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Creating harmony will be a challenge

Geoff Helisma |

In the weeks that have followed March 15, the day one of Grafton’s former citizens allegedly killed 51 Muslims as they prayed in their mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, the Grafton community has faced a dilemma: How does it deal with the aftermath?

Media outlets from Australia and around world descended on the town and published their stories.

Wrote the New York Times: “The biggest event is the annual Jacaranda Festival, named for the blossoms of its indigo-flowered trees….”

“So it was a stunner … for Grafton’s 18,000 people when they were involuntarily vaulted into the center of notoriety, as the world learned that one of their own was the suspect in New Zealand’s worst mass killing.”

The UK Daily Mail (Australia) reported on March 18 that Grafton was a “town, heartbroken by an unspeakable crime [allegedly] perpetrated by one of its own, [which] has come together to mourn the Christchurch massacre victims” at the Anglican Church’s Christ Church Cathedral.

Clarence Valley Council’s mayor, Jim Simmons, called an extraordinary meeting that resolved to consider the erection of “a permanent memorial [and type] … to recognise the tragic events … in Christchurch”.

A book of condolence “to the citizens of Christchurch” was circulated, too, with hundreds of signatures collected – a couple of women also volunteered to sit at shopping centres and collected signatures –, which the mayor and general manager will present to Christchurch’s mayor.

However, amid these positive actions there are people who disagree: some because they are frightened of Muslims, some because they don’t want Grafton to be indelibly linked to such a tragedy, others who think these types of actions are a “guilt trip”.

And there lies the challenge: how to turn something so tragic into an opportunity to create positive change.

Meanwhile, the Jacaranda Festival Committee was considering inviting Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to this year’s festival.

On May 13 the Sydney Morning Herald [SMH] broke the story to the committee’s surprise, or as the committee’s president, Jeff Smith, put it in a letter to the festival’s members on May 17: “…a SMH journalist … picked up on a passing comment that inviting the NZ PM had been bought up at a management meeting.

“Nothing more was actioned [sic] on that idea and [it] had been quietly forgotten about.”

That was until a SMH journalist rang Mr Smith and the festival’s director, Mark Blackadder, on May 11 to talk about “what was new for this year’s festival”.

Publication of the SMH story prompted a decision to go ahead with the invitation.

“After discussions with our PR Consultant and members of the management team we decided to actually invite the NZ PM, as well as the Mayor of Christchurch and the Imam of Christchurch.”

Mr Smith said it was “always meant to be a gesture of good faith”, however, as the news spread, dissenting voices expressed their views on social media.

Mr Smith’s observations: “Local Facebook responses were divisive with the majority against the decision.

“It is interesting to note that the SMH Facebook comments were in the majority positive.

“What disturbed me the most was the revolting racism and bigotry of some of the Facebook posts.”

Others are taking action, too.

The Very Reverend Dr. Gregory C. Jenks, Dean, Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton, says “the invitation for PM Ardern, along with the Mayor of Christchurch and the Imam from the Al-Noor Mosque, to come to Grafton during this year’s Jacaranda Festival, was a stroke of genius”.

“What a wonderful opportunity for Grafton to celebrate the courageous and compassionate leadership shown by PM Arden, and also to affirm our commitment to respond to terrorism with compassion and inclusivity,” he wrote in a statement.

“This is not just about Christchurch; it also expresses our response to terrorist attacks in Bali, Paris, Sri Lanka and a seemingly endless list of innocent targets.

“The best response to hatred is not a monument, but a renewed commitment to our best values.

“As a healthy and inclusive community, we choose love, compassion, tolerance, and solidarity.”

Grafton-based LOETUS (Languages Other than English Together with Us) has also issued a supportive statement, congratulating the Jacaranda Festival Committee “for its upcoming actions in celebrating multi-culturalism and inclusivity in the Clarence as well as its promotion of the genuine decency and country hospitality of the overwhelming majority of local people”.

“This is Grafton’s opportunity to show the Nation and the World the decency, compassion, and good old-fashioned Country Hospitality, which Grafton and the people of the Clarence demonstrate every day,” LOETUS chair Rathi Ramanathan wrote.

It’s a sentiment shared by the festival committee: “As the Festival becomes more visitor focussed (and in particular international visitors) we have begun to promote our already existing theme of inclusiveness and belonging,” Mr Smith wrote in his letter to members.

At the time of writing, Christchurch’s mayor had declined the invitation.

However, this story is in its infancy and has many more chapters to play out.

Whether to not the Jacaranda Festival Committee’s idea is realised, there are other people organising to work towards, as Rev Jenks put it, to establish a culture of “Respect and Tolerance of All Religions and All People.”

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