Reflections on EmpowerWest Community Dialogue

Thinking Together
by Joe Phelps

I’m still a bit punch-drunk from exhaustion after last night’s Community Gathering on Race at Highland. It was energy well-spent.

Many of you gave energy far beyond what a pastor could hope or ask. The result: a community gathered to discuss the toughest issue in our country, what Jim Wallis calls “America’s Original Sin”— racism and the continuing effects of slavery.

It is hard to read of past terror against enslaved people. It is embarrassing to read of government sanctioned racism which kept wealth and power out of black hands.

But what moves us to action is the gospel call to address the imbalance and the continuing subtle ways in which white privilege is perpetuated. Is this not what Jesus said the good news was: a message to the poor, letting oppressed go free, announcing the year of the Lord’s favor?

Highland, you took a stand for God’s justice last night. Your presence, your service, your contributions of physical and emotional energy were salve for black wounds. Countless black men and women expressed deep gratitude for the conversation, the honesty, the solidarity they felt with us. And we too felt gratitude and humility to be part of such a moment.

The name for this is God.

There’s still a lot of work to do. Join the lunch or book discussion groups. Listen to God’s Spirit. Join our Justice Ministry Group. Be a leader in God’s army of love.

But first, at risk of pride, let us pause to give thanks to God and to all who played a role in letting Highland host what might be the first step in God’s next great miracle.

I’ll let Ken Johnson’s words complete my reflection:
“Tonight was absolutely amazing. I sat in the back. It might not have been as obvious to those of you in the expensive seats in the front, but in the back, there was a lot going on! Actually, throughout the sanctuary, there was great attention and great interest. I have no idea how many folks were downstairs, but I think by most any objective measure, the evening was splendid.

“Early on when Kathy turned toward the congregation and invited them to join in, I was so choked up, I couldn’t open my mouth without getting emotional. It was too much.

“And when Joe suggested the stretch break, what happened was one of the emotional highlights of the evening. I happened to be around a significant number of black attendees, and as I attempt to explain what I felt as we exchanged those words and held hands I am really at a loss for words.

“What happened tonight won’t solve the problems in the West End, at least immediately, and those of us who struggle with classical white liberalism must continue to find a way to make what we do match our lofty vision of justice and equality. We need help and we need the consistent stimulus. We want to go there but we don’t always know how to do that. Tonight was a great help.”


Baptist News Global Article 

EmpowerWest: Race, Slavery, and a Way Forward
by Rhonda Abbott Blevins, Kentucky Baptist Fellowship Executive Coordinator

I caught a glimpse of what Jesus meant when he prayed, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Monday night, February 29, the EmpowerWest coalition hosted “Race, Slavery, and a Way Forward,” featuring Dr. Edward Baptist, an ivy league historian who recently published The Half Has Never Been Told. Advertised across the city of Louisville as a “city-wide book club discussion” with an author/historian, you might think turnout would be low. Think again. The sanctuary of Highland Baptist Church was filled to capacity. Overflow seating with live feed in the fellowship hall, packed.

Led by Highland’s minister of music and worship, Kathy Collier, the combined choirs from churches across the city, black and white, set the tone for the evening. And when they led the congregation in singing “God will delight when we are creators of justice” (pictured above), chills ran down my spine. I felt like I was standing on holy ground.

Baptist presented a lecture highlighting the story of a young slave, weaving that story throughout the larger narrative of the institution of slavery in the United States. Then Baptist was joined by Dr. Kevin Cosby of St. Stephen Church and president of Simmons College, for a dialogue. The crowd sat attentive as Cosby offered honest perspective–perspective many whites in the room had never considered. Baptist shared the way in which his childhood story shaped him and compelled him to spend 14 years on this book. People lingered long after dismissal, enjoying conversation. Black and white. “Thy kingdom come.”

We’re just getting started, folks.

Next up is LunchWest, a fellowship event to build relationships that bridge racial divides. It’s free–the main dish and drinks are provided. You are invited, if able, to bring a dish to share. It will be held at St. Stephen Church on Wednesday, March 9, at noon.

A continuation of the book club discussion of The Half Has Never Been Told will meet on Saturday, March 19, 2-4 pm at Simmons College of Kentucky, 1000 South 4th Street, in Louisville.

The pastors of the EmpowerWest coalition will be at Spring Gathering at Campbellsville University, April 22-23. They will lead a breakout session telling their story, and helping us all catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

A video of February 29th’s discussion is available here.