Are We Living the Dream? The 2018 Social Consciousness Summit

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The seventh annual Social Consciousness Summit occurred April 4-7, 2018 on the campus of Andrews University. Organized by Adventist Peace Fellowship, Adventists for Social Justice, and the Andrews University offices of Research & Creative Scholarship and Diversity & Inclusion, this year’s summit commemorated Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and was entitled “The Legacy of Dr. King: Are We Living the Dream?”

The summit began with a prayer vigil Wednesday evening that coincided with the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. Throughout the evening, orator Troy Patterson Thomas delivered excerpts from five of King’s sermons: “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint,” Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “I Have a Dream,” Our God is Marching On (How Long, Not Long),” and closing with “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” which was the last sermon King preached before his death.

Thomas is renowned for his ability to effortlessly match King’s timber and pitch during his memorized orations. He has performed for the late Coretta Scott King, for national media including CNN, and for numerous churches, schools, and universities.

Audience members remarked afterward that Thomas’ delivery was “haunting” and “powerful.” One audience member, who as a young man heard King speak in Chicago, said he closed his eyes during Thomas’ performance and was transported. “I was right there again, listening to King.”

Interspersed throughout the speeches were prayers and reflections from various university and church administrators, as well as Michigan Congressman Fred Upton, on King’s life, legacy, and impact.

As the evening concluded, the audience watched Senator Robert Kennedy’s speech from the night King died, then Pastor Tacyana Nixon (vocals) and Pastor Christopher Whittaker (piano) performed “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which Mahalia Jackson sang at the private funeral service for Dr. King.

The next day, Chaplain Jason O’Rourke, who has recently accepted a call to pastor in the Netherlands Union, kicked things off with a Lunch & Learn session entitled “Descending from Glory to Reality: A Reflection on the Political Trajectory in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution.’” King delivered this sermon on at least three separate occasions. O’Rourke discussed the differences in the sermon’s iterations each time it was delivered, first in 1958, then in 1965, and finally, in 1968 a few days before he was killed. O’Rourke said King’s waning optimism was reflected in the differences in each speech.

A lot had happened over these 10 years, both for good and for bad. King had won the Nobel Peace Prize and been named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year.” His work led to the passage of new laws, including the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). But he had also been arrested, was a target of FBI scrutiny, and received harsh criticism from liberal allies over his stance on Vietnam. King had seen important progress against the overt racism of the South, but felt profound discouragement at the systemic racism of the North. King was tired, O’Rourke told the audience. Even after all the success, the title of King’s 1967 book asked “Where Do We Go from Here?

One of the differences in the speeches O’Rourke noted was King’s movement from a moral argument in 1965 to an ethical one in 1968. O’Rourke said this is an important distinction because “morals are who we are; ethics is what we do.” King effectively took a behavior modification approach to America, giving up an attempt to change who we are and instead seeking to change what we do, thereby admitting that he can’t change the problematic culture of America, but still hopes to bring America to a civilized place in its actions and laws. The problem, O’Rourke continued, is that culture drives civilization and morals drive ethics. So, you can’t focus on civilization and ethics without addressing the underlying problems of culture and morals.

A Dinner & Dialogue session concluded Thursday’s programming, with a film screening of “The Rape of Recy Taylor.” The documentary tells the true story of Recy Taylor, a 24-year old black wife and mother, who was gang raped by six white boys in 1944 Alabama. Though sexual assault against black women was a common occurrence in the Jim Crow South, few women spoke up for fear of retaliation. Taylor, however, immediately went to the police and named her accusers.

The NAACP sent its chief rape investigator — Rosa Parks — to petition on Taylor’s behalf when the police refused to prosecute. Parks, a victim of sexual assault herself, was passionate about the fight for justice. She rallied support across the state of Alabama and the nation. The film outlines how “the 1955 bus boycott was an end result, not a beginning” of black women reclaiming their personhood against white men. The 90-minute documentary includes interviews with Recy Taylor, her family, and family members of the perpetrators. It was inspired by the book At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle L. McGuire, which tells the story of Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks.

Tiffany Llewellyn, chief executive officer of Adventists for Social Justice, led the discussion which followed. Audience members expressed anger, sadness, and tears over Recy Taylor’s story and the fact that despite Rosa Parks’ hard work, Taylor never received justice for the crimes against her.

One audience member stated her disappointment that there wasn’t a larger audience in attendance for such an important film. Throughout the conference, a small attendance size of 30 to 50, mostly students and university faculty/staff, made for an intimate gathering at each session.

The first Friday session was a Lunch & Learn with Claudia Allen, a third-year PhD student at the University of Maryland who specializes in 19th and 20th century African American Literature. Allen’s topic was entitled, “A Dream Deferred: Biblical Futurism and Political Philosophy in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Last SCLC Presidential Address: ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’” Allen asked the audience “Are we living the dream?” and if so, “Whose dream?”

Allen discussed the life and largely unknown legacy of Prathia Hall, a female activist and theologian, who told of her futuristic vision for American society at a meeting King attended. During Hall’s prayer, she repeated the phrase “I have a dream” several times — a phrase which then became a fixture in King’s own sermons. Allen said the sexism of the day prevented Hall from being the spokesperson for this dream. But the dream was bigger than Martin Luther King, Jr., too. As soon as he delivered it in 1963, it ceased being one man’s (or one woman’s) dream, and became the dream of a nation.

Over the years, however, King watched that dream turn into a nightmare, as the nation dealt with the murder of four young black girls in Birmingham, systemic poverty and oppression, riots, and the war in Vietnam. On Christmas Eve 1967, King reflected, “In 1963, in Washington D.C., I tried to talk to the nation about a dream…I must confess that not long after talking about that dream, I started seeing it turn into a nightmare….I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hope.”

King’s dream died long before he did, Allen told the audience, challenging them to remember King as the man he actually was, rather than the man “we are most comfortable remembering.” Allen said, “we do not drink the full cup of [King’s] prophetic truth.” White liberals co-opted one aspect of one speech, one piece of King’s dream, and made him into their own image. “That is the King they worship. That is the King we ALL worship.” We ignore the rebuke in King’s words and keep only the tolerance.

“How do we keep walking when dreams of justice are deferred?” asked Allen. King presented a harsh reality to America, but he also presented the answer. He wanted us to keep working, even when our dreams for social justice have turned into a nightmare.

In 1967, at his last address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as president of the organization, King preached his sermon, “Where Do We Go From Here?” In it, he likened the country to the biblical story of Nicodemus, declaring, “America, you must be born again!” Allen called this declaration a “bold, potentially hopeless request.” King recognized that the entire structure needed change, and the first step was spiritually undoing our culture as we know it so that it can become rooted in the biblical narrative outlined by Jesus in the New Testament.

Allen said that because racism is a spiritual problem, we have the opportunity to fight it with spiritual weapons. However, our fight doesn’t stop there. It is a God-problem, so we can put it in God’s hands, but putting it in God’s hands doesn’t mean we sit back and do nothing ourselves. We can both preach and march. We are called to partner with God to manifest His restorative justice here on Earth.

“In order to work in the nightmare, in order to create a new world, in order to inspire a spiritually rebellious America to be born again, we must have rooted deep within our hearts a ‘divine dissatisfaction,’” she said, referencing King’s closing remarks in “Where Do We Go From Here?”:

And so, I conclude by saying today that we have a task, and let us go out with a divine dissatisfaction.

 

Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.

 

Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.

 

Let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.

 

Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home.

 

Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality integrated education.

 

Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.

 

Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied…

Friday evening vespers featured Taurus Montgomery, pastor at Harbor of Hope Church in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Montgomery discussed the crucial need for Adventist young people to pick up the work of social justice. “I know Jesus is coming back. Absolutely. But at the same time, there is a work for the people of God to do before He comes.”

It’s only through doing good for others that we can hope to draw closer to Christ, said Montgomery. “Justice isn’t something that you say. It’s something that you do,” he continued, directing the audience to Isaiah 1:17, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

We’re to join the fight against injustice. Montgomery pointed the audience to Oakwood University’s entrance sign: “Enter to learn. Depart to serve.” and Andrews University’s motto: “Seek knowledge. Affirm faith. Change the world.” (Montgomery attended Oakwood for undergrad and Andrews for seminary.)

“Most universities get stuck on number one,” said Montgomery, but a student’s education isn’t complete until they’ve followed through on the last part too, and taken up God’s call in the fight for social justice. To further make his point, he directed the audience to an Ellen G. White quote: “Students should not be so loaded down with studies that they have no time to use the knowledge they have acquired.” Changing the world isn’t something that begins after you leave school; it’s something that should be happening while you’re in school.

The Social Consciousness Summit concluded by joining with Pioneer Memorial Church (on the campus of Andrews University) on Sabbath for its “Day of Prayer: Against the Strongholds.” One of the focuses of the day of prayer was “praying against the stronghold of racism in our country, on our campus and in our church.”

Reflecting on the summit, King’s legacy, and its lessons for the Adventist Church, Tiffany Llewellyn said, “The Adventist community, in my opinion, is comfortable, and that level of comfort disconnects us from the realities and challenges, and our need for sacrifice in this work. Our education and socioeconomic status give us a privilege that it appears we are not willing to utilize or risk for the other. It is saddening, but as we contemplate on the man of Dr. King, it is imperative to move beyond the quotes, status, and discussions of his meaning for social and racial justice, and to delve into the dirty, sacrificial work that comes with actualizing the dream.”

 

Alisa Williams is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.

Image Credit: Andrews University, designed by Kandace Agyemang-Baah.

 

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