Facing racism with grace and truth
Get on the Bus examines how racism shaped American history and culture todayBy Meagan Ewton
What started as a civil rights tour on Thursday had by Sunday become something much more personal to the 44 children, women and men who experienced the second year of Get on the Bus.
Starting the journey
Participants boarded the charter bus on the bright morning of Sept. 20. Everyone was handed a blue bag with a resource folder complete with schedule, spiral notebook, pen, civil rights reading material, earplugs, and a copy of “Multiethnic Conversations,” a workbook written by Mosaic Church founder Mark DeYmaz.
Most people stayed in conversation with people they knew as the bus drove east on the highway. A sense of anticipation began to grow as the hours wore on and the people grew restless. Finally, the bus came to a stop outside Philander Smith College, a historically black college in Little Rock that the group was scheduled to tour that afternoon.
“Allow me to be the first to welcome you to Little Rock!” announced Trina Bose North, pastor of OKC-Crown Heights and co-planner for the event. Her cheerful welcome would become a staple of the weekend.
But instead of getting off the bus, the bus moved forward and drove into a nearby neighborhood. The first unannounced schedule change of the journey got people’s attention, especially since dinner had been listed as part of the tour of the college.
After several minutes and a few tight turns, the bus parked again, this time outside a tan brick house just off the corner of West 28th and South Cross St.
An unexpected stop
While the L.C. & Daisy Bates House and Museum was not on the original schedule, participants were eager and curious to see what was in store.
What they discovered was the legacy of Daisy Lee Gatson Bates, a civil rights activist whose home served as a command post for the integration of Little Rock Central High School. Bates served as a mentor for the Little Rock Nine, the group of students who integrated the high school in 1957.
“We’re trying to save the history, and it’s surprising how many people don’t know about the history of these nine students,” said Mary Louise Williams, vice president of the L.C. & Daisy Bates Museum Foundation.
For some, the home tour was the start of a weekend-long wakeup call. For Kay Jones, a 72-year-old African American woman, it was a reminder of the history she lived through.
“It hurt me then, and it makes me sad sometimes when I see it, but I appreciate what they did,” she said.
Michelle Place, who works as the executive director for the Tulsa Historical Society, asserts that history is written by the victors, and in western history, that was traditionally the white male. She notes that in the past few decades, more diverse populations have had the resources to tell their history and challenge the traditional narrative.
“People say you can’t change history, and they’re right, but you can change who is included in telling the history,” Place said. “You don’t have the whole story until you hear from the oppressed.”
Love and hospitality
After touring the museum, the group visited The EmPowerment Center, a ministry of Theressa Hoover Memorial United Methodist Church. A dozen people in black t-shirts reading “Hoover is where the heart is” welcomed the group with hugs and handshakes and guided them into a large hall prepared with a soul food feast. The welcoming committee then became the serving committee, bringing water and sweet tea to tables while chatting and laughing with their Oklahoma guests.
During dinner, the Get on the Bus participants learned about Theressa Hoover and her legacy both on the local community and on the General Board of Global Ministries. The church that bears her name works toward racial justice to this day by engaging in ministries for gang prevention, rehabilitation after incarceration, child care, substance abuse support and housing.
As proof of their work, the lead speaker invited several servers to share their stories. One by one, they talked about past substance abuse, time spent in prison, having nowhere to go, and how the church had helped them reconnect with their faith and their families.
“They loved me until I could love myself,” said a young woman who had recently been incarcerated. “Now this is the thing I know about God: He already has a plan.”
Participants left that night feeling elated by the work they had seen through the church.
“I’ve experienced being around people like that, but to hear more of that and that they are doing something with their lives, it just ran chills over my body. It was very inspirational,” said Jones. “The food we ate, the conversations we had – just something about being in that building was a joy. I enjoyed it.”
Bishop Jimmy Nunn agreed, saying it was a strong reminder of the power of the Gospel to move people from the depths of despair to the light of hope.
“You could see in their faces when we walked in the room they were really happy we were here; they were filled with joy,” Bishop Nunn said. “I would not have guessed walking in to that place the profound brokenness each of those people had experienced in their fairly recent past and how that ministry had helped transformed their lives.”
The evening’s session on multiculturalism was postponed for the morning as riders arrived at the hotel around nine o’clock, nearly two hours after the schedule had listed. Most participants went straight to their rooms for the night while the parents and guardians of the children on board took the kids to the outdoor pool.
The night had been full of joy, and most folks seemed ready for the next day’s journey to Memphis. However, few were prepared for the emotional journey that was yet to come.
The Lorraine Motel
“Is everybody sitting next to somebody? If not, please move and sit next to somebody you don’t know.”
Janet Boone’s clear voice carried over the highway traffic and through the bus on the morning of the second day. The journey to Memphis had begun, and the leadership team was making the most of the time with an opening discussion. Boone, a co-planner for the event, asked participants to discuss three questions:
What do you expect from the trip?
What is your hesitation to talk about race?
What do you hope to gain from the trip?
Though the guided discussion didn’t last long, the questions lingered until the bus arrived at The Lorraine Motel, the site of the National Civil Rights Museum and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
The museum started with a colorful timeline of King’s life and death in juxtaposition with popular culture and the Civil Rights movement followed by studies of the slave trade and Jim Crow laws. Entire rooms were dedicated to telling the history of desegregation, boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, community action and the right to vote. The exhibits pulled no punches, compelling visitors to examine images of abuse, neglect, lynching and dehumanization that disclose the ongoing legacy of white supremacy in America’s history.
Many participants slowed their pace as they moved from room to room. Some recounted where they were during key moments in civil rights history—the March on Washington, the Voting Rights Act, Bloody Sunday, King’s assassination. Others quickened their pace, fearing their time would run out before they could see everything the museum offered.
Rev. Heather Scherer, who pastors Glenpool-Living Water, said being able to see people’s expressions in photos and footage was powerful.
“It’s always a good reminder to realize that people took risks with their lives to change things,” Scherer said. “Sometimes as pastors, we’re unwilling to take risks that’ll even upset some of the people in our church, let alone with our lives.”
As the 44 bus riders slowly separated into groups of one or two, one group of five experienced the museum together: the children.
Jocelyn Ewton, Andre and Anthony Meely, Maya North,and Mel Solis were the only minors present for Get on the Bus. For most, it was their first year attending; Jocelyn had participated in 2017.
The children’s bright eyes and earnest smiles took in the inviting colors of the opening timeline as Bose North, Jennifer Solis and Jay Williams walked with them and answered their questions. However, their eagerness morphed into trepidation as they began to understand the scope of violence and oppression the black community has faced in America.
Williams, who believes a lot of civil rights history was left out of textbooks when he was growing up, brought his nephews Anthony and Andre so they could learn about the people who paved the way for them to have better education and more equality than their African-American ancestors.
“I think that all kids need to experience this and see it in a direct way,” Williams said. “It’s important for us to look at this history, but more importantly, it’s important for us to know it so we’re not doomed to repeat it.”
Solis agreed, saying the people Mel was learning about deserved the respect of their history being shared with authentic stories.
“It’s really important to me that history for her become something more than a story, it become something more that she hears but can actually put flesh on and understand,” Solis said.
Despite the nature of the often-violent content, the children remained eager to learn as much as possible.Anthony watched every video he could see. Andre stopped to read descriptive placards. Maya took in the expansive visuals, and Mel would walk ahead with Solis toward the next room. When Jocelyn was visibly disturbed by the presence of a KKK robe displayed high on the wall of the Jim Crow exhibit, she didn’t look away. None of the children looked away.
An important moment for Bose North was seeing her daughter Maya learn about slavery, Jim Crow laws, and Martin Luther King Jr. from African American colleagues in the group.
“I backed up and let my thoughtful, thought-out colleagues tell her about the pain of racism,” Bose North said.“My deepest hope is that these experiences will broaden her perspective to be more compassionate and justice-seeking.”
By the end of the afternoon, the children were emotionally drained. Their excited energy had transformed to a nervous restlessness that couldn’t be extinguished by dinner on Beale Street or a visit to a candy store. The parents and guardians agreed to bring them together for a time of processing in the lobby of the hotel before bed, despite the group’s late return to the hotel.
Travis Ewton, pastor of Calumet and Red Rock churches, said it’s vital not to shield children from the racial violence, but to teach them to recognize it both in history and modern society.
“We often allow our kids to witness fictionalized violence… The only difference is that this is real,” Ewton said. “They may not have words for all that they are feeling and thinking about what they've seen and heard; so, we need to help them work through that. If we do, we can help them develop empathy and understanding.”
All of the parents and guardians were thankful that there were multiple children on the trip.
“They were able to be just together as kids and process it on a level that they understood,” Williams said.“They were able to just sit and be sad together and be heartbroken together.”
“What we saw was scary and painful,”Bose North said, “but it’s important for kids to know about our world because it’s real, and there are things we can do to make the world better.”
By morning, the children were ready to learn again, this time about the Little Rock Nine. Instead of being scattered throughout the bus, all five children sat together at the front of the bus. They stayed together for the rest of the trip.
“I loved the way parents shared this journey with their children and explained what was going on and the stars in the eyes of the children as they listened to this history, and parents helping to put them in perspective,” said Rev. Nancy McCullough, pastor of Spencer and Nicoma Park churches. “I hope to see more of that: families journeying on this type of a trip.”
“Why didn’t I know?”
The morning of the third day was damp and gray. The weather seemed to reflect the collective state of the participants, who had still not yet processed as a group all they had learned and felt. They boarded the bus at 9 a.m. and headed for Central High School, site of national desegregation and school of the Little Rock Nine.
Though the visitor’s center that housed the national historic site was much smaller than the Civil Rights Museum, participants were no less affected by what they learned. Rev. Cindy Havlik, the district superintendent for the Council Oak District, said she it was eye-opening to realize how much she didn’t know about civil rights history.
“I think for those of us who are Caucasian, we are not aware of racial injustice,” Havlik said. “We should all know this history. We should all be not just to be aware of it but wanting to do something about it.”
Many of the adults watched a video about how the Little Rock Nine continue to inspire young people today. After the children watched it, they gathered to talk about what it was like to see young people make a difference in their communities.
“It makes me feel happy cause black and white people were doing it,” Andre said. “I do feel like I can make a difference, because from the 1800s to now, things have gotten better because people were protesting.”
“I just feel wonderful about it, because everyone was working together as a community,” Maya said.
“When you usually think of someone doing something that might change people’s lives forever, you usually think of someone older and more mature,” Jocelyn said. “It makes me feel like you can’t really give up and that it doesn’t have to be a certain person. Anyone can do anything.”
The children were also asked what they would wish for if they could change history.
“I wish if slavery were still there right now that I could just snap my finger and it never happened,” Mel said. “I want to change that people could actually include everybody.”
After a long, thoughtful silence, Anthony summarized what all the children felt with his wish.
“I wish slavery never happened, and I wish that everybody could get along together. And I wish Emmett (Till) never died.”
After unscheduled but needed visits to Philander Smith College and the hotel for rest and discussion, participants boarded the bus toward their final destination: Mosaic Church, the region’s most diverse church.
The bus pulled up to Mosaic about an hour behind the original agenda. Though running late, participants seemed ready once more to dive into conversations about race.
Senior Pastor Harry Li and Teaching Pastor Alex Díaz were on hand at the church to host a session on multiculturalism while a barbecue dinner and discussion panel was being prepared at a member’s nearby barn space.
Li, an American of Chinese descent, believes understanding historic and racial tensions within a community is a key element of multicultural leadership.
“The effective multiethnic leader has to know history so that they can counter simplistic, dogmatic, political level statements that often divide our bodies,” Li said. “The multiethnic leader unifies, continually, and understanding positions that he or she may not agree with, but can articulate, is key to the process of unity building.”
Díaz, originally from Venezuela, said learning about racism in history can inform Christians about the generational sins of one people against another. He also specified that Jesus’ call to make disciples of all nations can only happen in a multiethnic church; homogenous congregations make disciples of only one nation – their own.
“There is a whole population of this country that is still hurting from such a painful past, and many systems in this nation have been set up to perpetuate division and segregation,” Díaz said. “It is difficult to minister to people without understanding what ails them, and the ailment of racism is deep and very much latent.”
Li believes that unity in Christ is foundational to multicultural ministry, as people from different ethnic, national and generational backgrounds often have a wide range cultural, personal and political values, creating the possibility of conflict if those values supersede the cross of Christ.
“The volatile issues of our day can be described as being like a very big and very old tree,” Li said. “Anyone that tries to explain the issue in a sound bite is fooling themselves and will offend many. Their brief explanation may describe one little branch, but not the strength of the trunk nor the depth of the roots.”
Díaz shared that the principles of multiethnic ministry often feel counterintuitive to the church. He said practices resulting in cultural colonization, stereotyping, superficial connections, institutionalized programs, defensiveness and short-term engagement need to be replaced with those centered on cultural context, relationship, innovation, grace and long-term commitment.
“The church in this country is used to putting a label on people,” Díaz said. “It is different to reach people who are different from us, so we need to adopt new paradigms.”
Mosaic’s approach to addressing social issues didn’t sit well with some participants of the trip. Some members of the group began to question Li on how Mosaic would address gay marriage, women in ministry, and family separation at the border. Li acknowledged that social justice and the gospel are tightly intertwined and said Mosaic often approaches social issues by examining and communicating the biblical truth behind a social issue, rather than addressing the issue itself during a sermon.
“‘How can you say that and call yourself a Christian’ statements are divisive, and it’s the power of the Holy Spirit that breaks those things that usually divide,” Li said. “We want Christ to be expressed through every personality in this room.”
The deviation away from multiethnic ministry to discuss social issues took up a significant amount of time, resulting in Díaz’s presentation being cut short. It marked the only time during the trip where the schedule was placed above learning about racism.
During dinner, a panel of three male Mosaic leaders answered questions from participants about the church’s approach to ministry and leadership. When asked again about women in leadership, the panel deferred to Alison Clinton, executive assistant to Mark DeYmaz. She shared that the topic was already an ongoing discussion among Mosaic’s leaders, who regularly examine new and existing church structures as part of their practice of corporate sanctification.
After the panel ended, Bose North shared a brief message and led the participants in communion. The evening ended with an a capella chorus of “Freedom is Coming,” a South African freedom song.
The following morning, a member of the planning team acknowledged the previous night’s tense discussion and encouraged everyone to be open to learning from Mosaic’s example of multicultural ministry.
The group arrived at Mosaic for a final session on multiculturalism was with Rafael Estrella, the executive pastor of finance and human resources at Mosaic. He discussed the church’s financial practices and shared how Mosaic promotes community among Spanish-speaking and English-speaking members by having services with the same message in both languages. He also reiterated the need for diverse leadership in multicultural churches.
“When your staff is all the same and you are not in the same group as the leadership, you will always feel like a second-class citizen, no matter how welcoming the church is,” Estrella said.
When worship started, the group scattered to different services. Some, like Bishop Nunn, took part in the Spanish language worship service. The rest participated in the English language service, where Díaz preached about hope.
Place said she felt like an observer during the discussions at Mosaic because multicultural worship isn’t in her wheelhouse. She said it was interesting to see how each group talked about what was important to them, and how most of the time those values lined up.
“I was really fascinated by the discussion of ‘how do we really be one’because I think we play at it a lot of the time, but let’s talk about the realities of‘how do we navigate this,’” said Place, who attends Tulsa-Boston Avenue. “You can’t sit in your own church in your own pew in your own workplace and be changed, not in that way. You have to seek it out.”
Back on the bus
The afternoon ended with lunch at the church and a closing discussion. Participants were asked what they would bring back from the trip in terms of personal action and community ideas.
“We always say that the community should be reflected inside of the church, but what would it look like? It’s a question that I’ve wrestled with for years,” said Rev. Victor McCullough, district superintendent for the Heartland District. “My goal is that we will raise up churches that reflect the Kingdom of God and its ethnicity, economic diversity, and also its impact in engaging the community in real and concrete ways.”
“I am going to bring back as much information as I can to my granddaughter, with whom I have shared a life of mission since she was four,” said Pat McGarrity, who founded the Oklahoma chapter of Project Transformation. “It was a great experience, and it gave me a chance to know some more people that I would not have had the opportunity to know.”
After thanking Mosaic and its leaders for their insights and hospitality, participants boarded the bus for the final trip home. Though the formal discussion had ended in Little Rock, mindfulness of racism and its cultural impact continued to linger on the journey home.
Solis remained thankful for those who brought children, saying young people are more capable than most adults give them credit for. She encouraged others to bring their children if given the opportunity.
“When I heard specifically the other families and children and parents that were coming, I knew that together, we could all handle it,” Solis said. “It sounds daunting and it sounds scary, and it may be different, but it’s really worth it.”
Ewton agreed, sharing that his love of history came not from the classroom but from visiting museums, parks and historic sites that made the past come alive. He was also thankful for the diversity of white, African American and mixed-race children in the group.
“I was overjoyed that other children were present, particularly children of color,” Ewton said.“They were able to express thoughts, fears, ideas, and questions with and around each other that they might not otherwise have expressed. Also, it's always great to make new friends.”
Ron Jones said the journey made him yearn for people to treat each other with love and respect.
“I’d just like for people just to come together and get together,” he said. “Just try to let all the hatred in their heart to just leave them, and say, ‘whoever you are, here comes my brother.’”
Bishop Nunn agreed, saying it was vital to demonstrate God’s love to everyone by any and all means available. He believed that learning about history in Memphis and Little Rock should remind folks to examine the history of their own communities.
“That’s happened in Oklahoma, it happened where I come from in Texas, it’s happened across the country,” Bishop Nunn said. “For us just to kinda say, ‘well, that was then,’ does not grasp the gravity or the human cost in the lives of people and their families… We’ve also got a history, and not all that history is positive. We’ve got a responsibility to make tomorrow better.”
The sun had set by the time the bus arrived back at the conference office in Oklahoma City. Having already dropped off Tulsa and Muskogee-bound folks in Webbers Falls to meet up with church vans, the remaining passengers departed as quickly as possible.
Get on the Bus had been no pleasure cruise, nor was it ever meant to be. Facing systemic racism, white privilege, social bias, and intercultural competence all weekend had taken its toll even among those who worked regularly toward racial justice.
After quick hugs and farewells, those who remained ended the trip with subtle sprints to their cars, ready to leave the heaviness of history behind in order process the weekend in the comfort of their own homes.