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Tales of fear and prejudice haunt vigil for racial harmony


Even while church leaders and public officials were praying for racial harmony at a Sunday morning prayer vigil, the Rev. Helen D. Russell of the Ellicott City Church of God was telling a story of fear and prejudice.

Her predominantly black church -- at 3761 Church Road in the predominantly white historic district -- has been harassed ever since its opening more than two years ago, she told an audience of about 50 people.

She receives harassing phone calls that make her so fearful of being alone in the church that she doesn't keep regular office hours. Her fears were reinforced after a tow truck flashed on its high beam and followed her to church one night. Last year, two white males shot a metal arrow at a group of guest musicians who were waiting on the church's porch, she said.

"It was stopped by a tree limb, or somebody would have gotten hurt," said Russell. "We have a lot of opposition in the area."

She was one of about a dozen leaders from churches and temples around the county who talked about their fears and concerns and expressed hope for racial, religious and ethnic harmony in the county.

Others who spoke at the prayer vigil at the Columbia Lakefront included Akil Rahim from the Muslim Charities Institute, Rabbi Mark Panoff of Temple Isaiah and the Rev. Young Sun Song from the Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church. A meeting among community leaders almost two weeks ago to discuss the verdict in the Rodney King beating case in California and the racial climate in the county prompted the vigil.

Office of Human Rights Administrator James E. Henson said afterward he was surprised to hear Russell's plight. He called county police, the Human Rights Commission and County Executive Charles Ecker the next day to see what could be done.

Russell told the audience that the answer to racism is love and prayer.

"Racism is a green-eyed monster, and we have to figure out what to do about it," she said.

During the vigil, the Rev. Dan Faber of Chapelgate Presbyterian Church asked people to see one another as one entity.

"Comparison is a source of alienation," he said. "Human beings are constantly comparing. Let's stop comparing."

He said the many things that give grief and agony -- social injustice, decisions of legislators and congressmen -- do not make people angry.

"These things do not make us hostile," he said. "Many times, they reveal in us there's hatred."

Columbia resident Patricia Barnes came to the vigil to show her opposition to the verdict in the trial of Los Angeles police officers in her own way.

"I think racism should stop and people should get along with one another," said Barnes, 27. "I think a lot of us should get out and help the community more. I know I'm trying."

Joel Babchak, another Columbia resident, said he hoped more people would show up, despite the damp, early morning fog.

"You see people here you don't know," said Babchak, 47, as he looked around. "People of different faiths realize they have common goals."

"We had Jews, Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Muslims . . . men and women, all these religious leaders standing there, which I think shows the interest to promote human rights goals in Howard County," Henson said.

Henson said the fight to promote racial harmony in the county does not stop with the vigil. Another meeting -- a public forum involving county residents and community leaders to discuss solutions -- is being planned by his office, he said.

"This is a beginning," he said. "It was not intended to be something that would begin and stop."

The earlier meeting with community leaders resulted in a list of 12 countywide human rights concerns and problems, including lack of community outreach, institutional racism and insensitivity toward minority residents and poor people.

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