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Two Kansas City area churches, black and white, joining to tackle racism — together

Members of St. James United Methodist Church of Kansas City and Church of the Resurrection of Leawood in their partnership as Allies for Racial Justice have engaged in fellowship-building activities, including attending the annual “Dress to the Nines” Kansas City Royals baseball games.
Members of St. James United Methodist Church of Kansas City and Church of the Resurrection of Leawood in their partnership as Allies for Racial Justice have engaged in fellowship-building activities, including attending the annual “Dress to the Nines” Kansas City Royals baseball games. Photo courtesy the Allies for Racial Justice

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MLK Day 2019

This year marks the 33rd national observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. Monday would be his 90th birthday.

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America’s fear and anger boiled hot the summer of 2016 when the Allies for Racial Justice was born.

Frustration over police shootings of black men had ignited a black man’s ambush of Dallas police officers. The wounds of the Ferguson race riots two years before seemed freshly opened and two Kansas City-area congregations on either side of the area’s stark racial divide wanted to do something about it — together.

Ernest Middleton was there in the congregation that August night when his church, St. James United Methodist of Kansas City, and Church of the Resurrection of Leawood gathered a shaken Kansas City community at St. James.

Betsy Triplett of Church of the Resurrection was there, too.

The senior pastors of both churches wanted to find some ledge of hope to stand on. Something to give them courage.

The idea of the Allies — joining a predominantly black congregation and a predominantly white congregation — began to take shape that night, and MIddleton and Triplett knew they wanted to be a part of it.

“It has been my hope and dream that people come together,” said Middleton, who for many years created diversity programming for the University of Missouri-Kansas City as the school’s assistant vice chancellor for minority student affairs.

One thing he is sure of: “Racism cannot stand up to contact.”

Triplett had already been looking to break out of what she called her “sheltered white experience.” She wanted to rise above her cynicism that doubted that one person could have any effect against racism.

“How do you love your neighbor,” she said, “if you don’t know your neighbor? If you don’t know their experience? If you don’t have any clue what their life is like?”

Middleton and Triplett joined the voices of the two congregations and their growing belief that the Kansas City community could take stronger action against injustice and violence if diverse people joined in fellowship.

Racism’s grip would weaken as people followed their congregations’ example and shared life experiences together, Middleton said.

“You have opportunities,” he said, “to ask questions that help bring about change with a different mindset that is more respectful and understanding of each other.”

Triplett saw what was possible early on when small groups created by the churches met to read and explore the sermons of Martin Luther King Jr. that were collected in the book “Strength to Love.”

The racial separation that marks most of our lives puts people in the habit of “othering,” she said.

The conversations around King’s sermons helped everyone to see both the similarities they shared as well as differences they could appreciate, Triplett said.

“We have to change our habits,” she said. “It takes intention. It takes persistence.”

Most of the first two years of the alliance has been about taking that time over and over as team-building for the actions to come, say leaders from both churches.

In addition to the small groups, church members have gone together in fine Sunday clothes to the annual special Kansas City Royals baseball games — “Dressed to the Nines” — that include tributes to the historic Negro baseball leagues.

They watched Kansas City Chiefs football games together in the Power & Light District downtown.

They’ve had barbecue picnics in parks.

They’ve gathered for organized forums to get information from professionals and experts in the criminal justice system and social justice arena.

Middleton believes they are preparing both congregations to stand with higher grace and knowledge in trying to bring change to racially challenged issues like education and fair housing.

“Whether it’s protesting or sharing information to others, I hope those are the type of commitments that would result,” he said.

Triplett feels her doubts and cynicism falling away.

“When people invest in relationships, we can all change,” she said. “If you do it, you will get it, you will understand it and believe it.”

Joe Robertson specializes in reporting on criminal and social justice. He works to tell the stories behind the stories, while covering breaking news of all kinds.
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