Parents and kids gather for a play date in response to hate graffiti at Pavion Park in Mission Viejo on Monday, January 9, 2017. (Photo by Kyusung Gong/Orange County Register)

Orange County Register, Jan 11, 2017


MISSION VIEJO – After seeing a pair of swastikas etched at Pavion Park last month – one on a tree, another on a wall – Jenna Gerstner was unsure what to tell her two sons.

“I contemplated how to tell my children about racism,” she said as she shared her story in front of hundreds gathered at the park Monday night.

She reached out to Rabbi Rachel Kort at Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo, who coordinated with leaders of the Orange County Islamic Foundation mosque and Shepherd of the Hills United Methodist Church in Rancho Santa Margarita. The result of the collaboration was “A Place for Every Family,” a multifaith gathering to show children to respond to hate with love and inclusion.

Leaders of the three religious organizations stood together Monday afternoon as a symbol of unity.

Mission Viejo city leaders, Orange County Sheriff’s Department officials, representatives of Rep. Mimi Walters and state Sen. Patricia Bates, and Rabbi Peter Levi, the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director in Orange County, also were in attendance.

“We have continuous conversations with our children about being Muslim in this day and age,” said Maisoon Mangrio, 38, of Mission Viejo, who brought her 9- and 11-year-old daughters. “There is intolerance, which is why we brought them here. We wanted them to see the community coming together.”

Mission Viejo resident Mario Gallegos, 41, brought his 6-year-old daughter, Lily. Gallegos, a member of Shepherd of the Hills, and other parents in attendance, said it’s challenging to find the right approach to telling their children about hate and racism.

“It’s a difficult thing,” he said, “but the best approach is to express warmth and love: ‘You don’t need to be afraid; the community supports us.’ This needs to stay a place for family.”

Sarah Eagle of Laguna Hills took her 5-month-old son, Henry, to the event. Eagle, 33, attends Temple Beth El, but stressed the importance of surrounding her family with different faiths and cultures.

“You try to be as honest as much as possible,” she said. “I try to explain in an age-appropriate way without scaring them or masking what’s going on.”

Bill Burger of Rancho Santa Margarita, whose wife, Liz, spoke to the crowd Monday, has helped with other multifaith events. He said he’s seen power in messages about inclusion and love. The couple attended the event with their three children.

“With our children, we’re always trying to make them understand that differences and diversity are strengths,” Burger, 37, said. “We want to stand up for others in the community, and this is a great opportunity to do something.”

The graffiti at Pavion Park is part of a string of recent hate-related vandalism in Orange County.

Last month, Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the OC Human Relations Commission, said the number of hate incidents and hate crimes increased substantially in the days after the November election. As of Dec. 15, 33 hate incidents and six hate crimes were reported in the county in the 34 days prior, he said.

Kort said leaders of the three congregations are already starting conversations about having diversity playdates more frequently.

“These friendships are going to continue to grow,” she said.

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