AMBS MLK Jr. Day event addresses exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart and need for repair

(l. to r.) Special guest Benjamin J. Tapper, M.P.A., M.Div., facilitates a panel discussion featuring longtime Elkhart residents and leaders Rev. Jean Mayes and Rev. Dr. Plez Lovelady as part of AMBS’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day event at AMBS on Jan

(l. to r.) Special guest Benjamin J. Tapper, M.P.A., M.Div., facilitates a panel discussion featuring longtime Elkhart residents and leaders Rev. Jean Mayes and Rev. Dr. Plez Lovelady as part of AMBS’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day event at AMBS on Jan. 20, 2020, on the theme, Repairing the Harm: A Community Conversation on the Systemic Exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart. A community conversation followed the discussion. (Credit: Oliver Pettis)

By Quinn Brenneke

ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Nearly 175 community members, students, faculty and staff gathered to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day on Monday afternoon, Jan. 20, at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana. This year, AMBS’s biennial event centered on the theme, Repairing the Harm: A Community Conversation on the Systemic Exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart.

A panel discussion between Rev. Jean Mayes and Rev. Dr. Plez Lovelady kicked off the free event in the Chapel of the Sermon on the Mount, followed by a community conversation in the Waltner Hall Lounge. Mayes is an ordained local elder to St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Elkhart; she earned a degree in biblical studies from Bethel University in Mishawaka, Indiana. Lovelady is senior pastor at Southside Baptist Church in Elkhart, executive director of S.B.C. Ministries and chancellor of Beulah Bible College and Seminary in Elkhart; he is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute.

Benjamin J. Tapper facilitated the panel discussion and community conversation. An associate for resource consulting with the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis, Indiana, Tapper holds a Master of Public Affairs from Indiana University and a Master of Divinity from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis and hosts the Invisible Truths podcast.

ake Webster and Tom Butler particpate in the community conversation that followed immediately after the Repairing the Harm panel discussion. (Credit: Oliver Pettis)Tapper began the panel discussion by asking Mayes and Lovelady to name one or two specific harms they have seen in the Elkhart community over their lives and to describe the impact of those harms. Mayes recalled growing up in a mostly Black neighborhood located around the railroad tracks on the south side of Elkhart and described the solidarity she experienced there.

“We never knew that we had less. Our community was so small, and pretty much everyone in it had the same thing,” she said. She noted that the Black community was self-sustaining, with its own grocery stores, meat markets, beauty shops, and clothing and furniture stores.

“I watched the city grow up around us,” she said. “I remember a day when — and most people don’t know this — there used to be a Black school here. I attended that Black school; it was called South Side School. It’s very hard to find reference to that school. It’s almost like our history was erased. And I think that’s the problem that is happening all around the country; Black history is being erased.”

Mayes noted that integration of schools came out necessity when the Black school was torn down and the city had to find places for the students to go. She and her two sisters ended up having to go to three different schools. She witnessed a similar division of families across the city.

Lovelady described the discrimination he has seen in Elkhart during his lifetime.

“We were red-lined within a certain area of the community,” he said. “Once we graduated from high school, the real Elkhart came out. You could not get a job here. There was no respect here. A lot of the people we thought were our friends literally didn’t speak to us because we were in that little corner of Elkhart.”

Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, M.A., addresses participants at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day event at AMBS on Jan. 20, 2020, on the theme, Repairing the Harm: A Community Conversation on the Systemic Exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart. Alexis is AMBS’s Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism coordinator and an organizer of the biennial event. (Credit: Oliver Pettis)He remembered when the City of Elkhart demolished the Black neighborhood in the 1960s and ’70s.

“One of the saddest parts was when they tore down the ‘village’ — when they told us the land where we lived was contaminated and the banks would not invest money in it,” he said. “They said, ‘However, we will sell you some other houses that are really falling apart, but it’s better than what you have.’ Many people who had been in these homes all of their lives found themselves going out and getting in debt all over again.”

Tapper asked the panelists to imagine what repairs would look like for the harms that they have seen. Mayes pointed to the need to consider all parts of the community in order to repair harm.

“As long as you have one sick part of your neighborhood or community, your whole city is sick,” she said. “Every economic dollar that we spend downtown and on the north [side of Elkhart], 25 cents of it ought to go to the south part of the city, too — not to tear down and vacate homes, but to build them up and repair them. They have historical value just like the downtown has historical value.”

Lovelady described how parks in African American communities are neglected and treated like traps for drug dealers, leading to young Black men and women being charged with felonies that affect their future access to housing, employment, being able to vote, etc.

“We need to understand that we all have worth, and to open opportunities for people in the city,” he advised. “Most of our younger people are moving to Indianapolis because they understand that there’s nothing here for them — no jobs with opportunities for advancement. The money is held in a certain part of the city. To make things better here, we need to look at things holistically and economically. We have to realize that we are coming to the table, and we are coming to the table with worth.”

Clara Hadley leads singing at the Repairing the Harm program, hosted by the Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism team at AMBS in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 28, 2020.  (Credit: Oliver Pettis)Lovelady also pointed to the need for personal change: “There has to be a heart change. There has to be a mind change.”

Mayes added, “In order to have a heart change, we have to begin to look at each other as individuals and not as mass groups. And until we look at our community as a whole community and stop dividing ourselves in a caste system type of way, we will never have full community or full peace in Elkhart.”

Singing before and after the panel discussion was led by Clara Hadley, a worship director and church administrator at Kingdom Impact Christian Cultural Center in Elkhart. Jean Robinson, who was previously scheduled as a panelist, was not able to attend.

Tapper facilitated a community conversation after the panel discussion. Attendees gathered in small groups to discuss reflection questions, and Tapper closed with a historical overview of racialized discrimination in the United States. He traced the movement of enslaved people through the Middle Passage to the Americas, where slavery was eventually made illegal centuries later. Reparations were promised but not honored, he said, and legal discrimination was enacted in the Jim Crow laws. Tapper indicated that this historical legacy was challenged by the civil rights movement, but new eras of systemic discrimination — such as mass incarceration — continue to disadvantage Black communities.

“Understand that as we talk about repairing the harm, as much as dialogue is important, we have to put it in context as one small step in a centuries-long process,” he said. “It’s going to take all of us to undo this.”

Rod Roberson at the Repairing the Harm, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day program hosted by the Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism team at AMBS on January 20, 2020.  (Credit: Oliver Pettis)Rod Roberson, who was elected in November as Elkhart's first African American mayor, attended the community conversation and shared closing words.

“Whenever someone doesn’t have a voice, I want to give them a fighting chance,” he said. “Thank you for being here; thank you for all that you do.”

AMBS’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day event was hosted and organized by AMBS’s Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism (ICUR) team, led by Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, M.A., Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism coordinator. Event planners included ICUR team members Alexis, Andy Brubacher Kaethler, Ph.D., AMBS Associate Professor of Christian Formation and Culture, and Marisa Smucker, an M.A. in Christian Formation student from Goshen, Indiana.

Alexis spoke of the premise for celebrating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy before the panel discussion began.

“Repair is essential to the work of reconciliation and justice,” she said. “Justice and reconciliation require remedy; they require repair for harm; they require restitution for damage and hurt. But that enables us to be creative together.”

See also the recording of the event online and ambs.edu/mlkday.

— Quinn Brenneke of Fort Wayne, Indiana, is a second-year Master of Divinity student at AMBS, majoring in Theological Studies.


Photos

(l. to r.) Jake Webster and Tom Butler participate in the community conversation that followed the panel discussion on the topic, Repairing the Harm: A Community Conversation on the Systemic Exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart, at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day event at AMBS on Jan. 20, 2020. (Credit: Oliver Pettis)

Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, M.A., addresses participants at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day event at AMBS on Jan. 20, 2020, on the theme, Repairing the Harm: A Community Conversation on the Systemic Exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart. Alexis is AMBS’s Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism coordinator and an organizer of the biennial event. (Credit: Oliver Pettis)

Clara Hadley leads singing at Repairing the Harm: A Community Conversation on the Systemic Exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart, hosted by the Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism team at AMBS in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day on Jan. 20, 2020. (Credit: Oliver Pettis)

Rod Roberson at Repairing the Harm: A Community Conversation on the Systemic Exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day event hosted by the Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism team at AMBS on Jan. 20, 2020. (Credit: Oliver Pettis)


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