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'Celebrating Diversity' seeks to unite cultures in walk

Tuesday, May 01, 2001

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A year ago, Mt. Lebanon was in the news as the place where a white man was accused of the shooting rampage that killed a Jewish woman, an Indian, a Vietnamese immigrant, a Chinese American and a black man and critically injured another Indian.

The efforts of their parents to "encourage interaction and friendship between people of all colors and cultures" at a recent meeting of Celebrating Diversity brought together Brenda Castonguay, 12, top, Sabrina Filiper, 7, center, and Amon Manekul, 10. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

Sunday, Mt. Lebanon is the place where people of different colors and cultures will take a "Celebrating Diversity Walk."

The walk starts at 1 p.m. outside the Mt. Lebanon High School Auditorium and will cover about two miles to Mt. Lebanon Park, where a short program will be held.

It's a counterstatement of sorts organized by a group called "Celebrating Diversity" that actually started before the shootings last year, and for a positive reason: To "encourage interaction and friendship between people of all colors and cultures" as a means to end prejudice and discrimination.

They're serious, but they have a lot of fun, meeting and socializing at regular gatherings flavored with ethnic treats.



When: 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: Starting at Mt. Lebanon High School Auditorium entrance A3 and ending at Mt. Lebanon Park Pavilion 2, about 2 miles away.

Cost: Free, but you may bring a flower and an extra one to share.

Information: 412-344-2469.


"Everybody always brings food, so it is absolutely a feast!" says Mt. Lebanon painter Elizabeth Myers Castonguay, who founded the group with her neighbor, Shirley Manekul, a before- and after-school program teachers' aide at Foster School.

The group, which just celebrated its first anniversary, has a mailing list of more than 100 people. Most are from the Mt. Lebanon area, but they're also coming from other places such as Oakland and Washington, Pa.

Their places of origin include various parts of Africa, China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, India, Chile, Brazil, the Philippines and Eastern and Western Europe, and they represent many religious faiths.

Castonguay says, "I just had calls from people in the past week from, oh my gosh, Peru" -- she looks in a ledger -- "more from the Mideast, Indonesia....

"It's touched a nerve in the community."

It started in Castonguay's and Manekul's hearts.

When Manekul; her Thai husband, Al; and their son, Amon, moved in across the street about a year and a half ago, Castonguay saw their Asian faces and hurried over. She greeted them so warmly that Manekul thought she was "too aggressive!"

But they hit it off, and so did their families: So much so that Amon calls the redhead "Aunt Elizabeth," her husband "Uncle Larry," and their three daughters "sisters."

Since the days when they lived in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., the Castonguays have sought diverse friends. For instance, they'd long been involved with Academy House, a local group home for teen-age boys, most of whom are black and have become like family. Elizabeth Castonguay is best friends with a black woman who lives nearby. But theirs still is a mostly white neighborhood in a mostly white town.

One day, as she and Manekul were getting closer, Manekul dropped in and soon was in tears. Her son had told her that a schoolmate had called him a "Chinese boy."

She still cries recounting it. "I said, 'I feel the school community doesn't know much about other cultures.' "

Castonguay had similar concerns, having just watched an interracial (black and white) couple get frustrated and move away. "We didn't want to lose any more friends."

And so, they decided to form a group that would welcome and educate people. From word of mouth, Celebrating Diversity quickly grew and continues growing, especially now that stories about it have run in local publications.

And you don't have to be of some exotic culture to join. "We invite people as warmly into the group if they've moved here from Ohio," Castonguay says. "Everybody is welcome."

In addition to their monthly meetings -- usually in her dining room addition and/or on the back patio -- the group has held picnics and lunches, where people are encouraged to ask questions and talk about each other's backgrounds.

At one lunch in February at Southminster Presbyterian Church, a black member did a first-person re-enactment of early 1900s educator/activist Mary McLeod Bethune. Chitra Teredesai talked about India and demonstrated how to put on a sari. Mimi Jong led a Chinese choir. And, of course, everybody gorged on potluck.

Elizabeth Castonguay, left, and Shirley Manekul have hit it off as Mt. Lebanon neighbors and as founders of the Celebrating Diversity group. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

Manekul says the highlight to her was watching the children make crafts together. "I think we have to look to our children for how they interact."

She and Castonguay would like to see Celebrating Diversity go national, even worldwide.

It will get its biggest exposure with Sunday's walk, since the trial of Richard S. Baumhammers just began Friday. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Baumhammers, a lawyer under suspension, who is charged with five counts of homicide and one count of attempted homicide. He also is charged with eight counts of ethnic intimidation; three of arson; two each of criminal mischief and institutional vandalism; and one each of possessing a firearm without a license, reckless endangerment, aggravated assault and simple assault.

"All I can say is, I feel very sorry for people who will never meet their best friend or their soulmate because that person's face is of a different color," says Castonguay, who notes that the shootings galvanized their belief that such a group was needed. In fact, they tried to organize a walk soon after the shootings, and again last fall, but scheduling it was complicated by wanting to work around everyone's religious holidays. A few months after two men were killed there during the spree, about 40 members of the group did meet for a dinner of support at Ya Fei Chinese Cuisine at Robinson Town Centre.

Sunday's walk is co-sponsored by the Mt. Lebanon Community Relations Board and South Hills Interfaith Ministry. Post-walk speakers are to include Rabbi Mark Mahler of Temple Emanuel; the Rev. David Taylor of St. Charles Lwanga Church; John Howald on Buddhist philosophy; the Rev. Tracy Keenan of Southminster Presbyterian Church; Premlata Venkataraman, whose husband, Kollengode, publishes the Indian quarterly The Pittsburgh Patrika; Farooq Hussaini of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh; and Diane Mitchum, a conciliation specialist at the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Relations Service in Philadelphia.

Castonguay says this group is different than some of the anti-racism groups she's been involved with, in that, "We try to be positive. ... We try to appreciate the good and that will, in the end, wash away the bad."

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