February 2, 2017
I regret not meeting you in person on Tuesday, as I spent the day in Austin as an ally to my Muslim brothers and sisters. However, I heard from several of them that they had fruitful face-to-face conversations with you during that day.
Having heard some of their stories that day, I have been moved to follow up with this open letter.
The issues of this letter are inspired by the disturbing survey you sent Muslim leaders around our state, ahead of “Texas Muslim Capitol Day.” The survey smacked of a loyalty oath, specific to Muslims Americans. In my view, it was clearly designed to intimidate them, prior to their visit to the people’s house in Austin.
Representative Biedermann, your assumptions are faulty on several fronts. And the fact that you are the author of this survey is, ironic beyond belief. A point which I shall unpack in just a moment…
First, to remind you of what I know our Muslim brothers and sisters tire of repeating: Not only do Muslims repeatedly renounce extremism, but the entire premise of your questions are flawed. Islam is no more responsible for violent extremism than is Christianity; the religion I trust you and I share.
I would remind you, Sir, that it was a young “Christian” man, Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 Muslims in Norway. His writings clearly indicate not only a hate for Muslims, but also that he was guided from a sick and twisted interpretation of the teachings of Christianity. Similarly, the recent murders of Muslims in Canada were also committed by a man of European descent and Christian heritage.
And yet, no one dares to send survey to my church office, demanding that I swear loyalty to the United States!!! I cannot fathom how angry I would be were I to receive that kind of survey.
There is, however, a far more urgent reason for my writing you today, Representative Biedermann. That is, with all due respect, to invite you to remember that you are the elected representative of the people of Fredericksburg, Texas. A people descended from proud and loyal German immigrants.
The deep and abiding paradox of your actions in the present day is that you are doing to today’s Muslim community what other xenophobic Texans did to your own forebearers, and those of your constituents, in previous generations.
I know of these matters because I had the great good fortune to serve a church just up the road from you –First United Methodist Church in Mason, Texas– as an intern minister for a year during the late 1980s. As the descendent of German immigrants myself, even though I was a city boy, the people of the Hill Country took me under their wing and shared their stories. I spent many days visiting the hospital in Fredericksburg, and many evenings eating good German food there.
Since you hail from the area, I am sure you know the stories already. But, may I gently remind you now?
First, I would remind you of Fredericksburg’s proud history of religious tolerance and diversity. As you know, Sir, the first public building in town was the Vereins Kirche. To this day, I enjoy passing the replica of it, on Highway 290, when I travel through town.
As I’m sure you are aware, then, the structure is an amazing symbol of Fredericksburg’s religious tolerance. In the early days of your city, religious people of all faiths met here. Catholics, Lutherans, even my own Methodist forebearers, shared this community building as a house of worship.
I recall attending the “Easter Fires” pageant at Fredericksburg in the late 1980s, where the telling of this story is a part of the evenings entertainment. I was moved by how proud your community is of its own history of religious tolerance and diversity.
I would therefore remind you, Sir, that your town’s oldest and most revered structure is a symbol of intentional religious tolerance and diversity.
But more than this, I would remind you that the German immigrants of the Hill Country generally —and Fredericksburg specifically— were once persecuted for being the “other.”
During World War II, they were accused of being Nazis, and sympathetic to Hitler. I heard these stories directly from the older men and women who experienced it. People who were native-born to the US, were nonetheless persecuted, harassed, and shunned by other Texans, simply because they were German.
And, I heard stories of how, in an even earlier generation (during the Civil War) German citizens were rounded up and harassed. Others fled to Mexico, and even more were murdered for not joining the Confederate cause. Murdered!!
Sir, your own constituents carry the memory of these persecutions. They tell these stories to their children. They might even be the stories of *your* family, for all I know.
Why then, in God’s name, do you become the persecutor in your generation?!
Surely the muscle memory of these stories in the hearts of your people will cause them to feel revulsion for what you are you doing. now. Therefore, I invite you remember that you are electorally accountable to a community who remembers being “the other,” and the “outsider.”
I will close by sharing two times of worship I have personally witnessed during my now almost thirty years of ministry. Two moments that become connected in my soul and spirit, and that I hope will become the same for you.
The first was during that year in Mason, Texas. Perhaps because of my own German heritage, I was invited to attend a “German Hymn Sing” at a small country church… in Castell, if I recall correctly…about thirty miles from your home.
For an entire afternoon, hundreds of octogenarian Germans gathered together to sing church hymns. But, they didn’t sing in English, and they didn’t use a single written hymnals. Those beautiful old German Christians sang hymns from the old country, for hours, from memory, in German.
It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed. There was a sense of memory, history, tradition in that moment. You could tell how deeply their faith and tradition still mattered to them. I did not understand a word of what they were singing, but I was deeply moved nonetheless.
Flash forward to this past Sunday morning, about 12:30 am. I am standing in Terminal D at DFW Airport, and I am watching my friend, Imam Omar Suleiman, lead a group of Muslims in their nighttime prayer.
We have all stepped away from an ongoing airport protest, in support of visa-holding immigrants, so that about two dozen Muslims might be allowed to have their time of nightly prayers a quieter part of the terminal. Although not my own tradition, I stood to support them, and their freedom to worship, as our nation grants them.
And, again, even though I did not understand a word, I found it to be a beautiful and moving moment.
Representative Biedermann, I invite you to make the same connection I have made between these two events.
German Christians, singing in a tiny country church near your home, and Muslims Americans, from many nations, praying in an airport terminal are precisely the same event.
They are merely separated by time and generation. They are both parts of the continuously beautiful story of our nation and our state; a story that you and I, as proud descendants of immigrants, are also woven into.
This is the best of who we are, and I trust can still be your own path forward, as you seek to serve your district.
You have my prayers in this work, and my gratitude for your time in reading this.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Eric Folkerth
Northaven United Methodist Church