The First Congregational Church and the Montana Association of Churches
Men and women who fearlessly galvanized their city of Billings, Montana to publicly condemn prejudice and bigotry and to support the Jewish members of their community during a malicious outbreak of anti-Semitism that sought to shatter the wholeness of the people …
Racism can be found in the largest cities and the smallest towns at any time. Billings, Montana was the kind of town where everyone knew each other. When in 1993 an unusually virulent outbreak of prejudice, hate, and violence broke out against Jews and other minority populations, the residents stood up to fight back.
It started with the distribution of racist literature by white supremacist hate groups, and escalated to more pointed harassment, such as desecrating a Jewish cemetery and writing threatening graffiti on people’s homes and cars. Native Americans, African Americans, Jews—none were immune to attack. People came together to help clear up each mess, but it wasn’t until December 1993 that an incident occurred that sparked a movement against prejudice and hate.
The Schnitzer family had placed a menorah in their young son’s bedroom window to celebrate Hanukkah. The night of December 2, a brick or cinder block was thrown through the window, smashing the glass and the menorah. No one was hurt, but the emotional damage had been done. The officer on the scene suggested removing the menorah altogether to avoid more trouble, but the family didn’t want to remove the symbol of the holiday.
Margaret McDonald, executive director of the Montana Association of Churches (which brings together churches of all denominations to celebrate their similarities and differences and to work together for social justice), read about the incident and wanted to help. She contacted her minister at the First Congregational United Church of Christ with an idea. Her church and others made paper menorahs and encouraged parishioners to hang them in their windows as a sign of solidarity against intolerance. Hundreds of homes displayed menorahs, and when the Billings Gazette ran an editorial condemning the attack on the Schnitzer home, and included a full-size image of a menorah for people to display, the hundreds turned to thousands.
It didn’t stop the racist behavior in its tracks, however. The hate groups retaliated with the shooting of signs and windows, and more graffiti. The townspeople were understandably worried about what could happen, but police chief Wayne Inman urged them to stand firm. He knew from experience that if the people gave in, the violence would continue, grow more powerful, and could eventually result in someone’s death. And so the menorahs stayed up.
Eventually, it started to work. Every show of hate was matched with one of support for the entire community. The hate acts lessened as Billings literally declared that “Not In Our Town” would such intolerance and exclusion be allowed to run rampant.
“Not In Our Town” started as a slogan on placards displayed in Billings, and turned into a PBS documentary which inspired a movement against bigotry across America. Janice Cohn, a psychotherapist, was so inspired by this story that she wrote a children’s book, “The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate,” which she later adapted into a play Paper Candles to be performed by young people to foster discussion about racism and the importance of combatting it.
In a quiet act of defiance, Billings, Montana showed the country that bigotry and prejudice can be overcome by standing against intolerance.