Community conversations begin with race relations



In connection with this year’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Florida Conference Bishop Ken Carter convened a community discussion titled “From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter” Jan. 11. The event was held at Concord Coffee in Lakeland.

The Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin, director of Connectional and Justice Ministries, co-led the discussion, which attracted more than 30 people of varied ages, races and religions. Included was Shandale Terrell, a recent African-American candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, District 40, who was born and raised in Lakeland.

Bishop Ken Carter and Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin of the Florida Conference lead discussion in the first of a planned series of coffee shop gatherings designed to address community issues pertaining to race relations.

The informal coffee shop gathering, held in the fading light of a Wednesday afternoon, was the debut of an initiative called “Concord Conversations.” Its aim was to bring people together to discuss various issues affecting the community from clergy to college students, local business owners and concerned neighbors in order to move a step closer to forming a more inclusive community.

“This is a very informal, safe conversation,” said Bishop Carter. “It’s about race and the general topic is from civil rights to black lives matter. We don’t have an agenda or endpoint that we imagine, other than just knowing that it’s better to have the conversation than to not have it.”

He then introduced Austin, who discussed her experience in seminary 40 years ago, her spiritual background and her journey in becoming an ordained minister in The United Methodist Church.

Carter also asked those present to break into small groups to address several topics of discussion including hurtful, as well as helpful, experiences they may have had.

Feedback on negative incidents included hearing what they knew were “code words” for people of a particular race, religion or background; having someone ignore their opinion because they were a different nationality, and reading derogatory social media posts.

Positive experiences included receiving support from an unexpected person or source and making personal connections with someone they didn’t think they had anything in common with.

One attendee noted, “It’s one thing to recognize these issues, but we also need to get involved.”

District Superintendent Rinaldo Hernandez orders his refreshment before the conversations begin.

In a similar form of outreach, the Florida Conference scheduled a pulpit exchange to be held the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. According to Bishop Carter, the exchange aims to facilitate cross-racial and cross-cultural experiences among Florida churches.

Bishop Carter also suggested that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon entitled “A Knock at Midnight” could be the basis for the sermon preached that Sunday using the text from Luke 11:5-8.

A special guest, Rini Hernandez, who is the Southwest Florida district superintendent of the Florida Conference, also spoke briefly at the coffee shop gathering from his point of view as a Cuban-American. He said that he came to expect discrimination because of his heavy accent, but that he has always stayed focused on how to live his life in peace and do what’s right by God.

Bishop Carter closed the event by asking everyone to observe a moment of silence, then saying a word or phrase that described where they felt they were at that point in time. Voices came from all over the room uttering everything from “aware” and “encouraged” to “I am a change agent” and “keep praying, talking and acting.”

“I know there’s hope for us. It’s just amazing,” said one participant.

--Jessica Chapman is a freelance writer based in Lakeland.

 


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