Students, faculty and staff participate in Monday morning's Solidarity March on the Eastern Mennonite University campus during Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The university celebrated the federal holiday this year with a special convocation, worship service, poetry slam, panel discussions, a town hall on race, and a film showing, among other events. (Photo by Derrick Chirinos)

‘Are you ready to be about what you talk about?’: MLK Day 2023 and the making of a ‘Beloved Community’

Will we ever realize being in “beloved community”? What does that look like and where are we on that journey of hope? Eastern Mennonite University’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration took “beloved community,” a phrase shared by the slain civil rights leader, as an urgent theme and a visionary calling, manifested throughout the two-day event by speakers, film showings, and learning opportunities for the campus community.

“Dr. King invites us all to join the journey,” said director of Multicultural Student Services and MLK Day Committee chair Celeste Thomas in her convocation welcome address. She then spoke the words of King: “If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run, then walk, if you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Along with Thomas, Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed, in the first week of her new role with EMU’s advancement division, urged listeners to stay focused on the mission of being the Valley’s “bridgebuilders and peacemakers.” But don’t be complacent, she added. “EMU, what are you doing to make your community, your campus, your school, your organization, your team, whatever you are part of, a beloved community, a community where all people are respected, cared for and treated as equals, a beloved community where there’s no space for injustice, prejudice or discrimination? What are you doing, EMU?”

The end result of this journey is liberation and justice, added youth advocate Vivian Anderson, but everyone needs to find their “walk along the way.” Redemption and reconciliation can happen only if people who say they support the journey join it.

This year’s celebration was the fifth annual “day on” for EMU. The term, coined by President Susan Schultz Huxman, helps to focus students, faculty and staff on observing the federal holiday with a full slate of activities focused around civil rights, nonviolence, and the ongoing struggle for racial equality. Students can receive convocation credit for participation.

Planning for MLK Day involved the Zehr Institute of Restorative Justice, a program of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding; EMU’s Multicultural Student Services, and Black Student Alliance members.

This photoessay with contributions from photographers Derrick Chirinos, Bryan Luna and Jon Styer captures the range of campus activities.

“Are you ready to be about what you talk about? So you’re in this room, but who are you outside of this room?” Anderson, founder and executive director of EveryBlackGirl, Inc., pointed to Niya Kenny (left) as an example of nonviolent resistance. In 2016, Kenny filmed an assault by a resource office on a fellow classmate at her high school and was taken from the classroom in handcuffs. Anderson moved from her home in New York City to support Kenny and work to dismantle the system — both of their stories are shared in the documentary “On These Grounds,” screened twice during the event. Anderson and Kenny participated in a community discussion later in the afternoon. [To learn more about the Spring Hill High School event and connections to restorative justice, view a Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice webinar with educator Maisha T. Winn.]

“America has been young and sick for much of its life” with the fever of slavery and segregation, said The Rev. Vincent Jones, who brought the convocation’s keynote, “…and King was the Tylenol.” And while the fever may have broken and the medicine of his words helped, the virus is still inside. “We need to call on God to help us,” he said, and we need to be delivered from our selfish ways into a more expansive and familial perspective. All humans are our brothers and sisters, he said. “The problem with the beloved community is we don’t claim our own. We need to claim our own.”

Jones is an elementary school counselor, mental health therapist, and the pastor of the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Bedford, Virginia. Read more about him here.

Tonya Scott, a member of North River Baptist Church, offers a liturgical dance “Change Me” during the convocation.

Christian Parks ‘16 (left) hosted EMU’s first event of Monday morning, the “Speak Out and Solidarity March.” The panel discussion featured four Black Student Alliance executive board members—senior Nardos Haile, first-year Nia Boyd, sophomore Brii Redfearn, and first-year Donesha George—sharing their experiences at EMU.

Parks, now a teacher in Washington DC public schools, is past president of the alliance.

The students spoke to the importance of safe spaces like BSA at a predominantly white institution, as well as the pressure that is often put on Black students to explain and defend their experiences in classrooms. George noted the overall negativity with which Black history is portrayed in the classroom. One way to move forward, said Haile, is holding space and having difficult conversations. Boyd agreed, adding that “it’s important to make people uncomfortable.”

Following the panel discussion, Parks led attendees in a march around campus, with a portion of the walk spent in silence or prayer and another with conversation encouraged.

Ram Bhagat, EdD, leads an afternoon drumming session. An adjunct professor at EMU and a graduate of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Bhagat works in promote restorative education and intra-racial healing Richmond Public Schools and is the founder of Drums No Guns.

History professor Mark Sawin presents to a full room about the life of Harrisonburg resident Doris Harper Allen. His overview included history of local racial relations and the Mennonite church, Virginia’s era of massive resistance, and EMU’s first African American students.

Several of Allen’s close relatives were present to listen and share stories of Allen, whose second memoir will be published posthumously in February 2023. Below, from left: Special guests included William “Billo” Harper, Allen’s son; his wife, Thandi Hicks Harper, PhD; and Pastor Costella Forney, Allen’s grandniece. Not shown is Reed, also a grandniece.

Discussion on “‘Are you ready to be about what you talk about?’: MLK Day 2023 and the making of a ‘Beloved Community’

  1. The theme of ‘beloved community’ at this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at EMU is both urgent and visionary. It’s inspiring to hear speakers, including Mayor Deanna Reed and youth advocate Vivian Anderson, encourage us to actively work towards creating a community where all people are respected and treated as equals.

  2. It’s impressive to see the community actively engaging in discussions and activities to promote racial equality and justice, truly embodying MLK’s vision of a ‘Beloved Community’. This approach of action and reflection is a powerful way to inspire change. Sharing this on Instagram to spread awareness and encourage more communities to participate in such meaningful events.

Comments are closed.