By Paige K Slighter
Every January, Woodland welcomes the opportunity to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We embrace his courage to stand peacefully for justice, his humility to walk in love, and his strong faith rooted in Christ. As a church, we seek the same kind of racial reconciliation and healing that he pursued in his life and activism. We also honor all the brothers and sisters of the civil rights movement who shared his dream for equality and the freedom to stand together in unity.
It’s our goal each year to approach MLK Sunday thoughtfully with hopeful and open hearts. That’s why we have a special team of staff and volunteers that meet months in advance to begin planning. This year’s team started their first brainstorm in September with the objective of picking a theme for the celebration. Since it’s just one Sunday out of the whole year, it can be a bit overwhelming to sum up all of the possibilities into one concept or phrase. Emily, a staff member who is on the team said, “We’ve got a lot of ideas, but it’s all about pacing ourselves and narrowing them down to concepts that are timely and relevant.” The team is passionate about honoring MLK’s legacy as well as keeping a pulse on what’s happening in the world today. That’s why this year’s theme is “Good Trouble.” The phrase comes from John Lewis, who died this year and was one of the last surviving members of King’s inner circle. Read more about him in Emily’s post here.
Since most of us don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, we wanted to take an opportunity to pull back the curtain and see the heart behind the celebration.
Emily Morrison (WH Communications)
“What inspires me most about MLK is that he really believed Jesus meant what he said.”
This is Emily’s third year working with the MLK Team. Her biggest heroes are civil rights activists, so she’s super passionate about celebrating them. Emily has a degree in History and International Studies with a concentration on Black history. She said, “The courses on the American civil rights movement impacted me more than any other classes I took in college. They opened my eyes to a past I knew nothing about and made me want to do something with my life for the side of justice.”
In college, Emily attended a Freedom Summer reunion where she met civil rights veterans. They had courageously ridden buses, registered voters and marched through the South during the height of the movement. When she asked them to sign their names in a book she owned, they inscribed phrases like, “passing on the torch,” “the freedom train is coming, get on board,” and “keep the struggle going.” Emily said, “I was 20 years old, around the same age many of them had been when they put their lives on the line for freedom. I walked away and thought, ‘It’s my turn. I can’t let them down.’ Ever since then, social justice has been really important to me.”
During her time with these historical heroes, Emily received some really good advice. She asked where her generation should get started as it related to reconciliation and justice. An activist named Sheila Michaels tapped her on the shoulder and handed her a piece of paper. In all-caps, she had written, “LISTEN.”
Jerry Poindexter (WH Volunteer)
“What inspires me most about MLK is that he, like Jesus, maintained God’s perspective of loving the unlovable through death threats, stabbing, bombing, imprisonment and finally martyrdom. He bore his cross well, returning hatred with love.”
Jerry joined the MLK team around the same time Emily did. He’s a Covenant Partner, serves on one of our leadership boards, and has been a faithful volunteer at Woodland. He loves to worship, so it’s likely you’ve seen him singing on stage, or pre-COVID shaking his tail feather. He’s also an excellent intercessor on the prayer team.
Jerry was born in Omaha, Nebraska, during the ‘Jim Crow’ period of segregation. In grade school, he remembers being traumatized by racial slurs and being chased out of ‘white area’ shopping centers.
As a teenager of the ‘60s, Jerry was involved in the tumultuous civil rights struggle. Being the youngest of three boys, each one year apart, he felt like the black sheep of the family. He said, “My oldest brother seemed to me to be oblivious to what was happening in our city. He was more interested in building fast cars to impress pretty girls. My middle brother was drawn to MLK’s message of peaceful protests: marches and sit-ins. I’d seen him come home maced with welts on his back from being beaten with billy clubs. I gravitated to the message of Huey P Newton of The Black Panther Party.”
Jerry joined his cousin who had organized a BPP chapter in Omaha. He said he loved those warm summer nights listening to young leaders teach Black history, plan ways to feed the poor and elderly neighbors, and make the streets safe. However, following the protests and riots of the ‘60s, Jerry’s cousin was put in prison and sentenced to life without parole for planting a bomb in a house where a policeman was killed. Meanwhile, MLK had gotten civil rights legislation passed so that black people in the South could finally vote.
After high school, Jerry was drafted into the Vietnam war, fortunately, the war ended while he was in basic training. So, he joined his oldest brother who had moved to Portland, Oregon. Jerry said, “It was there that I realized the wisdom of my middle brother, MLK and Jesus Christ. The truth had finally moved from my head and taken root in my heart.” All the violence and misdirected anger had not accomplished what love could.
Osheta Moore (WH Outreach & Teaching)
“What inspires me most about MLK is that he wasn’t afraid to say hard unpopular things.”
Osheta is passionate about peacemaking and committed to Dr. King’s vision of creating a “beloved community.” The term can be traced back to Josiah Royce, a 19th-century philosopher and theologian. He defined it as “a spiritual or divine community capable of achieving the highest good as well as the common good.” Royce founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a movement that was later joined by Dr. King. Osheta believes the beloved community became the “north star of MLK’s teaching.” She said, “We the church are called to this kind of community flourishing in our belovedness through Christ Jesus.”
As part of the teaching team for Woodland’s School of Missional Apprenticeship (SOMA), Osheta had the students read through and discuss the book Jesus and the Disinherited by civil rights leader Howard Thurman. She said, “This is a really helpful and important resource that reveals how Jesus identifies with those in the margins, those with their backs against the wall.” In the book, Thurman explains that Jesus is a partner in the pain of the oppressed and only in following his example of love can justice prevail.
Osheta and her family are celebrating MLK in a special way this year. They’ve kept up their Christmas tree, lights and all, and decorated it with Black history ornaments. Their “Black Joy Tree” stands as a beautiful reminder of their African American identity and honors historical leaders in the civil rights movement. Osheta even ordered cotton from a black farmer in North Carolina to adorn the tree.
If you’re looking for a unique way to celebrate, Osheta suggested meditating on some of Dr. King’s quotes. One of her favorites is, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” She said, “Ask God to give you wisdom and open your heart. Ask him to challenge you. That small action is reframing your heart and turning you into a peacemaker.”
We are so grateful for all of the MLK team and all of their hard work. Thank you for helping us celebrate King’s great example, as well as challenging us to continue learning year after year.