Mary E. Klassen
A call to courage and interaction with others inspired listeners during a discussion of difficult issues in Elkhart, Goshen and South Bend, Ind., during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
Religious leaders representing the three communities joined in examining racism, violence and poverty at the January 20 afternoon event. Apostle Willie Coates Jr. from South Bend, Rev. Jennifer Tinsley from Elkhart and Gilberto Pérez Jr. from Goshen explored how these issues affect people both individually and in community.
Coates, who is co-organizer of Empowerment Saturdays in South Bend and hosts "The Urban Voice" on the local radio station WUBS, noted that while laws have changed to call for greater equality among races, “the playing field is not really level,” he said. “By law it is, but by practice it’s not.” He emphasized the need to pressure elected leaders to begin making a difference.
Tinsley, pastor of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Elkhart and vice president of Elkhart Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, gave several examples of continuing oppression. She noted the move to build prisons as a tactic for economic development, based on how many children of color are in the third grade, and she pointed out concern for violence against women. She also said, “As long as we have a mental health system that is underfunded and we don’t have money to provide adequate care, there’s a big hole in the safety net.”
Pérez shared statistics and listed challenges facing Hispanic people in this country and in Goshen specifically. The Goshen College social work professor noted that lack of work, threat of deportation, difficulty communicating in English, inability to get a driver’s license and move about freely all contribute to isolation, anxiety and risk of drug addition. One result is a growing need for mental health care among Hispanic people; “currently the group with the highest rate of attempted suicide is Latina girls between the ages of 13 and 17,” he said.
Near the end of the session, the panel was asked to give the audience of more than 100 a charge for continued efforts. Coates called on everyone to interact with people who are “not from my direct tribe. … because this is how Christ operates today. That’s what he would call me to do.”
To pastors, Coates said, “Don’t be satisfied with your congregational makeup, and don’t let your people be satisfied with that. Begin to ask the question, ‘Where are my other folks?’” To all the issues and problems, he concluded, “I think it’s we, the body of Christ, who have the answer.”
Tinsley called on people to be courageous, even if, as with Dr. King, we don’t know what the cost will be. “It won’t be easy,” she said, “but how many, when we leave this place, will be water-walkers—will step out of the boat? As we walk, the wind and waves are going to come—the opposition is going to come from so many different places—but if we keep the focus on what we as Christians believe, we can bring the redemption that Christ calls us to do in this world.”
Pérez, who also serves as interim regional pastor for Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference and as a member of the AMBS board, ended with the questions the listeners should ask themselves: Am I doing enough? Have I learned enough stories of people? Have I stepped into an uncomfortable situation? Am I being a voice for the person who does not have a voice?
The event was planned by the Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism Committee of AMBS and was co-hosted by People’s History of Elkhart, a community organization focused in the south-central part of the city. People’s History of Elkhart presented two annual awards at the beginning of the session. Jake Webster received the “Drum Major of Justice” Lifetime Achievement Award for his work as an artist and teacher. Webster has lived in northern Indiana since the 1970s and is known for his work in sculpture and poetry as well as his involvement in teaching the arts in the correctional facilities in Goshen, Elkhart and South Bend.
The annual “Jericho Road” Award for Transformative Change honors a group that works for sustainable transformation in the community. The Historic Roosevelt Summer Academy received this award for 2014. Since 2009, their effort, growing out of earlier work to reclaim the old Roosevelt elementary school building as a community center, offers classes in cooking, drama, dance, photography, gardening, yoga and more to youth in the area. Classes are taught by volunteers and several were present at the afternoon event to receive the honor.
Paul Bertha, one of the summer academy coordinators, explained that what participants learn in a cooking class or the flexibility they develop in yoga or the way they can express themselves in drama or dance is not the end goal; “the real point is feeding the soul,” he said.
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