By John Shearer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Nov. 7, 2016) -- As about 80-100 people gathered at Church Street United Methodist Church in downtown Knoxville Sunday evening, their goal was to begin figuring out ways to encourage the city’s different racial groups to build more authentic relationships.
But the Rev. Michelle Ledder, the event speaker, encouraged them to aim much higher than that. In fact, she said they should try to pull off a miracle.
“When we come together and realize God’s costly grace, it can offer us the opportunity to do that which has never been done before,” she said. “Then we can be the people that come together and spark that miracle that there can be relationships – true and deep relationships across differences.”
Ledder, director of program ministries for Institutional Equity and Racial Justice for the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Religion and Race in Washington, D.C., made the comments at the end of the roughly 90-minute workshop.
As part of what was seen as an important first step in teaching different racial and ethnic groups to communicate better with one another, Ledder put attendees from Church Street and other churches and local groups representing different races through introductory communication training.
Ledder gave them a “toolkit” to help in future gatherings by outlining key points to remember. These steps, she said, include determining a purpose of a gathering beforehand, being open to learning, practicing self-reflection, really listening to another person, avoiding harmful traps like using insensitive language, and building trust.
The gathering – the first of two this month at the church under the heading “Conversations on Race: Building Authentic Relationships” -- had been planned by several Church Street members. The reason, according to associate pastor the Rev. Barbara Clark, was a concern about race relations, especially all the incidences of racially related violence.
As Clark said with emotion while introducing Ledder, even the United Methodist Church in Knoxville has been touched by racially related violence. She pointed to the gang-related shooting death last December of innocent teenage victim Zaevion Dobson, a Fulton High School student, whose family attends Martin Chapel United Methodist Church in the Knoxville District. His 12-year-old cousin, Jujuan Latham, was another innocent victim killed in April in what police also said was gang related.
“Our hearts are breaking,” Clark said. “If the United Methodist Church in their hometown can’t do something about the violence and injustice, then God help us.”
But Clark also felt the meeting could be a positive step toward racial reconciliation and ending racially related violence.
"Tonight we are answering the prayers of so many from years ago by gathering,” she said.
Ledder said in an interview after the workshop that churches – including the United Methodist Church – have to take a lead role in breaking down racial animosity, mistrust and prejudice.
“If the church is going to proclaim itself to be a people of reconciliation, then we must take a direct and explicit part and role in that relationship building,” she said.
She also said that cross-cultural communication is not done enough due to unfamiliarity with different groups.
“People will be having conversations in their own communities, but across communities it become a little more difficult to build relationships,” she said.
Ledder, who is an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, also spoke Monday morning at the monthly clergy meeting of the Knoxville District of Holston Conference at First United Methodist Church of Knoxville.
The Rev. Nathan Malone, Knoxville district superintendent, said events such as those two are important first steps in building racial reconciliation.
“Anytime we can have conversations that increase our understanding of each other helps us understand how we can move forward,” he said. “It can seem so complicated that we tend not to even address it, but just to have the conversation and get started is good.”
The second program in the series will take place Sunday, Nov. 13, from 5:45 to 7 p.m. in Church Street’s Parish Hall. It will feature a panel discussion by three Knoxville area residents whose work deals with racial relations.
They include the Rev. Janet Wolf, the director of the Children’s Defense Fund at the Haley Farm; Andre Canty from the Highland Center; and Avice Reid, senior director of communications for the city of Knoxville.
The public is invited.
Knoxville church hosts forum on race relations (Knox News Sentinel, 11/6/16)
John Shearer is a United Methodist and a reporter for The Chattanoogan.