Commentary: OKC’s welcome mat is for everyone

As our city gets bigger, our world gets smaller.

Every day, it seems, I meet someone, whether at the neighborhood park or at a business function, who moved here recently from across the country or around the world. Chicago, Washington, London, Istanbul — and that’s just this week.

It makes sense. Oklahoma City is the eighth fastest growing city in the country. A worldly workforce is moving here to work in energy, healthcare, bioscience and other sectors.

As OKC continues improving its infrastructure and amenities, however, we should be mindful of another quality-of-life factor. We must make sure the welcome mat is out for everyone. That means all people of all faiths and all backgrounds and all nationalities.

More than one person has compared our city to a smaller but burgeoning version of Houston. It’s easy to see why. Both are sprawling Southwestern cities with an economy built on energy.

Today, Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S. It has evolved into a major international city. But it hasn’t done so by stiff-arming people who are different. It hasn’t done so by keeping out people who practice different religions or have a different sexual preference.

Add that to the long list of reasons that comments from our state leaders in recent weeks have been so troubling.

State Rep. John Bennett continues to spread fear and misinformation about Muslims — those who have moved here to do business, as well as those who were born and raised here.

And after the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in Oklahoma, our governor issued an abrupt statement that our gay and lesbian community somehow doesn’t represent “Oklahoma values.”

It’s ironic, considering that our much-deserved “Oklahoma standard” was built on friendliness, that our Christian tradition teaches us to “love thy neighbor.”

Earlier this month, a columnist in Relevant, “the magazine on faith, culture and intentional living,” described coming to grips with loving people who are different than he and his wife.

“We quickly realized,” he said, “that loving our neighbors required we know our neighbors.”

By developing one-on-one relationships and keeping an open mind, they were able to quell their fears, expand their worldview and contemplate their own faith in deeper fashion.

Dr. Stephen Klineberg at Rice University has studied demographic trends and social change in Houston for more than 30 years. In the documentary Interesting Times, Klineberg points out that quality-of-life issues have been central to the pro-growth agenda of Houston at the same time as “this irreversible transformation in the ethnic composition in our population.”

“Houston is becoming a microcosm of the world,” he said.

A glance at demographics around the city confirms it: Houstonians come from everywhere.

“And you can go to the bank on this,” Klineberg said. “This ethnic transformation could be the greatest asset that Houston could have. Or it could tear us apart.

“What kind of future will we build? That is the central question that this generation needs to deal with.”

As our city gets bigger and our world gets smaller, such is the crossroads OKC faces.

Russ Florence is chairman of the board for the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice, a nonprofit that strives to eliminate bias, bigotry and racism.

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