Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration challenges and inspires

January 30, 2017

By Miller Carter Early on a warm but overcast Saturday morning, January 14, the Design Team for the Western North Carolina Conference Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration slowly filtered into the Family Life Center at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Hickory. At the same time, a chartered bus filled with enthusiastic celestial singers was preparing to depart from Charlotte, NC. Also, an eager group of volunteers from St. Luke’s, along with their Pastor, The Rev. Joseph Westfall anxiously awaited to greet the cadre of celebration participants. When these three groups of people converged on St. Luke’s campus, the feeling of joy was palpable! Something special was about to commence! The doors opened at 9:00 a.m., and the early arrivers began to trickle in. They scurried to stake out their seats then were drawn back to the foyer by the aroma of sausage biscuits, coffee, and juice. As more attendees arrived they hurried to register, pick up materials, and claim a seat. By 9:45 a.m. the Community Choir from Charlotte was in place and burst into song. The choir quickly garnered the complete attention of the ever increasing audience. By the time the Family Life Center reached its capacity the 2017 Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration was fully underway. The theme Confronting Chaos: Creating the Beloved Community unfolded in a remarkable fashion by a PowerPoint presentation depicting the utter chaos of 2016, accompanied by moving music from the Community Choir. This set the stage for profound remarks from the keynote speaker, Rev. Dr. F. Willis Johnson, Pastor of The Wellspring Church of Ferguson, Missouri. Several times throughout the day Dr. Johnson’s remarks penetrated our collective conscience and moved us (the Church) from “confronting” our own chaos to “confession” of our reluctance to participate in social justice issues. Johnson’s words struck home when he said, “It’s not your fault, but it is your fight.” We soon came to the realization that we (the Church) must get involved in justice issues. During the lunch hour, participants had the opportunity to probe deeper and discuss what it feels like to be “other.” Johnson led us in an exercise of discovery, drawing on our own story of a time when we felt like “the other,” that is, when we were treated indifferently or uncaringly. The conversations around the table were absolutely amazing. We learned that all of our stories intersect somewhere along our journey. We realized that the reason we don’t get involved in justice issues is because we do not take the time to hear one another’s stories. Approximately 50 youth participated in the celebration. After their lunch gathering and conversation in a separate location of the building, the youth returned invigorated and inspired. Six youth were presented with awards for their interpretations of the theme Confronting Chaos: Creating the Beloved Community. Submittals included essays, poetry, and artistic expressions. Following the awards presentation, one of the highlights of the day occurred when ten or so youth voiced angst surrounding chaos from their perspective and what peace looked like to them and how we could achieve this goal. Before they took their seats, one of the youth offered a heartfelt prayer. The celebration transitioned to a worship setting where Dr. Johnson presented his keynote address. He spoke from Proverbs 31:8-9, which says, "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy." In his remarks, Johnson reminds the Church that we have a responsibility to speak on behalf of the poor, the needy and the marginalized but, first, we need to hear their story. So, we must “turn up the amplifier of your spiritual hearing and listen to what people are saying,” because their stories matter. All our stories intersect; if they have not, they will somewhere along the journey. Rev. Angela Pleasants and Rev. Dr. John Boggs challenged each district to start or continue the work of racial reconciliation and restorative justice. They recapped what is currently being done in several WNC districts throughout the year, but the Church was encouraged to do more. The Celebration participants were informed that the afternoon offering would be divided between the eight districts of the WNCC to help facilitate new initiatives. The culmination of the 2017 Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration came with words of thanks from our Resident Bishop, Paul Leeland to the keynote speaker, Dr. Johnson. Bishop Leeland then helped move us to action beyond this day by reminding everyone that, “You don’t need the ordination of the ordained priesthood (clergy) to lead in this direction. As Saint Jerome of the early Church reminds us, ‘baptism is the ordination of the Laity.’ So, we are all ordained and set free to do the work of Jesus Christ in the world.” And so, with admonishment from Scripture, the encouragement given by Dr. F. Willis Johnson, and the blessings of Bishop Leeland, we are off to do the work of social justice and racial reconciliation so that we might be the light of Christ for the world, The Beloved Community.

Five videos from the event