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As racial issues gain attention, black churches play pivotal role in Wichita

Senior pastor Junius Dotson sings with the crowd at St. Mark United Methodist Church.
Senior pastor Junius Dotson sings with the crowd at St. Mark United Methodist Church. Eagle correspondent

After Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., last August, peaceful protests and riots overtook the streets. The police fired tear gas and, in sometimes heavy military gear, clashed with protesters in scenes that harked back to the civil rights era.

The Rev. Junius Dotson, pastor at St. Mark United Methodist – the largest black church in Wichita – knew he had to respond. Dotson describes himself as a “prophetic preacher.” It’s a phrase that means the words of Jesus are not just an outfit to be worn on Sunday but a call to justice.

“We’re supposed to be the light of the world, the voice for the voiceless and speak on behalf of the oppressed and those that were denied justice,” Dotson said.

But even though he believes pastors should be politically active, it wasn’t something he’d had a lot of practice at, especially in a situation so tense. So he did what pastors do – he prayed.

Soon, his call was answered.

The Rev. Kevass Harding of Dellrose United Methodist Church phoned Dotson from Arizona after watching CNN and thinking, “We cannot let this happen in our city.”

Harding and Dotson are two of several black pastors in Wichita who have taken on a more prominent role in the city as racial issues have risen to the forefront of national and local attention.

The pastors have held rallies and lobbied city officials to change their policies, particularly in the police department. The city recently adopted body cameras for all of its police in a political effort that was driven by black pastors.

But their efforts have not been without criticism. Some black community members think their churches have fallen short of the key political role they played during the civil rights era, while other pastors want churches to stay out of politics and stick to preaching the gospel.

And a few pastors, such as Dotson, are taking on the biggest challenge of all – bringing an end to the segregation that, they say, is greater on Sundays than on any other day of the week.

Charleston

Some pastors date the reemergence of a more active black church to the election of President Obama in 2008. They say many people thought his election meant that the issue of race would disappear. Instead, Obama has been calling attention to racial disparities that previously were ignored, they say, and his election brought forth racist attitudes from some whites that had been hidden.

Other pastors point to the recent acts of violence against blacks that have received national attention, starting with the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin in Florida.

Pastors led an effort in Baltimore earlier this year to police the streets and prevent looting, after Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained while in police custody. But outside of Baltimore the black church had mostly played a supporting role in news stories – until the recent shooting at a black AME church in Charleston, S.C., left nine people dead. It was at the hands of a 19-year-old who espoused racial hatred and whose name Dotson refused to say in his sermon on a recent Sunday.

“Have you ever tried to make yourself forget something?” Dotson asked the more than 1,000 worshipers at St. Mark, about 99 percent of whom were black. “It’s impossible.”

Black pastors in Wichita organized memorials and news conferences after the tragedy in Charleston. But Dotson kept hearing that believers and non-believers could not understand how the black churchgoers in South Carolina could forgive so quickly.

“If we do eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, then we will be a blind and toothless nation,” Dotson said. His congregation applauded and several called back to him, “That’s right.”

No Ferguson here

In the days after the Ferguson riots, Harding and Dotson gathered several local black leaders and met with City Manager Robert Layton, Mayor Carl Brewer and interim Police Chief Nelson Mosley. They planned a meeting where city officials and angry residents could both be heard.

In order for it to work, though, Dotson knew they had to bring in the whole community. So in addition to rallying their own congregations they invited white pastors, school leaders and public officials. The event would be called #NoFergusonHere.

More than 600 diverse residents packed into East High’s auditorium on Aug. 28, 2014.

The Rev. Reuben Eckels, pastor at New Day Christian Church, told a story about a man who had a key to the New Day office and permission to spend the night but was handcuffed by police officers who thought that his black guest must have been breaking in. The crowd grumbled.

Dotson told a story about his 18-year-old, 6-foot-3-inch son who didn’t pull over after speeding. Dotson had already told his son how important it was to be compliant with police as a black man. So he was grateful that the officer called and let him come pick up his son.

The tone of the meeting was set by the pastors’ two stories. People were not happy with the state of police relations and wanted change. But they were also grateful for the police who, on many occasions, had treated them with dignity.

Discontent

Some residents don’t think their churches are doing enough.

“The churches are doing a lot more talking than being active,” said Mary Dean, president of Kansas Justice Advocate, a nonprofit that organizes against discrimination. “There are a few ministers that will go out in the country to walk and protest, but not as a whole.”

She said some of them are scared to lose their nonprofit status, so they shy away from political issues. Others are more concerned with other issues, she said. “They are focusing more on gays and lesbians and same-sex marriage and abortion,” said Dean, who is black. “There are more issues in the church than that.”

She wants the church to return to the days when it was involved in politics. “They should go door to door and do like they used to do back in the day with a bullhorn, riding down the street and letting people know how important it is to vote,” Dean said.

That criticism isn’t just coming from outside the church. Many pastors look back to the civil rights movement and feel a sense of inadequacy.

“A lot of the civil rights movement actually started out of the church, and we’ve gotten so far away from it,” said the Rev. David Chiles, pastor at Paradise Missionary Baptist Church. “We’re trying to see how do we get back to that, how does the church fit into being more involved as far as being activist.”

He said he feels a sense of complacency. “There is something missing, but you don’t know what that something is,” Chiles said. “Sometimes you go through the motions of doing things, and you do it just because. There is something that is lacking.”

Chiles took over leadership of his church three years ago but he’s been a member of Paradise for all 54 years of his life, and he said local black churches used to get together more. “There is some fellowship but not to the extent that it used to be,” Chiles said.

About the same time that Chiles took over leadership of his church, the Rev. Carietta Cain-Grizzel, now pastor at Grand Chapel AME Church, was finishing up her dissertation titled, “24/7 Church: Bridging the holistic gap in the African American congregation,” which diagnosed a similar malady.

Cain-Grizzel describes herself, like Dotson, as a “prophetic” preacher. It’s a style of preaching that derives its authority from the prophets of the Old Testament and is just as apt to critique the sins of corporations and institutions as those of individuals.

“We are in a state of quietism, we are unconscious, and we’re not doing what we used to do in the civil rights era,” Cain-Grizzel said.

She traces the soul of the black church back to when her great-great-grandfather, the Rev. Richard Harvey Cain, rebuilt Emanuel, the AME church in Charleston where nine churchgoers were recently killed.

Cain moved from New York to South Carolina to minister to the recently freed slaves. The AME church had been meeting in secret for more than 30 years after black churches had been banned in South Carolina but would now be free.

“God’s providence leveled the barriers, and rolled away tyranny’s mountain,” Cain told his congregation according to the book “The Times Were Stirring.” “The pathway was cleared, lit up by the sunlight of liberty, and the presence of God.”

Cain would be “turning over in his grave right now because we’re still enslaved,” Cain-Grizzell said. “Our minds are still enslaved.”

Some pastors, such as the Rev. Michael Tyson of Whole Truth Tabernacle of the Apostolic Faith, don’t think churches should be political. The personal attention his church gives, which starts with personal greetings as people enter, is what keeps his small church packed every week and part of why so many black churches in Wichita are small, he said.

“Some churches got bowling alleys, swimming pools and gymnasiums,” Tyson said. “But people in our church come because they like how they feel and how they’re being treated.”

Black churches are expected to align themselves with Democrats, he said, but he considers himself an independent. “The church should only deal with the salvation of souls,” Tyson said. “It’s not my calling to get a mayor elected or get a president elected.”

Tyson works as a probation officer and said that when there have been issues of police violence, rather than “race bait,” he looks at the facts. If people read the court documents released in the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, he said, they would come to a different conclusion.

But what’s important in any case, he said, is not the color of someone’s skin. “An injustice is an injustice, I don’t care who it happens to – black, white, Mexicans, whatever,” Tyson said. “I’m the guy who deals with facts and evidence and not just perception.”

But, according to some, black pastors are not the most political in Wichita. “Some white churches will talk more politics than you will ever find in any black churches,” said the Rev. Herman Hicks, pastor of the Greater Pentecostal Church of God in Christ.

“They will get up and talk about Republican Party and against the Democratic Party. You don’t see that in the black church. We don’t try to speak about party, we talk about the word of God.”

Coming back together

By the 1990s, blacks in Wichita had moved to most of the neighborhoods that they’d been kept out of only three decades before, according to the book “Dissent in Wichita,” by local scholar Gretchen Eick. Whereas before, rich and poor blacks alike were forced to live in similar neighborhoods, now they could segregate by class rather than race.

Because of that, the black church lost some of its central importance, according to the Rev. Wade Moore, pastor at the Christian Faith Centre.

“We lost that cohesiveness over the years,” Moore said. “But then when things began to happen across the nation, we understood that we’ve got to come back together again. And that is the difficult part of all these years being separated, trying to bring everyone back together to rally around the same cause.”

But there was a good chance they would have failed had it not been for the leadership of the Rev. Herman Hicks, according to several pastors. He served as president of the Greater Wichita Ministerial League, a group of mostly black pastors, for three years starting in 2011. More than 50 years after civil rights legislation was passed, Wichita still has two ministerial leagues, one of which is mostly black and one mostly white.

Before Hicks took over the leadership, Moore said, the league had become just a gathering of pastors who got together to talk. But Hicks actively recruited black pastors across the city and registered it as an official nonprofit. Now more than 30 pastors frequently come to its meetings and will sometimes join together on issues.

“It was providential that we were uniting at the right time,” Dotson said.

After the first Ferguson meeting, Dotson and Harding organized another community meeting at Century II in December, and then met with city leaders on a regular basis to ensure that the promises from these meetings led to actual policy changes.

They prioritized body cameras for police because, they say, the cameras were needed before other goals such as a citizens review board for police shootings could be pursued. Footage from a body camera led to an officer being indicted in Cincinnati on Wednesday.

In July, Wichita allocated $2.2 million to equip its officers with body cameras by the end of the year.

“It’s because of (the pastors) that we’re looking at body cameras on every field officer,” said Lavonta Williams, one of the City Council members who approved the body cameras. Although many groups and political leaders helped push the issue forward, she said the original driving force was the pastors.

Two important reasons the ministers were successful, according to Mark McCormick, executive director of the Kansas African American Museum, are that black churches are one of the relatively few independently owned black entities in the city, and they have many followers, so they can speak truth to power – and the powerful listen.

“You had all these ministers who had a degree of independence and church followers, and they were able to make something happen in a way that others said they haven’t been able to make happen,” McCormick said.

Wichita was also in the relatively unique position for predominantly white cities of having a black mayor, a black police chief and a black City Council member. Former Mayor Carl Brewer said he would meet with black church leaders once a quarter, but that increased after Ferguson.

“We stepped into a moment, which is not to devalue all the work that others have done or to grab spotlight,” Dotson said. “We brought the power of our ministries and the power of our influence to the table, and we got some things done.”

Dotson remembers after one Black Lives Matter protest, an activist who had been to most of the local protests came up to him and said, “When you go to the table the officials will talk to you. They won’t talk to people like me because they consider us radical and crazy.”

But the city officials would have never come to the table, Dotson said, if the protesters had not “turned the heat up and created that space for negotiation to happen.”

The prophetic future

One of Dotson’s signature accomplishments has been the growth of his St. Mark’s nonprofit health center from a pet project to a full clinic that serves thousands.

Moore, pastor of the Christian Faith Centre, opened a new private school to serve black children where the public schools are failing, he said.

But in the long run, a few pastors such as Moore and Dotson believe that they can’t just do social work and react to events in the news. They need the rest of Wichita to get to know blacks as people and see the disparities they face as an affront to the city’s sense of justice.

So that means trying to bring more diversity into their churches on Sundays, a day that they acknowledge is still – as Martin Luther King once said – the most segregated day in America.

“People go to what they know,” said Hicks, senior pastor at Greater Pentecostal Church of God in Christ. “I don’t think it’s something anybody really wants, but it is the way society is today. Hopefully, that will change some day because when we get to heaven there is not going to be a black side and a white side, it’s going to be all of us together.”

Before coming to Wichita 13 years ago, Dotson founded Genesis United Methodist, a church in Silicon Valley, Calif., that has become a model of racial diversity. It’s split evenly between black, white, Asian and a Hawaiian ethnicity, he said, and has won awards for its contributions to racial justice.

So two years ago, when he was asked by regional leaders to take over Epworth United Methodist in addition to the St. Mark church, he was thrilled. The congregation had around 60 mostly older white members near downtown Wichita in what he said is one of the most diverse areas of the city.

But it hasn’t been easy. Half of the original members left the church before they even heard his first sermon, and most were gone by the end of the first month, according to Dotson. Only 12 of the original 60 members remain.

“It was way too different than what they were used to,” Dotson said they told him when they left. “The worship volume was too loud.”

These are common reasons among white churchgoers who don’t want to worship under black leadership, according to the Rev. Thabiti Anyabwile, a scholar of the black church.

“If we were accepting of one another, then we would welcome the differences and learn to celebrate them and learn how to share the space,” Anyabwile said. “But the fact that we don’t accept each other at very deep levels, that gets expressed by worship, style and culture.”

Dotson has tried to adapt to make his second campus an exception. He keeps his services shorter than on the main campus and sometimes brings in music from outside the black tradition.

But the church was vandalized recently: bricks were thrown, a window broken and pieces of the awning’s fabric cut out, which may have just been some neighborhood kids, but after Charleston he couldn’t rule out that it was race related. “I’m hoping not,” Dotson said. “We filed a police report and asked if it’s happening at any other churches.”

On a recent Sunday, several of the church greeters and half the band on stage were white, even though whites made up only about 15 percent of the congregation.

Early in the service, a black man and a white woman carried their baby, Tabetha, to the altar, followed closely by three white and three black supporters. Dotson commanded Tabetha to “resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever form they appear” as part of her baptism rites, and sprinkled water on her forehead.

Then he turned around, so his back was facing the audience, and raised Tabetha above his head.

He held her there, suspended above the congregation – a prophetic vision of the church for all to see.

Reach Oliver Morrison at 316-268-6499 or omorrison@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ORMorrison.

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