MOUNT VERNON – Every January for the past 18 years, local leaders have gathered for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Service, hosted by the Knox County MLK Celebration Committee.
It’s a day of celebration and reflection, honoring King’s legacy through renewed calls to action for racial justice and equality.
But this year’s ceremony felt different, according to those who organized and participated in it. And not just because it took place over Zoom.
America’s long-harbored racial tensions bubbled to the surface once again last summer, as protests swept the nation following the policeman killing of George Floyd. Cities large and small – including Mount Vernon, twice – held demonstrations denouncing systemic racism and calling for change.
It was a period of historic racial unrest, lasting several months in some of America’s biggest cities. But on Monday, speaking to hundreds of local residents via Zoom, Rev. Rachel Kessler wondered what it ultimately accomplished.
“It was moving to see the impact of that awareness this summer within our own communities, in the demonstrations and vigils held in the Mount Vernon town square,” Kessler, Priest in Charge of Harcourt Parish in Gambier, said in her keynote address.
“And yet, even after a summer when bookstores were selling out of the hottest anti-racism titles, we find ourselves stuck – still living in a country where a white supremacist mob could overrun the halls of our democracy with minimal resistance – a sad contrast to the response to peaceful calls for racial justice this summer.”
Kessler used her platform Monday to examine why this shortfall occurred, and what it will take to create meaningful, systemic change moving forward.
She framed America’s dilemma in religious terms, using Lenny Duncan’s Dear Church: A Love Letter From a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in America to drive the discussion. In his book, Duncan, a Black preacher in Vancouver, WA, describes the moment between repentance and absolution.
“Every Sunday, when we pause and reflect on our sins, I soak in the moment and I let the gravity of what repentance means rest on my shoulders,” Duncan writes. “I let the moment become uncomfortable for me and the community I stand within. I wait two or three moments past the point where I hear someone clear their throat or shift their weight over creaking floorboards. The stillness of the moment before forgiveness is declared rings like a bell in the sanctuary. Finally, I proclaim God's full and extravagant forgiveness on each one of us – repentance, proclamation.
“These are powerful things in community, but I want to talk about that still and quiet moment in the liturgy – before reconciliation, before forgiveness, and after the acknowledgement of sin, there is something groaning to be born."
This, Duncan explains, is reparations.
“That's a pretty charged word, I am aware,” Kessler said. “And make no mistake, Pastor Lenny Duncan definitely includes in his notion of reparation, monetary reparation to Black Americans brought to this nation as slaves and systematically cut out of their share of the prosperity and the American dream.
“But he also means something much deeper than that. And that is that work of reconciliation – reconciliation that is born out of a commitment, not just to naming wrong and naming harm, but commitment to repairing it, making whole what is so broken.”
Kessler compared the moment Duncan describes, between repentance and absolution, to the moment America finds itself in, again and again, as it tries and fails and tries again to right its racial wrongs.
“As I reflect on our common life as a country, some more than 50 years after the death of Dr. King, it's clear that we are caught and that place that pastor Duncan describes,” Kessler said. “We are stuck in that space between repentance and absolution.”
Why is this? Why does America remain stuck? The answer is simple, Kessler said.
“We want the answer to white supremacy and racial injustice to be easy for us,” she said, “sometimes as easy as going to an anti-racism workshop or reading all of the right books that have been shared on all of our friends' social media feeds over the last six months.”
While Kessler said there are certainly benefits to these exercises, as more Americans are “coming to understand whiteness as an artificial category constructed and maintained for the purposes of exclusion and oppression,” they are far from sufficient in achieving the overall goal.
In order to create real change, Kessler said, white people must actively work to hold themselves accountable – which can often be difficult and uncomfortable.
“I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons that we are so stuck in that place that Lenny Duncan describes, between repentance and absolution and reconciliation – particularly for those of us who are gathered together this morning, people of goodwill who seek so much justice and healing in our communities – is that sometimes, and especially those of us who are connected to the academy, treat our anti-racist commitments as sort of another academic subject to master, without really owning and examining our own complicity in upholding those systems of racism and white supremacy.
“Objectively analyzing America's racist past is easy on some intellectual level. Owning the ways that we live into those systems and the myths of our nation and working to dismantle them is much harder.”
This introspection, however, is the key, Kessler said. She offered a modern-day example:
“If we see that mob who stormed the Capitol building two weeks ago as some aberration of our national life – not who we really are, and not as the logical conclusion of a nation built on white supremacy in which we are all implicated – we can never hope to truly dismantle those systems of oppression and injustice that exist within our communities,” Kessler said.
“And we will remain stuck, trapped forever in that place where we can never attain absolution because we are not willing to face the work of reconciliation in any meaningful way.”
There is hope, however, Kessler said. Along with self-accountability, the path forward will require vision.
“I have to believe that our hope for reconciliation – for true healing and unity – lies in whether or not we are willing to see new possibilities for our respective communities and institutions, for our nation and the world, beyond the legacy of systemic injustice that has been handed down to us,” she said.
Kessler encouraged those listening to begin reading Black fiction authors, “primarily because through these stories and these narratives, we are able to see not just the world as it is, but to recognize the world as it could be.”
It was through this process – reading The Broken Earth Series by N. K. Jemisin – that Kessler said she found hope for racial reconciliation America. In her work, Jemisin reminds readers of the intentionality of racism – stripping it of its mythological inevitability and returning agency to the people who uphold it.
While this reality is painful to consider, Kessler said, it also provides a glimmer of hope.
“The systems of oppression that have shaped the racial injustices within our own country have always been, and continue to be, human choices,” Kessler said. “We are a nation built on white supremacy, but we are not cosmically predestined to remain so. Different choices have always been possible and continue to be possible.”
To make those choices – and to undo systemic injustice – Kessler said the process will begin internally, individually.
“Those different choices are possible if we have the courage to face our own complicity in white supremacy within ourselves, and resolve to do the active work of reparation and reconciliation,” she said.
“As we move forward in the work of reconciliation and justice, let us remember that hope is also a choice. We undertake the work of reparation and reconciliation in the hope that different ways of ordering our common life are indeed possible. We don't have to be trapped in the space between repentance and absolution if we allow ourselves to die to all of the myths that hold us back.”
While this work will be difficult, Kessler said, it will be required for progress. Anything less will leave America stuck, she argued, in the space between repentance and absolution.
“True reconciliation, healing and justice in our common life will cost us something. Doing the work to repair the legacy of systemic racism and white supremacy will at the very least cost us the ideal of an America that looks at our sins past and present and says, 'That's not us.' It will cost us an easy appeal to unity that dismisses radical calls for accountability. It will also cost us the despair that says we might as well give up and not even try to repair a world and a system that seems damaged beyond all hope,” Kessler said.
“But if we can embrace that cost – if we can die to whatever holds us back from the work of reparation, to the work of seeking real reconciliation across the lines of division and injustice in our communities in the world – we might just find that hope of true healing and absolution.”
LOCAL LEADERS URGE EMPATHY, ACTION: Before Kessler, several other community leaders shared their thoughts Monday on the issues of race and reconciliation.
Kenyon College President Sean Decatur struck a similar tone, noting the importance of self-accountability and truthfulness in the healing process.
“I’m not sure it is possible to ‘do right’ unless we are willing and able to name what is wrong,” Decatur said, “and there is a lot that is wrong.”
Decatur challenged those listening to look to King for guidance in the days and months ahead.
“On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as we contemplate what it will take to nurture the renewal of a more resilient and better democracy, perhaps instead of quoting Dr. King we should consider what Dr. King would actually do,” Decatur said.
“Reject the culture of outrage, reject simplistic calls to good and evil. Restore facts and reason to the public discourse. Dismantle cultures of favoritism and nepotism, examine our own privileges and biases, connect to our neighbors with empathy and grace.
“This is the work that we can and must do, and it is the bedrock of teaching and learning. Here, now, we can do our best to do right.”
Mount Vernon Nazarene University President Henry Spaulding said King’s “life and legacy calls us to be a light in a hopeless time, by daring to point with anticipatory hope toward a more just and humane world.”
He noted the way in which King’s faith influenced his actions, as it “drove him to engage the world – to name injustice … and admit the need for fundamental change.” He also called attention to one of King’s most famous books, A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, where he talks about the balance necessary for progress.
“He rejected soft-minded individuals because soft-mindedness is one of the basic causes of race prejudice,” Spaulding said of King. “Sentimentality hides the reality from our minds and refuses the hard work of justice for all, and principled reconciliation. King indicated that a tough mind is not enough; we need a tender heart. Our world needs both and needs to understand that a tough mind and a tender heart are far from incompatible.”
King’s example provides the blueprint, Spaulding said, for the country moving forward. He urged others to lean on their faith, as well, during this process.
“As we attempt to heal a nation through justice for all, principled reconciliation and the anticipation of hope, we must never forget that we do not travel alone,” Spaulding said.
“I’ve spent my entire adult life working and living in higher education. I’ve looked in the eyes of generations of first-year students, as they look into the future with a hopeful imagination. I’ve also seen the look of disappointment, anger, frustration and anxiety. Martin Luther King speaks across the ages to remind us, with prophetic intensity, that our most fundamental task is to be ever-vigilant as we lean toward justice, reconciliation and hope.”
Two local mayors spoke Monday as well: Mount Vernon’s Matt Starr and Gambier’s Leeman Kessler (husband of Rachel).
Kessler said homeschooling his children during the pandemic has allowed him to reflect on his own education – particularly at an early age, when he first learned American history.
“It was a very whitewashed, very simplistic view of history,” he recalled.
As he grew older, Kessler began learning about America’s relationship with race, but only from a birds-eye view. With so much ground to cover, the education system seems to fast forward through America’s past, Kessler said, covering mostly big-picture concepts and issues.
“I learned about the Civil War. I learned about slavery. I learned about Jim Crow and learned about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement,” Kessler said. “But all of these things seemed very abstract; they seemed sort of very disparate, disconnected.”
Only through specialty courses, taken at a later age, was Kessler ultimately able to gain a fuller picture of America’s past. He learned not only about the railroads being built and the cities being formed, but also about the atrocities that occurred on the same soil. He learned about the human side of American history, particularly as it relates to race.
Kessler recalled specifically learning about ethnic cleansings, which occurred in dozens of communities across the country in the early 20th century. Agitated by allegations of criminal activity, white people violently forced their Black neighbors to leave town. They left on trains and were never allowed to return.
“This violence occurred again and again, and these were the communities that Dr. King's movement was responding to,” Kessler said. “It wasn't just this sort of vague idea of segregation and Jim Crow, these sort of big words that we have to memorize for tests. These were families who lost everything. These were families who participated in this kind of violence. They were real humans responding to the lies that white supremacy teaches and promulgates.
“And it's those lies that allow communities to rile up and commit acts that we would think are unthinkable.”
Kessler noted another “unthinkable act,” which occurred Jan. 6 – the armed storming of the U.S. Capitol. Kessler said this violence was prompted by “a different lie, a lie about rampant voter fraud in largely Black communities.”
The path forward, Kessler said – not only avoiding future tragedies, but also dismantling white supremacy and achieving racial equality – will rely on America’s ability to teach (and reckon with) the truth about its past.
“I think if we are going to have reconciliation, if we are going to have healing, what has to be demanded is truth,” Kessler said. “Truth is the only path towards reconciliation. We have to acknowledge reality.”
Once the truth is commonly understood and accepted, Kessler said, America can begin to do the hard work of healing. But it all starts with truth.
“We have to teach that reality – everyone, from a kid doing their homework to teachers in the classrooms to politicians – we need to make truth our standard and to call out the lies when they occur,” Kessler said. “Because as we've just seen this month, those lies have real human costs. I hope and pray that we are able to dedicate ourselves to truth and see reconciliation in our lifetimes.”
Starr reflected on his experience last summer, amid the heightened calls for racial justice in America. Instead of expressing himself vocally, Starr said he went the opposite direction.
“Right after the death of George Floyd, there was such a rush for every politician to come out and speak the obvious,” Starr said. “And I was reminded of one of the things that my coach told me years ago – he only told me once, and he just said, ‘Starr, you blew a perfect opportunity to keep your mouth shut.’ And so I heard my coach talking to me and so I wanted to take a different approach and listen.”
In the months that followed, Starr said he reached out to dozens of local Black residents, forming relationships that would allow him to better understand their struggles.
“It’s been, really, quite life-changing for me,” he said.
Starr used his platform Monday to share what he learned during these discussions.
He learned about the scars racial violence leaves, and the trauma it inflicts. Having spoken with members of the Black community who were active in movements past, he said Floyd’s death caused this pain to resurface.
“When an event like George Floyd happens or Breonna Taylor, it resurfaces those traumatic experiences, those feelings,” Starr said. “It just doesn't go away – it’s not something that you can just shut off in your mind. It brings back those memories.”
He also learned about the isolation many local Black residents face. According to recent census estimates, Black people make up just one percent of Knox County’s population.
“We don’t really have segregation, but people in the minority community experience isolation. We have people who are minorities living in all different neighborhoods, so it’s not like we have a Black side of town, a Hispanic side of town, or a white side of town … So the effect of that can be just devastating, where the person is isolated,” Starr said.
“There’s nowhere to go, there’s nobody to turn to, and neighbors may or may not reach out to them. So isolation is a reality that many people in the minority community (face).”
The key moving forward, Starr said, will be to intentionally break down these barriers. This will involve reaching out and getting to know one another, which will help increase empathy and strengthen the community’s social fabric.
“I wish I could say there’s a magic wand or a new law, a new initiative that can heal the wounds. But it really – I’ve found, in my lifetime – that it’s really (about) listening to each other,” Starr said. “And it’s being sensitive to that other person, and treating that person with respect and love and moving forward. Being a friend. That’s really what it was for me, in hearing these stories.”
The act of listening, and empathizing, was core to King’s mission, Starr added. Doing so is just another way to live by his example.
“I think what Dr. King taught us is what I wholeheartedly believe: if we’re going to change the world, we have to win people’s hearts,” Starr said. “That’s, I think, our call to action here. I urge everybody to reach out and win people’s hearts.”