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Elijah Cummings discusses illness, diversity in Columbia

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings reflected Monday night on his illness and the importance of having relationships with diverse people.

His remarks came at the final installation of “Courageous Conversations,” an interfaith, four-week event that brought together Howard County residents to discuss religion, race and racism.

Cummings, a Democrat whose district includes portions of Howard and Baltimore counties, made mention of a Jewish pharmacist who gave him his first job as a teenager and of the more than 40 doctors of 27 nationalities who reached out to him on social media last year when his personal health began to deteriorate.

In 2017, Cummings underwent a minimally invasive heart procedure, which led to an infection that kept him in the hospital longer than expected. He was later hospitalized for a knee infection. While onstage Monday, he used a walker to move around.

Cummings has been in office for more than 20 years and sits at the helm of the House Oversight and Reform, which is leading congressional investigations into criminal allegations made against President Donald Trump.

During the event, Cummings also made mention of Columbia founder James Rouse, who he called an inspiration, and the four white women who helped to pull him out of special education.

“[The women] are dead now. But they’re a part of my DNA,” said Cummings, whose spokesman did not respond to an email request for an interview.

Cummings lauded the at least 200 attendees for standing when he entered the room 34 minutes after the event began, saying, “I’m going to continue to stand up for you until I die.”

The 90-minute event was attended by U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, whose district also includes portions of Howard and Baltimore counties; Howard County Executive Calvin Ball; County Council Chairwoman Christiana Mercer Rigby; and Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Democrat who represent portions of Columbia in the General Assembly.

Atterbeary in her remarks reflected on an impromptu Labor Day conversation she had with Cummings where, according to her, he said: “We have to have these tough conversations about race in our county.”

In May, four students spray-painted swastikas and racist slurs on Glenelg High School property the night before their senior awards assembly. Two of the four — Joshua Shaffer and Seth Taylor — plead guilty earlier this year. Tyler Curtiss and Matthew Lipp plead not guilty but agreed to the statement of facts presented by the State’s Attorney’s Office. All four are currently serving weekends in jail at the Howard County Detention Center.

The incident, as well as the general rise in hate crimes in Maryland, was referenced by Atterbeary and other attendees who praised the weeks-long program as a way to connect with neighbors and talk about diversity.

“That is no doubt coming from the rhetoric we are hearing coming from the top down,” Atterbeary said, without making mention to a specific person.

Atterbeary also noted a Maryland House bill that would have made it a crime to put a swastika or a noose on someone else's property. The bill failed to make it out of the Senate.

The four-week event was held at St. John Baptist Church, Beth Shalom Congregation and the Dar Al-Taqwa Islamic Center. It has drawn Howard County residents like Jackie McCoy, who said during the program that it caused her to “truly learn that we don't know what we don't know.”

She said she usually does not embrace being in groups but that through the conversations, she learned she has “been missing out on rich connections.”

McCoy said she has embarked on starting a grassroots movement for Howard County residents to examine the truth, awaken empathy and activate courageous citizenship.

Baltimore Sun reporter Lillian Reed contributed to this article.

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