March With Me

Celebrating Martin Luther King Day

I moved to Austin, Texas, in August 2012, to serve as director of children’s ministries for Austin Oaks Church (EFCA). In early January, I realized the staff would not be receiving the day off to celebrate Martin Luther King Day. I’d already made plans, assuming we would have the day off.

I knew I needed to engage my colleagues about the significance of this important holiday—not only to African Americans but to all Americans.

As soon as I brought the issue to the attention of our pastor and executive pastor, they immediately adjusted the schedule for the entire staff. They asked if I would plan an event for 2014 to honor MLK Day.

I wanted anything we did to focus on unity, and to create a day of education, awareness and service. We chose to participate in our city’s celebration, which was multifaceted: a discussion on Austin’s racial history, held on the University of Texas campus; a parade through city streets, with each participant donating food to a local food bank; a cultural program of speeches, dance and gospel music.

Many of our church staff members did not know how I-35, the major byway cutting through Austin, had historically been used to separate whites from minorities. Nor had some of them ever crossed over to the east side of that highway, which is the predominantly black and Latino section of the city. The east side is also home to Huston-Tillotson University—an HBCU (Historically Black College and University) that was formed because blacks were not allowed to study at UT during segregation.

The entire day served as a great history lesson. At lunch we debriefed. I could tell that our staff had felt awkward and uncomfortable at times, because they were not used to being out of their comfort zones. When you are trying to bridge the racial divide through awareness, it will take everyone becoming uncomfortable.

Since then, I’ve used my staff devotion time to discuss biblical diversity and how to become more culturally aware. I’m not just an American-American face, brought on the staff to meet a quota. No, I’ve been given a voice around the table to speak into important areas. We are all learning from each other. The staff feels a grace to ask me questions related to African Americans. I feel that same grace to ask questions about what I do not understand.

Our senior pastor, Rob Harrell, has asked how we might continue this conversation, this exploration, and be part of the solution to America’s race issue. So as a staff team, we have decided to read and discuss a book together in 2015—Divided by Faith: Evangelical religion and the problem of race in America, by Michael Emerson. While we won’t be celebrating MLK Day together this year, we do have the day off, and some of our staff asked about attending the city’s march again.

For so long, the church was on the wrong side of our country’s racial injustices. Many denominations, seminaries and churches supported racial discrimination, radicalization and school segregation. It’s unbelievable that anyone thought that to be God’s heart.

The church must be a credible witness to a racially divided world, and we do so by seeking unity through racial reconciliation, grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Celebrating MLK Day acknowledges and supports the work and justice that the civil rights movement brought to America. It allows the church to be headlights in the conversation on race and reconciliation. You can’t reconcile what you don’t acknowledge.

Austin Oaks Church staff participates in Austin’s 2014 MLK Day parade (author is in upper right, second row from the back). Photo courtesy Austin Oaks Church

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