Updated: May 9, 2012 9:48AM
The lesson of the last 10 years, so often unheeded, is beautifully simple:
“Love your neighbor.”
So says Dean Koldenhoven, a man who should know.
Much has gone wrong in our country since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and our first thought as we anticipated this anniversary was to lament those wrongs, including the ugly backlash against Muslims Americans. Does anybody really believe Sharia law is a national threat?
But it would be better, we decided, to call attention to solutions. And in the United States, the most powerful response to any injustice will always be the individual citizen who stands up for our nation’s highest values — for what’s decent and right — even when that’s miserably hard to do.
The solution, that is to say, will always be Americans like Dean Koldenhoven.
Koldenhoven’s story of courage actually played out more than a year before 9/ll in suburban Palos Heights, but it has become an iconic tale in these tense times, written up as a case study in tolerance by Harvard University and taught across the country.
In April 2000, a Muslim group proposed to establish a mosque in Palos Heights, triggering an immediate outcry from hundreds of residents and the city council. They complained about traffic problems and noise and the like, but the mayor — Koldenhoven — refused to pretend to see this for anything but what it was: bigotry.
He quickly wrote a letter to every church pastor in town, imploring them to preach tolerance.
“The Jesus I know would say, ‘Welcome to Palos Heights,’ ” he wrote. “This could be a time that as Christians we will be put to the test as to what it means to live our Christian faith and beliefs.”
Two months later, Koldenhoven vetoed a council resolution to pay the Muslim group $200,000 — for their expenses, supposedly — to abandon their plan. He refused to pretend this was not a bribe. The offer, he wrote in an apology to the Muslim group, was “not only an insult but a disgrace.”
For this, Koldenhoven received plenty of hate mail, anonymous calls and insults on the street. But he knew that Palos Heights was, of course, also full of good and open-minded people, and if he stood up for what’s right he would not be alone. He was not.
A Catholic priest, Edward Cronin, said, “We have to show that Christianity is not about closing the door.”
A longtime resident, Sandy Broadbent, likened the anti-Muslim backlash to the discrimination Irish Americans faced a few generations earlier.
Ultimately, there were many more voices of reason, all of them embarrassed by those who shouted, “Go back to your own countries!”
Strictly speaking, Koldenhoven lost the fight. The Muslim group backed out of the deal, even suing the suburb when the council’s offer of $200,000 fell through. And Koldenhoven was voted out of office. Then again, the two council members who fought hardest against the mosque also were voted out.
But four years later, another group of Muslims wanted to establish a mosque in nearby Orland Park — and again folks fumed. At a tense village board meeting, Koldenhoven repeated his message of tolerance. The Constitution protects freedom of religion, he said simply, “and the Bible says love your neighbor.”
The village board unanimously agreed to allow the mosque.
“We do this because we took an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution,” said Trustee Brad O’Halloran, “and because it is the right thing to do.”
Since then, Koldenhoven, a retired bricklayer, has been honored with the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award and traveled the country to talk about tolerance. Today, on this Sept. 11, he’ll be speaking at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights.
When Koldenhoven goes to his local Starbucks to get his morning cup of coffee, some people still give him hard looks. But five or six former opponents have walked up to him and shook his hand and said, “Mayor, I gotta let you know — I changed my thinking on what I did.”
America at its best is in our hands.
Blog with the Sun-Times editorial writers at BackTalk.