Fearless dialogues described as hopeful, inspiring


Audience members received three-feet measuring tapes that they stretched to full length. Dr. Gregory Ellison (top center) challenged all to improve their space by seeing three “invisible” new people, hearing their stories and building intentional relationships. (Photo by Rev. Autura Eason-Williams) Click on link above left for more photos of event taken by event participants.

by Glenese Scales, Rev. Autura Eason-Williams and Rev. Bill Lawson

Article By Dr. Cynthia A. Bond Hopson

On the way “from here to hear to there,” the terrain is often difficult, painful, and sometimes downright uncomfortable. Nevertheless, a capacity crowd from across the Memphis Conference of The United Methodist Church and beyond gathered close Sunday night at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis for what moderator and Emory University Professor Dr. Gregory Ellison called “fearless dialogues.”

Topics ranged from gender invisibility, white privilege, cowardice, disparities in health and education, mentoring as a transformative solution, to relationships, and bold leadership.

The 175 people in attendance moved their seats around a circle of five chairs in the center of the room to help the panelists seated there, Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell, Memphis Conference Metro District Superintendent Dr. Deborah Smith, veteran journalist and educator Otis Sanford, and preventive medicine professor Dr. Robin Jones Womeodu, grapple with four questions that guided the evening’s discussion:

  • Why am I here?
  • Can I be fully here if I fail to see and hear?
  • Where do we go from here?
  • What must I do to die a good death or create a lasting legacy?
The fearless dialogues model challenges participants to listen carefully to each question, hear two of the panelists, reflect, then ask questions that the responses elicit, then continue with the remaining questions during an allotted time frame. The fifth seat was reserved for audience members to add wisdom from the community.

Josh Shaw, youth pastor at Paris First United Methodist Church in Paris, Tennessee, and self-described millennial, was invited to fill the fifth seat for questions three and four. Shaw said millennials don’t need special treatment; they just want to be seen, heard, and respected. He said an occasional pizza is appreciated too.

“As a young man it was beautiful and very empowering to see a room filled with so many inspirational people and theological minds…to see them all in a room with similar questions that I have and living fearlessly. Dr. Ellison was truly a blessing. He has gone through so many diverse settings, but he made it feel like we were all there at the family table together.”

Dr. Joseph Geary, Memphis Conference director of Connectional Ministries and one of the event organizers, called the audience one of “the most diverse” he’s seen assembled in the Memphis Conference. The dinner/panel discussion was one of many MLK50 events in Memphis commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.

Author of Cut Dead But Still Alive: Caring for African American Young Men, (2013, Abingdon Press) Ellison is considered a leading voice on urban topics and African American young men. His appearance was to help Memphis Conference leaders from across West Tennessee and Western Kentucky create a template for future conversations on race and religion.

“People want to do more than wear hoodies, carry Skittles in one hand and sweet tea in the other,” Ellison said, referring to national protests around the death of Trayvon Martin and other African American young men in the U.S. over the past six years. “We must live and love the questions and not rush to the answers,” Ellison said. “The community has a voice but must also have a plan of action to move forward. When you see, you can’t unsee what must be done.”

Ellison said the longest journey to change is from the head to the heart. He said gathering the community around the panelists helped create a different kind of space for meaningful dialogue. He invited the audience to be bold and generous with their inquiries as members of the Memphis Conference Youth Council captured the rapid-fire questions on newsprint around the room. The themes and questions were familiar and poignant:
Does my voice matter? Why is poverty still a huge problem in Memphis?
When I name what I see, will the community listen to brown people so they’re no longer invisible?
How can I use my white privilege to influence other whites to talk about theirs?
When I see, what do I do? What do we do to the people who refuse to see or hear?
How can I see people the way that God sees them?  Am I willing to be a courageous leader?
How do I talk about white privilege when people don’t believe it exists? How do we teach the children?
Are we willing to stand up for the voiceless? Can we stop asking how and start asking when?
How do I respond when people say it’s better not to stir the pot?
Will you use your voice? Is my voice important?

Smith said every voice is important, though sometimes she has had to yell to be heard or to protect her ideas from being ignored or retold under someone else’s banner. She shared painful memories from Hurricane Katrina and the disparities the natural disaster exposed in New Orleans. She kept yelling to get justice for her community and neighbors when officials didn’t “see” or “hear” her concerns.

“My voice does matter,” she said.

As African American women in leadership, Smith and Dr. Cynthia Davis, now senior associate pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, who also occupied the fifth chair, said they know how important it is to have a voice and use it.

“We must use our voice to move from invisibility to visibility. There’s always a place that will inspire and encourage use of your voice,” Davis said.

Sanford, who discovered the power of words as a child growing up in Mississippi, passionately advocated for mentors and mentoring as a means of empowerment and moving society forward. He shared how his older siblings taught him to read before he started school, how he learned to love newspapers from watching his father read them, and why he and his wife, Elaine Y. Sanford, are so committed to helping others. His wife left her career to begin HER Faith Ministries to help disenfranchised women and children.

“I discovered journalism and the power in the written word and telling people something they didn’t know. I decided to use this platform for those who had no voice and who feel like they’re invisible. We must lift, take a risk and step out and do something.”

“Look back at those who’re coming along and be a mentor. Be that person,” Sanford said. Sanford is also holder of the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Economic and Managerial Journalism at the University of Memphis, a columnist and commentator at ABC affiliate WATN, Channel 24.

Womeodu, who grew up in a Virginia town where the Brown v Topeka school desegregation decision led local schools to be closed for five years rather than desegregate, believes that education is a foundation that must be strengthened if society is to flourish and support the generations to come. She has seen this throughout her career and said the lack of education is often the root of health and other disparities. She doesn’t want communities to lose sight of that.

When third graders aren’t reading at grade level, the downward spiral begins there and may continue throughout adulthood, causing perpetual poverty and disenfranchisement, she said.

Ellison said when he was younger he wanted to conquer the world but was advised to begin with the three feet right around him.

Audience members were given three-feet measuring tapes and as they stretched them to full length, Ellison challenged them to improve their space by seeing three “invisible” new people, hearing their stories and building intentional relationships.

Shaw said being in the audience Sunday night was special because his grandmother, Joyce Carter, was with him and she had already implanted the three-feet notion early in his life.

“Because of her I’ve been equipped and empowered to change the three feet around me. She was a person who told me to go out and love everybody no matter where they are and she modeled that for me in such a beautiful way,” Shaw said.

Luttrell said he thought the session was a great way to end the week of commemorative events and answer the question “Where do we go from here?”

“We’ve had this week, so the question now becomes what do we do with what we’ve learned?” he said.

Bishop William T. (Bill) McAlilly, resident bishop of the Nashville Episcopal Area that includes the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences, said he was pleased with the turnout and intends to name a task force to repeat this process around the Memphis Conference to strengthen relationships across racial lines and help members discover new ways to love God and their neighbors.

He said the task force will also include additional emphasis on Professor M. Douglas Meeks’ five dimensions of poverty: economic (I am hungry), political (I have no power), cultural (I have no name), natural/bodily (I am not whole) and spiritual (I have no hope), as the annual conference’s fearless dialogues continue. Meeks is the Cal Turner Chancellor Professor of Theology and Wesleyan Studies Emeritus at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville.

“I want us to see and help others to see with new eyes and hear with new ears so we can be aware of our own biases. I ask God to remake us so the dream of Dr. King may advance for another 50 years,” McAlilly said.

~Cynthia A. Bond Hopson, drhopson007@aol.com, lives in Cordova, TN and is an educator and author of The Women of Haywood: Their Lives, Our Legacy. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook at #drbondHopson.