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Standing up for the man in the eye of the storm

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003


Sharon Streater has been there to march against drugs and prostitution. She has been there, on behalf of troubled school children. She has been there for people on the bottom who need better pay and at least a little health insurance.

She has argued with authorities over the needs of people in Tampa's poorest neighborhoods, and, more often than you might think, she wins.

It all goes with the job of being the executive director of HOPE. The initials stand for Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality.

Last week, the job description took a turn.

The Rev. Streater, a Baptist minister, was there for Sami Al-Arian. She rode with Al-Arian's wife, Nahla, to federal court and helped her get through the mass of reporters who had descended on the scene like locusts. "I was there as a friend," Streater said.

In calmer times, this would be merely curious. But these are not calm times. When you talk to Streater, you can sense the leeriness in her voice. She takes pain to say she was acting as an individual and not as a leader of HOPE. But it's harder to keep things separate.

The organization is made up of nearly two dozen churches and religious groups -- Anglo, black, Hispanic and Islamic. The membership includes the Islamic Community of Tampa, the school and mosque in north Tampa where Al-Arian has long been a leader.

Streater met Al-Arian in 1997, while his brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, was deep in his ultimately unsuccessful effort to avoid deportation. HOPE took a public stand opposing the use of secret evidence.

A bond was formed. Al-Arian sided with HOPE on some of its big projects, especially challenges to public school policy on student suspensions and how to teach reading in the early grades.

The man Streater knows is not the man in the indictment, the man who stands accused of raising money to finance murder. "We have only seen the positive side of his character," she said.

Her words are brave. But she has put her finger to the wind. She senses the mood of the mob, the outrage building, as the talk of war, the fear of chemical or biological attack, and the charges against Al-Arian become confused and interwined.

"I'm worried about what's going to happen to him and his family," Streater said. "I'm nervous about people not thinking."

People not thinking. Rushing to judgment. The willingness to decide before the trial that Al-Arian is guilty, guilty, guilty. Pushed on by a news media that Streater believes has already tried and convicted him.

"We have to wait and let the justice system work," she said, in what could have been mistaken for a plea. "Everybody gets hysterical."

And because they do, Sharon Streater sees people looking at her now and wondering. "I'm associated with him," she said. "I guess I must be guilty."

She wonders if the corporate supporters of HOPE will pull back. Some dropped out when HOPE sided with Mazen Al-Najjar.

And she worries if her own members will get upset with her for facing that phalanx of the press with Nahla Al-Arian. She doesn't want her organization torn apart by this.

How could it turn out this way? A woman with a conscience stands up for a man she calls a friend. She stands by the principles she's been raised to believe in, the principles she learned in school and in church, and suddenly she looks to be the odd man out.

Forget the weather. It's cold where Rev. Sharon Streater stands. Mighty cold.

* * *

My apologies to the people at LifePath Hospice and Palliative Care. I misidentified their organization in last Sunday's column.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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