Two white, black KC area congregations begin long-needed racial bridge building

A Johnson County pastor and a Kansas City pastor talk about race

Pastor Adam Hamilton, a church pastor in Johnson County, discusses race with pastor Emanuel Cleaver III at St. James Church in Kansas City.
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Pastor Adam Hamilton, a church pastor in Johnson County, discusses race with pastor Emanuel Cleaver III at St. James Church in Kansas City.

The Rev. Adam Hamilton made it clear last week that the Forum on the Racial Divide in Kansas City bringing together the two largest United Methodist congregations in the area was “a baby step.”

But it was an impressive start in an elementary, nonthreatening dialogue between black and white Kansas City area residents.

On Tuesday night, more than 800 people walked, drove cars and rode school buses, filling St. James United Methodist Church at 55th Street and the Paseo, where the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III is the senior pastor.

The shootings in July by police of black men, and then of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, were the sparks that ignited the need for a conversation on race, said Cleaver. He is following a citywide dialogue on the sensitive subject that his father, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, initiated when the elder Cleaver was Kansas City’s first black mayor, starting in 1991.

But that conversation more than 20 years ago didn’t last, and that’s part of the problem.

“We thought it was important to address the root cause of the things we were seeing around the country,” Cleaver said in an interview after the program. “It has to be an ongoing thing. It has to be a movement, not something that happens occasionally.”

Many of the people at Cleaver’s church who were white came at the urgings of Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection with campuses in Leawood, downtown Kansas City, Olathe and Blue Springs.

Cleaver and Hamilton led the conversation on race after Erik Stafford, who provides tours of African American historical sites, covered some of the racial history in the United States and in the Kansas City area.

Much of it was not good.

Throughout most of the 20th century African Americans were forced to live in segregated housing that could not cross south of 27th Street. They had to attend segregated schools and were restricted from stores, hotels, parks and restaurants. It wasn’t until 1964 that Kansas City voters narrowly approved a sweeping public accommodations ordinance, forcing bars, restaurants and hotels to serve African Americans.

Resistance by whites, however, continued after that and after the 1954 Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education decision ending legal segregation. Blacks faced blockbusting, redlining, white flight, racism, discrimination and homes newly purchased by blacks in white areas having crosses burned in the front yards.

“We need to face our history and face it honestly,” Stafford said.

The biggest problem, however, is a lot of what people must confront isn’t history at all.

A 24/7 Wall St. report in 2015 ranked the Kansas City area the ninth most segregated in the country. “White residents have very little interaction with the city’s black residents,” the report said.

Hamilton explained to the audience that he was taught as a kid in Johnson County to be afraid to go east of Troost Avenue, Kansas City’s long-standing racial dividing line. It’s a fear that for many people is reinforced by news media reports of crime and violence. There also is a fear among whites that they will say or do something wrong in conversations with blacks.

Cleaver explained that it’s not that way for many African Americans because as minorities they have no choice but to learn the majority culture.

“Growing up in America, blacks know what to say around whites,” he said. For minorities, race is an issue they must confront at an early age and teach their children racial survival skills — particularly when stopped by the police.

Hamilton explained that race and racism were hardly something he had to think about at all.

“I want the world to be different. I don’t know what to do about it,” he told the audience.

Hamilton and Cleaver talked about the Black Lives Matter movement and how it addresses the historical need for the country to at long last value the lives of African Americans.

A good move by the organizers was to have people in the audience talk to each other across racial lines. The topics included determining how diverse individuals’ social circles are, what steps people could take to improve race relations and how more churches could become involved. The church was filled with the noise of people talking, and that was encouraging.

People were asked to fill out and turn in questionnaires. Teams from the black and white congregations will sift through the answers in the coming weeks and determine what the next step might be to bridge the city’s racial divide.

More conversations and concrete action must follow. Cleaver said he will be participating Sept. 17 in Washington, D.C., in a Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference town hall meeting titled “Black Lives Matter: Ending Racial Profiling, Police Brutality and Mass Incarceration.” People nationwide need to be involved in such conversations on race.

“Fear is defeated with conversations,” Hamilton said in an interview.

Cleaver added, “I think everyone needs to participate, not just the two congregations.” People who are involved also need to celebrate their successes.

That would help bring down racial barriers and replace them with new friendships, understanding and opportunity. Kansas City then would move up in national rankings and be a desirable place where more people of all colors want to live.