A symbol of unity

T-shirts designed by a Southwest man and his son strike a chord in trying times

Bob Wolk holds one of the T-shirts he designed with his son, Seth. Photo by Dylan Thomas

Earlier this year, Bob Wolk called up Mateen Ali, a founding member of the Northwest Islamic Community Center in Plymouth and the center’s Sunday school teacher. Wolk said he had something to show him.

Ali said they “hit it off right away” on the phone, and he invited Wolk to visit him at the center. Wolk arrived toting a couple of boxes filled with T-shirts, each printed with an eye-catchingly bold but simple design: a cross, a crescent and a Star of David — the symbols of Christianity, Islam and Judaism — and the words “We are one nation” in red, white and blue.

“They’re really well designed,” Ali said. “I bought four or five on the spot.”

“Boom! On the spot,” Wolk recalled.

And it’s gone just like that again and again.

“I love them,” said Sarah Abe, the general manager of Daybreak Press Global Bookshop on the University of Minnesota campus, which carries the T-shirts. Abe wasn’t sure how many the store had sold, but said they’re a “popular” item.

“Sometimes, with interfaith designs, they can go a little wonky,” she said, but this one was “clear and balanced.”

Wolk and his wife, Deborah, wore the T-shirts to a rally in support of a Bloomington mosque that was firebombed in early August, and they ended up sitting next to a woman in the same T-shirt, which she’d purchased from Wolk over the Fourth of July.

“He’s just been peddling it like an old Jewish peddler,” Deborah Wolk said. “… Any place he goes, if the audience seems to be the right kind of audience and he won’t offend anybody, he seems to do pretty well.”

The T-shirt — released in one style for men and two for women — has gone through three printings. They sell for $20 apiece, a third of which goes to charity, and in late August Wolk was preparing to hand over his first check for more than $750 to Building Blocks of Islam. The money will support the Columbia Heights nonprofit’s food shelf program and a fund for new arrivals.

Wolk, 80, who lives just south of Minnehaha Creek in the Lynnhurst neighborhood, is an avid gardener and volunteer currently serving on the board of Metro Blooms, a nonprofit that promotes rain gardens. Troubled by a recent surge in anti-Muslim bias incidents — which, according to the FBI and Council on American Islamic Relations, rose in 2015 to levels not seen since the months after 9/11 — Wolk decided he had to do something.

“I’m just one guy and I can’t do that much, but at least I can do something,” he said.

The idea came to him this winter on a walk around Southdale, where he gets in his daily steps. Wolk enlisted his son Seth, a graphic designer, to come up with a logo, and he brought the image to a handful of neighborhood “focus groups,” including his book club.

“They all liked it — even the Unitarians,” he quipped.

Wolk is a member of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, which is how he connected with Ali. The synagogue reached out to the Northwest Islamic Community Center after the presidential election, which coincided with a spike in both anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents. Ali said a member of Adath Jeshurun came by one Sunday with flowers.

“(After the election) was kind of a low point in our community,” Ali said. “A lot of the kids, they didn’t know what was going on. So that was a nice gesture.”

Earlier this year, when bomb threats were being called into Jewish community centers across the U.S. and Canada — including one in St. Louis Park and another in St. Paul — Northwest Islamic Community Center joined with more than 20 other Twin Cities Islamic organizations to take out a half-page ad in the Star Tribune expressing their solidarity and condemning “cowardly acts of hate.”

Ali, who gave the T-shirts he purchased from Wolk to members of his family, said its message is a reminder not only of the origin shared by the three Abrahamic faiths but of our common humanity.

“I have two kids,” he said. “Especially with my younger daughter, she said, ‘Wow, this is a good T-shirt.’ She’s proud to wear it.”

“It just makes me feel good that there are people out there who are not (just) going to talk, they are going to do something,” Ali added. “That, to me, makes me feel good. I have faith in humanity.”

A portion of T-shirt sales are donated to Building Blocks of Islam, a local nonprofit. Photo by Dylan Thomas
A portion of T-shirt sales are donated to Building Blocks of Islam, a local nonprofit. Photo by Dylan Thomas

To purchase a “We are one nation” T-shirt, contact Bob Wolk directly at [email protected] or 925-7932.