OSWEGO – Despite rain storms earlier in the day, more than 100 people attended a unity rally sponsored by Oswego Presbyterian Church on Saturday, July 11, at the gazebo outside of Oswego Village Hall.
Oswego Police Chief Jeff Burgner said during his speech for the event he was happy to see the rain pass and the turnout for the event.
"I think that says something about this event and its need for it to happen today," Burgner said.
Martha Behlow, one of the organizers for the event, said she attended a Black Lives Matter rally in St. Charles not too long ago. She said that was her starting point for wanting to help organize an event like this with the help of active and humanitarian members from the church.
"It was very inspiring and I felt really called to act," Behlow said.
Behlow said the intent was for the event to not be political, nor violent or dangerous. She said the group of about eight who ended up organizing the event wanted to affirm their Christian values in being peaceful and loving each other, regardless of color.
Michelle Clark, another organizer for the event, said her starting point was watching the protests going on after the death of George Floyd, 46, a Black man from Minneapolis, Minnesota who died in police custody May 25 after a now former officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, put his knee on his neck for eight minutes.
"I was just sitting on my couch watching this happen and I wanted to do something," Clark said. "I didn't want to just sit there. I wanted to be a voice and ... we want our Black brothers and sisters to know that we are here for them and we stand up for them."
Speakers for the event also included Oswego Village President Troy Parlier, along with Rev. Julian Spencer, pastor at Main Baptist Church in Aurora, and Oswego High School student Nwadum Tendong, 16, of Montgomery.
Tendong said many people still are under the impression that racism is a thing of the past. She said during her speech that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his famous "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963 that his children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character – and nearly 50 years later, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was murdered leaving a 7-Eleven gas station with Skittles and an Arizona iced tea.
Tendong said she constantly has to watch her demeanor and try to come across as more submissive, whether she wants to or not, so she can be perceived as less threatening to others. She said it hurts that she feels like she can't do normal things like sleep, eat ice cream, jog or go grocery shopping without meeting similar fates as Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd.
Tendong said it's on the entire community – not just Black people – to end that.
"I want to one day leave my house and not be afraid to walk into the wrong racist," Tendong said.
Burgner said he has spent about 25 years as a member of the Oswego community and has seen the community and police department grow in size and diversity. He said words that were featured on the event's flyer – diversity, community, passion, liberty, empathy and respect – also encompasses what the community stands for and that he is dedicated to remaining open minded in addressing concerns, ideas and resolutions related to the challenges the community is facing.
Rev. Richard "Skip" Shaffer, a pastor at Oswego Presbyterian Church, said the organizers, himself included, see the event as an opportunity for the community to come together and listen to one another. He said he hopes people come out of this event closer, that they will be more open to hearing voices that they might not have listened to before and that they'll be sensitive to issues that have come up that they may not have thought about before.
"We just want to be one more voice in encouraging people to be neighbors to one another, to love one another," Shaffer said.
Parlier said he thought the event was a very respectful opportunity for people to show they care for one another and he thought each speaker accomplished that. He said he generally makes a point to try to always take away learning experiences from everything and to make an effort to just be a better person today than he was yesterday.
Parlier, who also teaches at Thompson Junior High School, said he was surprised to hear about the experiences of current students within the Oswego School District 308 system who spoke about their experiences with racism during the Saturday event. He said he wanted to talk with them more to see what else he could do to help.
"I try to, in the classroom, use math as an equal opportunity for every student to reach their fullest potential," Parlier said. "And, you know, I just gotta be better. I have to, every day, strive to improve."