07/31/2013 11:44 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Room Is Crooked: NW Indiana Activist Group Breaks Ground With Racism Panel

Portage, Ind.: Home of roughly 37,000. Republican-run. 'White flight' haven for those fleeing nearby Gary. Not exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think of racial and LGBTQ+ activism.

Yet in early July, that is just what took place.

Metropolitan Community Church Illiana (MCC) -- a Christian church with a focus on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer spirituality -- became the grounds for a locally groundbreaking event: a panel on racism. In a town that is 83 percent white this is no small feat.

As a young person of color who speaks on racial oppression, I was asked to sit on the panel. I arose the morning of July 12 unsure of what to expect. Two bagels and a three-hour bus ride later, I had arrived. Fellow panelists included:

  • Dr. Raoul Contreras, Chair of Minority Studies and Associate Professor of Latino Studies at Indiana University Northwest
  • Rev. John E. Jackson Sr., founder and Senior Pastor of The Trinity United Church of Christ in Gary, Indiana
  • Lorrell Kilpatrick, adjunct lecturer at Purdue University -- Calumet, Indiana University Northwest, and Ivy Tech Community College
  • Samuel A. Love, White male ally, educator, artist, and keyholder at Mess Hall in Chicago
  • Cami J. Thomas, doctoral student in the Department of Africology and Administrative Director for the Black Graduate Student Alliance at UW-Milwaukee

An atheist, I tend to avoid churches in fear that my "unholy soul" will set them ablaze. Still, the atmosphere was welcoming. At the church entrance, a table with rainbow cloth draped over it was the home of various MCC-related pamphlets, business cards, and a bowl of condoms. (Clearly I attended the wrong churches as a child.)

A sea of 38 black and brown faces stared as the panelists took the stage. Present were kids, teens, adults and senior citizens, heterosexuals and homosexuals, theists and atheists, and a tree-hugger who smelled of beeswax and a substance whose recreational use is legal only in Colorado and Washington. A sole white man sat nervously in a pew to my left.

Moderator and co-coordinator of the panel Paulie Garcia, wasted no time. In light of the Supreme Court's recent decisions on DOMA and the Voting Rights Act, Garcia dove into a series of questions that, while seemingly basic and superficial, ultimately created a much needed discourse that laid the foundation for what racism is and how people of color, including those who are LGBTQ+, experience it.

What is racism? Is 'reverse racism' real? Sharing versus waiting -- in activism, is it best to share the spotlight or wait your turn? Are things better for people of color in the United States? How can we make things better?

While each panelist generally agreed in their responses to the questions, how each came to understand their beliefs varied.

"I've been an activist for a decade, and most of that time I was silent," says Samuel A. Love amidst a discussion about community progress and alliances. "I'm glad that I was. I needed to listen."

Following the panel, I spoke with co-coordinator Gail Thomas to reflect on the event. Thomas currently serves as the chairperson of Standing Together In Tolerance Changing Humanity (STITCH), an organization that seeks to support youth struggling with their sexual and gender identity to help them thrive and avoid depression and suicide.

Thomas and Garcia say they were inspired to organize the panel after LGBT Pride festivities were moved from Gary to Portage, a town that is far less accessible to people of color.

According to Thomas, the purpose of the panel was 'to offer education on what racism really is -- a system.' "If we are a part of the system," she says, "then we are involved in racism in some way [and] need to be responsible for our thoughts, words, and actions."

Although Thomas' son, who is biracial, was recently racially profiled by local police, she remains optimistic about the state of progress in northwest Indiana. "With consistency, I believe more people who need to hear the message (the White community) will come."

In October, STITCH will team up with Northwest Indiana University for a two-day workshop on LGBTQ+ issues.

More information on the event and panelists can be found here.

This article was originally posted on The (Shaan)anigans.