Have you decided what you're going
to do about it?" Theodore asked.
Ramon shrugged. "Wait and
see who wins the argument."
"Good idea," Gideon said.
"I use that technique a lot."
"Listen, if you need more space,
or people just want a quieter place
than a hotel, let me know," said Ramon.
"The farmhouse may be a bit tatty, but
we've got a bunkroom with four beds that
hardly gets used. We have way more farm
than we need, because that's what was
available when we came looking for one."
"Thank you, Ramon, that's very generous,"
said Theodore. "You're not usually one
to get involved in things like this, though.
Why are you going out of your way to help?"
"Because I know what it's like to be hated
for who I am," Ramon whispered. "It's horrible.
Nobody should have to deal with that."
Theodore winced. "I agree," he said.
"Look, I may not share your religion,
but you're a decent guy and people
shouldn't be treating you that way."
"I'd rather be hated for who I am
than loved for who I am not,"
Ramon said. "That's why I
bailed out of my birth family."
"Well, I'm glad you and Wesley
are friends," Theodore said.
"I just hoped that you could
make some more here."
"Yeah, me too," Ramon said.
"Maybe I'll have better luck with
the Syrians. I wanted to talk
with the food planners tonight."
There were eight of them gathered
to work on the refugee requirements,
clustered around two different tables.
Adam Davis, a psychology professor
over at the College of St. Joseph, led
the Muslim Men's Group. Abuzar Kabir,
an Indian immigrant, belonged to
a nonprofit that taught diversity skills.
Two boys came from Middlebury College,
Mirwaf Elmahdy in Global Studies and
Omar Chalabi in Arabic linguistics.
The men were listing halal foods
available in various grocery stores.
The leader of the Women's Group,
Alleyah, was Adam's daughter.
She and the Rohingya girl,
Shenden Ahammed, attended
the College of St. Joseph.
The other two had carpooled
from Middlebury College.
Tahira Hairston majored
in Black Studies while
Zaynabou Gumi was
taking Gender Studies.
The girls were listing stores
that didn't carry anything halal.
"Can you folks spare someone
to chat with Ramon?" said Theodore.
"We need all the help we can get."
"We're almost done with our list,"
said Alleyah. "We can cover him.
What do you need, Mr. Temple?"
"Ramon, please, no need to be
so formal," said the farmer. "I raise
goats. I sell enough to get by, but
not as many as I'd like. I know that
Muslims eat goat meat and have
special dietary rules, but that's it.
What makes a goat halal?"
"My family used to raise goats
in Nigeria, so I'll take this one,"
said Zaynabou. "Animals must
be lawful to eat, as goats are.
Then they must be slaughtered
by a Muslim in the proper way,
speaking the name of Allah."
"So I could just sell my goats
to a Muslim butcher and then
we'd be good?" Ramon said.
Adam sighed. "The closest one
is in Montpelier, but Burlington
is more direct because the
interstate goes right there."
"That's ... inconvenient, but
not impossible," Ramon said.
"Maybe we can get one
to come here," Theodore said.
"Now there's an idea!" Adam said,
grinning. "We're trying to promote
what the immigrants can do for
the locals. Bringing new services
would benefit everyone here."
"Yeah, I heard we're getting
a new doctor," Ramon said.
"That should help quite a bit."
"Meanwhile, we can buy goats
from you and slaughter them
at home," said Abuzar. "We
used to do that in India."
"Yeah, anyone can process
meat for private use, you
just can't sell it commercially
without proper training and
a licensed facility," said Ramon.
"Oh, and feed," said Zaynabou.
"I almost forgot that. Animals
may not eat filth, or any part
of the unclean animals."
Ramon laughed. "No, no,
my goats eat leaves and bark,
not commercial feed full of
who knows what!" he said.
"I didn't come to Vermont so
I could feed them junk food, I
came here for the cheap bush."
Theodore recalled that the farm
had been used for timber, and was
now mostly scrub with a couple of
fields and some patchy sugarbush.
The goats loved it, mowing through
the meadows and climbing over
rock piles and wooden towers.
"I've seen the place," he said.
"It's like a goat paradise."
"Oh, it could be halal-tayyib!"
Adam said. "That's good."
"Do not start that again,"
Abuzar grumbled. "All that
is halal is good enough."
"Peace, brother," Adam said,
patting the air. "We don't need
to argue among ourselves."
"What does that other part
mean?" Ramon asked.
"Halal means lawful, and
tayyib means ethical,"
Adam translated. "So
halal-tayyib is healthy
and sustainable food."
"Muslims share basic rules,
but the interpretations can
differ a lot," Alleyah said.
"We try not to fight about it."
"Hey, I just raise the goats,"
Ramon said. "I wanted
to know if the Syrians might
make a new market for me."
"They will," Abuzar said.
"I'll ask Ibrahim to sketch out
what type or types of Muslims
he's bringing here, and what
their dietary details will be,"
Theodore said, making
a note on his smartphone.
"People won't mind that
I'm a Satanist?" Ramon said.
"Because that's a sticking point
for a lot of folks around here."
Adam grimaced. "We'd prefer
otherwise, but you're entitled to
your own path, and you don't
hassle us," he said. "I won't
lie to you, though -- you're
never going to compete
against a Muslim farmer."
"That's okay, I prefer to buy
from other Satanists when I can,"
Ramon said. "Of course you'd
want to support your own too."
"You won't have much competition,"
Adam said. "The nearest I know
of is way up in Morrisville."
"No, there's a brother running
sheep in Springfield," Tahira said.
"I have relatives down there who
buy their meat from his farm."
"Well, that's encouraging,"
said Ramon. "Do I need to do
anything special with my farm?"
"It would be better not to raise
pigs or dogs there, because they
make things unclean," said Adam.
"That is not required, though."
"Yeah, no, Wesley and I are
both allergic to dogs," said Ramon.
"We keep chickens but no pigs."
The college boys murmured to
each other, then leaned forward.
"Chicken can be halal too,"
said Mirwaf. "They grow
faster than goats do."
"Yeah, you could expand
your business," Omar said.
"No, we've got our hands full
already." Ramon shook his head.
"I raise the goats and help Wesley
with the computer programming.
We've got a couple dozen birds
and couldn't handle much more."
"Maybe someone else can
step in with chickens, though,"
said Theodore. "You're not
the only person raising those."
"True, and pigs aren't all that
popular around here," said Ramon.
"Jeremah Walker runs a herd over at
Woolly Ridge Farm, but that's about it."
"Oh, shit," Gideon said, looking alarmed.
"What about my hotel? People have
probably put bacon in everything."
All the Muslims flinched.
After a moment, though,
Adam rallied. "Anything
portable can be replaced --
slow cookers, electric skillets,
that sort of thing. Stoves and
other fixed appliances can be
cleaned and purified by ritual."
"I want to help, but I don't
know if I can afford all that,"
Gideon admitted. He poked
at his laptop, frowning. "I'm
lucky if I break even instead
of losing money all the time."
"We will make another fund,"
Shenden said, writing on
a pad of paper. "This one
will go toward ensuring that
kitchens in the hotel units
are safe for halal cooking."
"Right, first it should cover hiring
a halal inspector to certify that
the kitchens are pure," said Adam.
"Then it can go toward portables."
"This feels just like Ramadan,"
Tahira said. "Some places put out
catalogs of vouchers for zakat then.
You can shop for your favorite causes."
"I will look into that," said Abuzar.
"Perhaps we can use such vouchers
to encourage generosity here."
"We can gather some volunteers
to purify the kitchens," said Alleyah.
"Then it won't cost as much to do."
"If we collect small appliances, then
each family could choose one, starting
with the largest groups," Shenden said.
"Thanks," Gideon said fervently.
"I'm embarrassed that I didn't
think of this sooner, but then I
didn't know much about halal.
I'm glad that this came up now
instead of after people arrived!"
"Me too," said Theodore. "I don't
know much about Muslims, but
I'm trying to learn. I want to take
good care of our new neighbors."
"I can chip in for small appliances,"
Ramon offered. "Wesley and I are
geeks, we know all about what kind of
countertop cookware works or not."
"Thank you, that's very generous,"
said Adam. "We appreciate it."
At least they weren't accusing
Ramon of ulterior motives the way
the church folks often did. They
just gave him credit for being nice.
"Syrians aren't just Muslims, though,"
said Ramon. "Wesley and I looked it up.
"There are Christians, Druze, and so on."
"I know," said Theodore. "We're getting
some Christians; Ibrahim already found
one family of them to join us. They don't
need special food, though, like Muslims do."
"True," Ramon said. "We figured that ...
there might be atheists or Satanists
or other oddballs in the mix, and
who's going to take care of them?
So Wesley and I wanted in."
Theodore and Adam stared
at each other for a moment.
"I doubt there would be
followers of the Adversary,"
Adam said, shaking his head.
"Maybe not, but there are atheists
in every war zone," Ramon said.
"Some people find comfort in faith,
but others lose their faith. They
deserve support too, so I promised
to help Wesley with his people."
"He's not wrong," Theodore said,
trying to be diplomatic. "I will ask
Ibrahim if there are other religions
among the people that he gathers,
in case any have special needs."
"Why not put Katie on it?" said Omar.
"She knows all that interfaith stuff."
Katie, who had been working on
something with her laptop, came
when Omar waved to her.
"What do you need?" she said
as she sat down at the table.
"We need some help setting up
interfaith services in case we get
Syrians who aren't Muslims or
Christians that already have
support groups," said Omar.
"Ramon and Wesley have
volunteered to help but
they can't do it all alone."
"All right, I can provide a hub
for that," said Katie. "I'm glad for
the opportunity to show hospitality
better than Cross on the Mountain."
Theodore grimaced. "Please don't
judge all Christians by that example."
"Besides, that's not hospitality,"
said Ramon. "That's just zealotry.
They like using rules to hurt people."
"How do you figure that?" Katie said.
"Hospitality means creating free space
where the stranger can enter and become
a friend instead of an enemy," Ramon said.
"Hospitality is not to change people, but
to offer them space where change can
take place. It is not to bring men and
women over to our side, but to offer
freedom undisturbed by dividing lines."
"Well said," Theodore praised. Maybe
if he showed his approval more, it would
help make up for the mistrustful neighbors
and even more awful relatives in Ramon's life.
"We should make that our mission statement
for welcoming the Syrian refugees here."
"So noted," Everline said, copying it
onto her laptop. "I thought about
intervening when the conflict came up,
because Cross on the Mountain has
been stirring trouble with a stick,
but you folks damped it right down."
"This is our town," Theodore said.
"I won't have anyone filling it up
with hate, even sugar-coated hate.
Maybe especially not that."
Katie patted him on the shoulder.
"See, that's what makes this a town
where change can take place."
"If you're wondering why I
stay here," Ramon said,
"well ... that's why."
Theodore couldn't ask for
a better endorsement than that.
* * *
This poem is long, so its notes appear elsewhere.