BY JOHN SHEARER
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Nov. 16, 2016) -- The three panelists taking part in Church Street United Methodist Church’s “Conversations on Race: Building Authentic Relationships” on Nov. 9 came from different backgrounds of experiencing race relations.
However, they shared a similar desire to end prejudice and racial inequality and to encourage harmony and opportunities for all people.
“Open your minds and hearts,” Tatia Harris, a public affairs specialist with the city of Knoxville, told an audience of about 100-125 gathered in the downtown Knoxville church’s Parish Hall. “Even if you are not activists, if you are deliberate in your actions and words, that says a lot.”
Harris -- along with Andre Canty from the Highlander Education and Research Center in New Market, Tenn., and the Rev. Janet Wolf from the Children’s Defense Fund Haley Farm in Norris, Tenn. -- shared their personal stories and observations regarding race issues.
They also answered audience questions about how to best tackle the complex issues of race relations as the two-part program initiated by several concerned members of the church concluded.
Harris, the first speaker and a substitute for fellow city of Knoxville employee Avice Reid, who had to cancel due to a family health emergency, said she was born in 1965 as the daughter of black parents who had grown up in segregation.
Her father served in the Vietnam War, but some of the white soldiers who served under him had trouble taking orders from him, she said. However, a Lutheran minister was able to ease the tension and help her father, and that influenced him to join the Lutheran church after he returned to the United States.
Despite the fact that few blacks are Lutheran, Harris said it became a positive learning experience for her family.
“We had the opportunity to experience different cultures and realized that as Christians we are one,” she said.
However, they were often ostracized as the only black residents in a neighborhood or school as the family regularly relocated, but she realized later the animosity was due mostly to the fact the white residents were uninformed.
She said that being knowledgeable about another culture gives one an opportunity to minister. She added that she put that philosophy to work when a number of Iranians fled Iran after the 1970s political crisis there and located in her home state of Minnesota.
“I had an opportunity to welcome someone as I wanted to be welcomed,” she said.
Canty, who said he is a millennial born in 1985, had a different perspective of growing up black in the era of hip-hop music. He said that as a child, he thought civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was simply some lovable person of the past like Santa Claus, who had done some vague and peaceful action to help black people.
“His story got diluted,” Canty said. “He did stand for peace and for racial harmony, but he also stood for justice.”
He said he learned later that King also protested more controversial issues like the Vietnam War.
As he has grown older, Canty said he has tried to help young people by being involved in such mentoring groups as 100 Black Men of Knoxville, adding that such groups take positive steps toward reducing problems like gang-related crime.
"I know we won before, and I know we will win again,” he said.
Wolf, the final speaker, shared a story of moving to Atlanta from Delaware in the late 1950s when she was young and trying to grasp the perspective as a white person of seeing the pushback by fellow whites against integration efforts.
She remembered that her church in downtown Atlanta voted to allow a civil rights team to worship at her church in a peaceful integration effort, but another church nearby angrily let the group know it was not welcome there.
“It became clear at an early age that there was no neutrality,” she said.
She went on to devote much of her life to social justice issues, including while serving as a United Methodist pastor for 15 years.
Wolf later told the group that the Christian church should be in the forefront of pushing for social justice and racial harmony.
“If we are not connected in the community, we become theological justifiers,” she said. “We prop up the way things are and create a theology that justifies it. But the church is called to move from charity to justice.”
During a question-and-answer session for all three panelists at the end, Harris said the biggest barrier to better race relations in Knoxville is a lack of understanding of black people and their struggles.
In response to another question, Wolf said one way to help quell white supremacist thoughts that still exist among some people is for fellow whites to have conversations with them that can start off by talking about another topic.
According to the Rev. Barbara Clark, associate pastor at Church Street UMC and member of the event's planning team, the conversations and efforts regarding improving race relations are scheduled to continue.
She said another meeting for those interested will be held Sunday, Jan. 8, at Second United Methodist Church in Knoxville, with another meeting scheduled for Feb. 12.
Details will be announced in an upcoming newsletter of the Holston Conference's Knoxville District, she said.
Knoxville community gathers to discuss race (Knox News Sentinel, 11/13/16)
Race relations: Church Street takes on tough topic (The Call, 11/7/16)
John Shearer is a United Methodist and a reporter for The Chattanoogan.