Several community leaders — Jews, Christians, Muslims, Republicans and Democrats — came together Thursday with a message of unity, a plea for real racial reconciliation and a belief that actions in Waco could serve as a beacon for others.

As repeated throughout the evening event that arose as a response to white supremacists and Nazis holding a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, speakers said they were not interested in holding hands and singing “Kumbaya,” but rather in working toward real change.

Berkeley Schleicher Anderson said she was moved to action after Charlottesville and wanted a nonpartisan event that encompassed Waco diversity. Anderson, her father, David Schleicher, a local attorney, and the Rev. Leslie King, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Waco, came together to host the gathering at the downtown church. Anderson said she hopes the event will be a start toward action.

“That this will give people a starting point for sharing their experiences with racism and working together to find solutions to racism in our community,” is her hope, she said.

The gathering was not a religious service or a forum to debate political ideology, and it was hosted in a neutral zone controlled by neither political party, King said.

The Jewish community often participates in activism, much of which is not directly related to religion or the Jewish community itself, said Rabbi Jeff Ronald, of Temple Rodef Sholom in Waco. Members of the synagogue often work on efforts to increase the minimum wage, work for peace or help the homeless, Ronald said.

“When it comes to Charlottesville, we do have a dog in that fight, and that dog has been kicked,” he said.

David Oualaalou, an Islamic Center of Waco member and global affairs analyst and educator, said he remains hopeful as he reflects on the nation’s history and spirit, a nation that was built and founded on immigration, tolerance and diversity.

“Gathering like this is what’s going to heal this nation and move it forward. Let this gathering and let this event and let our community be the beacon of hope for thousands of Americans,” Oualaalou said. “I am not here to point fingers. I am not here to assign blame. I am not here to shame others. Rather, I am here to lift my voice, a voice of hope, a voice of forgiveness, a voice of tolerance.”

Waco Chapter NAACP President Peaches Henry admitted she was hesitant to accept the invitation to speak at the gathering. Henry said she is weary of attending “flash-point racial unity” events where everyone holds hands, sings and then goes their separate ways.

“I decided to participate because I hope for this country, for our people, for our future, and I want to be the change that I wish to see in the world,” Henry said.

She said the community must take a stand against those who advocate racism. The issue is not Republican or Democratic, North or South, white or black issue, but a matter of right and wrong, she said. Everyone must stand against those who unify for hate, she said.

While Texas A&M University was recently able to prevent Richard Spencer, a white supremacist, from holding a “White Lives Matter Rally” recently, the block is likely temporary, Henry said.

“The hate groups are coming,” she said. “My own personal experience proves the hate groups are already here.”

Henry said it was only recently that she opened her phone and was inundated with hateful text messages laced with the strongest racial slurs.

“Now is the time for difficult conversations and hard questions with someone other than ourselves,” she said.

Everyone must take uncomfortable actions to achieve racial unity and support ongoing endeavors of racial understanding and action, Henry said.

It goes without saying that his experience as a white guy raising a black kid is a unique one, McLennan County Republican Club president Wesley Lloyd said. From unintentional to disgustingly blatant, racism continues and exists daily, Lloyd said.

“That means stop being dismissive and acting as though persons of color have no reason to be angry,” Lloyd said.

Mary Duty, McLennan County Democratic Party chair, said when she took her position three years ago, one of her dreams was to stand with the Republican Party chair and discuss issues of common interest and work in a unified way.

The event made that happen, as she shared the stage on a vital issue with local Republican Party Chair Jon Ker.

Guests who attended the gathering sang “We Shall Overcome” while lighting candles. Each person was asked to fill out a questionnaire that would be passed along to the Community Race Relations Coalition, which will use the responses to inform future work.

Cassie L. Smith has covered county government for the Tribune-Herald since June 2014. She previously worked as a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise and The Eagle in Bryan-College Station. Smith graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington.

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