Every community is defined by the values and traditions shared by the people that live in it. Small towns, cities and neighborhoods all have some bedrock values like religion, culture, festivals and events that make them who they are.
When it comes to Dearborn, we have some unique challenges and even more unique opportunities. Dearborn is not a city united by religion, a common culture or very many common traditions. How we deal with that will determine whether we are an example of how the rest of the world should be, or a tragic tale on what happens when people in a diverse community entrench and cloister themselves.
At times, moving between events in Dearborn can be like moving between worlds. There's a liberal arts scene, replete with classical music, theater, abstract art and jazz. There's an underground rap and rock scene, where young people express themselves through the spoken word and in-your-face music. There's also club music, square dancing and vibrant traditional middle eastern musical performances that occur all over.
There are devout Protestants and Catholics who are sure of their deliverance from evil, just as there are devout Muslims in the same vein. There is a lively LGBT community and a fun-loving business culture in the city that often co-mingle.
Our broader, all-inclusive set of traditions like the Homecoming Festival and Memorial Day parade bring everyone together, but those times, and those events, are all too brief.
The fact is, Dearborn is filled with diversity. Like a salad bar, people are free to explore each distinct part at their leisure. The problem is that many people don't. It is often the citizens who don't partake who create a majority of our problems, too.
Recently, there's been a controversy over a Dearborn coffee shop – owned by a former missionary, whose religious group had posted some things about his missionary work that made many Muslim Dearbornites feel uncomfortable. When the owner was confronted about his past missionary work, he denied that his business establishment was a front for converting Muslims, but by then the damage was already done.
The people who had started raising awareness on the issue openly said they wanted others to not patron the business and for many, including myself, it smacked of religious persecution. Many of the misunderstandings came from a lack of knowledge about the terms Evangelicals use, and some of it from an antipathy toward Christian practices like proselytizing.
The situation opened a major rift inside Dearborn, but the end result has been a steady flood of Arab and Muslim youth attending the business, letting their hard-earned money speak for their belief in pluralism. The situation could have turned to a sectarian mess, but broader values of tolerance and acceptance won out.
I've often said that when the rest of the world looks like Dearborn, they'll call it peace. Peace isn't merely a state where there is no conflict, though – peace is a state where people actively respect and co-exist with one another. As situations like #CoffeeGate illustrate, who we are as a city, and what we become in the future, will largely depend on how we choose to coexist. If we're going to be honest with ourselves, keeping the harmony in Dearborn is going to be hard work.