Pastor William A. "Bill" Adkins Jr. and Dr. Jody Hill have a frank exchange about race. (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

On the eve of the unveiling of Ida B. Wells’ statue in Memphis, local ministers laid bare their experiences and impressions about race and the ethnic divide that persists.

A Minister’s Workshop, moderated by Pastor William A. “Bill” Adkins Jr. of Greater Imani Cathedral of Faith, invited participants to discuss, “How to Stay Awake in the Midst of a Revolution.”

Adkins offered a friendly warning that it would be “a difficult discussion.” Pastors and other clergy persons, mostly African American, listened to each other, asked questions, and invited the handful of white counterparts in attendance to share their hearts. Adkins was right. Some moments were very difficult.

Faculty and personnel from Memphis Theological Seminary sponsored the event, holding it at the neighboring Lindenwood Christian Church. Adkins raised the tenor of the direction quickly.

 “I guess my job this evening is to be a provocateur,” Adkins said.

“I wonder, are we in the midst of a counter-revolution? Republicans used to be the very people who loved democracy, but now they hate it. They are rolling back voting rights. Democracy is not friendly to them because democracy demands equality. Democracy demands justice. In Arizona and Georgia, and in other places, so many are trying to inhibit voters from getting to the polls.”

The Rev. Darrell Harrington. (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

Pastor Darrell L. Harrington, of New Sardis Baptist Church, ushered in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with an uncanny rendition of an excerpt from the civil rights leader’s final sermon. 

 “Brothers and sisters, in order to make a difference in the world in which we live, you have to be awake,” said Harrington.

The inflection of his words and  the rhythmic cadence of speech, were the incarnation of Dr. King’s voice and manner, imitated to perfection. In those incredible, timeless moments, Harrington was Dr. King. Dr. King was speaking.

Much was made of Dr. King’s life and work, and the spirit of courage and justice that Ida B. Wells demonstrated here in the city of Memphis. Soon, it was time for participants to speak. 

Martha Lyle Ford, director of the Center for Faith and Imagination at Memphis Theological Seminary. (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

“I have two daughters who grew up in the United Methodist Church,” said Martha Lyle Ford, director of the Center For Faith and Imagination, at Memphis Theological Seminary. “They have been taught extensively about liberation theology. My youngest daughter said to me about the white church: ‘Why would I pledge allegiance to an institution that has hurt so many people that I love?’ I have hope for the younger generation, but not for the white church.” 

Monica Brodie (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

Monica Brodie, an African-American minister and recent graduate of Memphis Theological Seminary, said problems persist between the races because people don’t want to admit they have been wrong.

“We have to learn that if we are going to grow, we must learn to admit when we are wrong,” said Brodie. 

“We have to just say, ‘My tradition was wrong.’ No one wants to say that Jim Crow was wrong. No one wants to say that slavery was wrong. There are some things we’ve just got to face head-on.”

Dr. Jody Hill, president of Memphis Theological Seminary, told the gathering that “the words being spoken were convicting.” Hill said Harrington invited him to come and march in the streets with him when the protests against George Floyd’s murder were raging in Memphis and all across the globe.

“My brother asked me to come and march,” said Hill. “I have never done anything like that before. I’m a centrist, a moderate, and I know that’s a four-letter word to a lot of folks. I’m a peacemaker. I don’t want to make waves. But I realize that if we don’t say something, we are complicit.”

Hill then conveyed an intriguing conversation he had with an African-American co-worker, who like Hill, has a hearing-impaired son.

“This lady was sharing with me that she has a hearing-impaired son, and she fears for his life every time he goes out,” said Hill. “She is afraid that the police will tell him something, and because he can’t hear, they may see him as being non-compliant. Well, I have a hearing-impaired son, and I have never been fearful about him being pulled by the police. We have made a neighborhood, but not a brotherhood. I thank all of you for challenging me to be more like Jesus.”

Pictured (back row, l-r): Rev. Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr., Dr. Jody Hill, Rev. Dr. Alvin O’Neal Jackson, Pastor William A. “Bill” Adkins Jr.; (front row, l-r): Rev. Dr. Kevin Brooks, Pastor Darrell L. Harrington, Rev. Sonia Walker. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr. said in closing remarks that the workshop was significant and “a beginning” of having open and honest dialogue about race, what the issues are, and how “together they can be addressed.”

Adkins issued one last exhortation to attendees to be willing to sacrifice to create a better world for generations to come.

“Always remember it’s not what you say, and it’s not even what you do,” said Adkins. “The question is, ‘What are you willing to suffer?’”