The sixth annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration event “Remembering and Renewing King’s Dream for Peace” was held January 22 on the main FPU campus. The event is sponsored by the Provost’s Office, and is followed by a series of College Hour presentations and experiences for Black History Month (and this year in the McDonald Hall Atrium). One of the highlights of that month is worshipping in the African American Church tradition, led by University Pastor Angulus Wilson, who is joined by other pastors from around the city. The King event was one of the best attended in its history—the BC lounge at the seminary was filled with members of the community, FPU faculty, staff and students.
Each year there is a different subtheme for the King Celebration. This year’s was “Black Lives Matter,” a controversial theme given events of the last few years, and just the kind that we ought to discuss at a university. The developer and leader of the event is Karen Crozier, Ph.D., director of faculty development and diversity and associate professor of practical theology, who brought together people from the campus and the community, a panel of practitioners, peace circle discussions and keynote speaker Iva Carruthers, Ph.D. Carruthers is the founder and general secretary of the Samuel Dewitt Procter Conference, an interdenominational networking organization of primarily African American faith based groups, which brings together pastors and lay leaders for the work of social justice. She works in and with both national and international organizations, and brought her experience of many years to a celebration of the work of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I asked Karen what she hoped people would take away from the event. Her response is thoughtful and deliberately challenging: “The King celebration was an event for honoring the legacy of Dr. King for a new generation.” She wanted both the young and adults to see a King who was “critical of the nation, but also exhibited a very loving, compassionate engagement in the pursuit of freedom and justice out of his identity as a Christian minister. He was holding the nation accountable to its various ideas within its founding documents. It was an attempt to ask how we can appropriate, renew and remember King for this new generation as well as for those adults who may have found King to be too domesticated in the way he is celebrated in the 21st century.”
Carruthers’ address drew upon her experience with King and her long work in Christian organizations for social justice, and, as Karen hoped and planned, exhibited compassion and understanding, but refused to be “domesticated.” She addressed the current situation of recent shootings across the nation and the mass incarceration of young black men, and the effects of these on families, churches and whole communities. When she was done, it was clear to all of us there that we could not ignore what is going on in our cities and nation, and that we had hardly begun to grasp it all.
I also asked Karen to reflect on what was unique about this event over prior years. She said that this was the first that was “truly of, for and by the people. We had invited dignitaries, but it was a place where everyone had an opportunity to engage through the peacemaking circle process…to share and engage and not to feel that they were less-than.” Karen’s mother commented to her that many of the young people in the peacemaking circle she attended said that they did not really know about King’s significance, and that now they appreciated and understood the value of what he had done and did not just see him as a name on a day off from school. “That was huge!” she said. As one who struggles to help students understand the history that shapes us, I say amen.
Universities that address real issues, lead their students to deeper understanding and have an influence on the world we live in host these kinds of events in order to bring difficult issues to life. Challenging speakers, panels of experienced practitioners, safe places like the peacemaking circles and an atmosphere that fosters open discussions provide a way of getting to those issues that the normal classroom might not have. Universities must both be places where we can raise very difficult issues and where differences of opinion can be safely discussed and debated. Deep and sometimes painful discussions are not easy to keep going. These events help. We are a Christian university—we follow a Christ who raised a few challenging issues himself.
On the same night, the music department hosted soprano Zanaida Robles, D.M.A., for the third performance in the Pacific Artist Series. Robles, who is African American, performed music by composers of African descent. She also helped open the King event with a song. This Thursday will be the Jean and Louis Janzen Visiting Writers Series with speaker David Wright. There will be several more events through the semester to enrich and deepen university life and learning. They take time and lots of planning beyond the classroom or administrative responsibilities for those who develop them. But we thank all the organizers, and for the King event Karen Crozier, for the creativity and energy they bring to Fresno Pacific. My job is easier—I get to support and attend them. Please consider this a personal invitation to join us.