Several hundred faithful came to the Basilica of Saint Mary on Friday night in a belated celebration of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — and to demonstrate a new alliance between Minnesota’s historic black churches and predominantly white congregations.
The religious service, originally scheduled on the anniversary of King’s death in April, attracted folks ranging from evangelical Christians to Roman Catholics.
It marked what some of Minnesota’s top religious leaders hope will be a new religious movement here to combat the rise of racism and white supremacy.
“This is probably the biggest and most effective collaboration we’ve had, and I’ve been here 50 years,” said Bishop Fred Washington of the Church of God in Christ, one of several well-known black religious leaders who spoke at a news conference before the celebration. “I think this is new ground in Minnesota,” he said.
Over the past six months, bishops and other top leaders of the historic black denominations have been meeting with their white colleagues from the Minnesota Council of Churches, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Transform Minnesota, the umbrella organization for evangelical Christian groups.
It’s the beginning of a collaboration they hope will spread to their individual church communities. The key leaders spoke at the news conference, pressing the urgent need for unified church action against a racism they fear is growing.
“This is a national ecclesiastical crisis,” said Bishop Richard Howell, pastor of Shiloh Temple International Ministries in Minneapolis. “It’s time for a new movement. This is the right time. This is the right hour.”
The news conference was followed by a ceremony in the basilica, where the faithful gathered for an evening of inspirational music and speakers, ranging from the Minnesota State Baptist Convention Choir to audio clips of King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech that echoed across the basilica.
Lynette Graham, who was among those in the pews, said her own church, St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, had recently begun a closer collaboration on racial justice issues with St. Thomas More. She agrees that these types of interracial efforts hold promise.
“Coming here is important to me because this honors Martin Luther King on the 50th anniversary of his death,” said Graham. “And to have this held in a Catholic basilica is unprecedented to me.”
For years, many predominantly white churches have sponsored committees on racial justice, Sunday minister exchanges, shared youth ministries, and lobbying and advocacy efforts to benefit racial minorities.
Those steps, while certainly helpful, did not seem adequate in what black church leaders see as a growing climate of racism in this country. A turning point came with the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last August. It was a call to action, they said.
Black religious leaders called a meeting at Shiloh Temple in Minneapolis last fall with key religious organizations. The first meeting “was more of a listening session,” said the Rev. Curtiss DeYoung, CEO of the Minnesota Council of Churches.
“There’s no finger pointing,” added Washington. “Just open, frank discussion.”
About 75 religious leaders met again in December, said DeYoung, and have been making deeper personal connections as they begin to work on racial justice issues.
The Martin Luther King Jr. celebration underscores that work.
The event was scheduled initially to coincide with King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech delivered the night before he was killed. But a blizzard forced its cancellation.
King’s calls for equal pay, equal opportunity and equal education are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago, Howell said. So was King’s collaboration with religious leaders across the nation.
“Just as King’s movement was started in the church, so it should be continued in the church,” said Howell. “I think it’s the time to bring back that voice.”
The Rev. Stacey Smith, presiding elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Twin Cities district, was among the speakers at the ceremony. She said her own church, St. Peter’s AME in Minneapolis, was the sister church of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., where a gunman killed nine church members in 2015.
“Things seem to be escalating,” she said. “We need a unified front to dismantle racism and white supremacy through the lens of love.”