Snow crunched under my boots as I paced the sidewalk. Valarie was finally here! It had been 8 years since I last met her in person and up close. She gave me a great hug before we trekked back to the Curry Student Center to drop off her bag and begin her Master Class as the opening to the New England Interfaith Student Summit.
Valarie captivated everyone’s attention immediately. She also helped participants feel like they could be vulnerable in a group of 35 others-as we learned to tell our own stories for movement building, I witnessed several soul-baring moments. Moments of shame, of fear, of knowing acutely how different one felt from everyone around them because of their queer identity. We learned together how these moments blossomed into activists and teachers and interfaith leaders.
I fell in love with the students I serve all over again. After a snow day that cancelled our planned Keynote Address with Valarie just the day before, they committed to each other to make the day a success. They treated every participant and staff person with kindness and jumped at opportunities to be helpful. A few students ate their lunch with Valarie, and offered some of the most poignant wisdom and relevant questions for leaders and activists at this time. “What is the boundary I am allowed to set when it comes to engaging with people who do not agree that my humanity is sacred?” “How do we actually take time for self-care, and what does it look like?” “Who are the MLK and Gandhi’s of OUR generation- the folx that understand the context in which we struggle?” I scribbled notes furiously.
After lunch Valarie planned to show snippets of her first film, Divided We Fall, and take questions. “What if instead, we show the Public Radio International video of Rana and me calling Frank Roque?” She asked me. This is a 30-minute video of Valarie and her Uncle Rana calling the man who murdered Rana’s brother Balbir Singh Sodhi four days after 9/11 in Phoenix, Arizona. This man’s act of violence is what broke Valarie’s heart and made her an activist and filmmaker- the first hate crime against Muslims or Sikhs after the towers fell. Balbir was killed because of the turban he wore on his head, and the beard he kept long as a sign of his faith. The murderer’s name is Frank Roque. He has been sentenced to life in prison.
“I want to know the audience’s reactions. I’ve never seen the video in full.”
I loaded up the video in the crowded workshop room. About 20 of us watched Valarie and Uncle Rana sitting in Rana’s kitchen, speaking to Frank. Valarie holds the cellphone so Rana can listen and respond. I hear Frank say he “couldn’t help” what happened, that he had experienced a mental breakdown. I watch Valarie’s frustration but miraculous ability to stay calm. Rana listens politely, and when he does speak, pours love out from his heart into the phone. He tells Frank that he, Rana, already forgave him, that he sends love to Frank’s wife and daughter, that if he had the power- he would release him from prison. I have watched this video three times, and each time my eyes cannot help but respond to this with tears, in awe of the grace Rana bestows on Frank.
About halfway through the video, Frank tells Rana that he never forgot Balbir’s name. But it isn’t until almost the end that Frank addresses Rana using his name instead of “his brother.” “Rana,” he says, “I am sorry.” Finally, I thought. A tiny transformation. Frank has finally started to humanize the person whose life he destroyed, who still lives in pain and suffering yet loves without chains.
One audience member spoke about feeling dissatisfied with the conversation. “Frank isn’t there,” he said. “He didn’t ask you (Valarie) or Rana any questions, and he didn’t seem to fully admit his harm.” We agreed. In my reflecting on NEISS as a whole, I believe it is necessary that we remain deeply dissatisfied AND recognize the tiny transformations. This is Practivism, the ability to believe our work, our suffering, our struggle is working even when we cannot see it.
Don’t tell us to calm down, for we are angry.
Don’t ignore our rage, for we are outraged.
Let us ask one another and ourselves WHERE the outrage comes from, and understand that the root is love.
As I walked with Valarie back to our office so she could prepare for the closing, with tears in her eyes she stopped to hug one of the participants who watched the video. “My grandfather was killed in a hate crime,” he told us all. “Please write me,” she said. “You are not alone.”
“When you let rage fester in isolation, this is when it becomes violence,” Valarie said as she closed her Keynote Address. “Love is a choice, an act of faith and courage.” I knew at that moment that the dissatisfaction we all felt with Frank’s response is rooted in faith- faith that Frank has more to change, more tiny transformations to experience, and much more love to choose to put out in the world. We all have this capacity. And we are not alone.