By Fred Koenig
While in seminary, Rev. Sheila Sledge made use of some of her prescribed quiet time to take a five-hour drive to Memphis alone to visit the Civil Rights Museum. The experience was profound, and she wanted more people to be able to share it in a communal manner.
The Missouri Conference Values Team, chaired by Sledge, gave the people of the Missouri Conference that opportunity this year at a time that marks the anniversary of 50 years since the assignation of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On April 13, 34 people from the Missouri Conference met in St. Louis and boarded a bus to Memphis.
“We were hoping to reach people in Missouri communities that don’t have the opportunity to be in relationship with the various faces of Jesus in their own communities,” Sledge said, noting that many United Methodists live in communities and attend churches that lack racial, cultural and economic diversity.
Gateway Central District Superintendent Londia Wright said she had wanted to go to the museum since she first heard of it but hadn’t made it happen.
“When I saw the information about this, I said ‘I’m going’ and I registered immediately,” she said. “It’s too important to miss, and it was a great opportunity to travel there with like-minded Methodists and have good conversations before and after experiencing the museum.”
The experiential nature of the displays at the museum helped bring the civil rights story to life. “Justice is not a program or project. It’s a life-long ministry of working to establish the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven,” Wright said.
Every year around the Martin Luther King holiday, Wright said she is struck by the fact that he was only 39 years old when he was assassinated and how much of an impact our lives can have at any stage of life.
Mabel Unser, United Methodist Women’s representative on the Values Team, was excited to go to the museum for the first time.
“We spent three hours there, and I could have spent a lot longer. I look forward to going back,” she said. “It was also great to visit Centenary UMC, an African-American church dating back to 1896, and hear them share their history.”
Sledge hopes the Values Team will be able to offer the experience again, ideally with multiple buses leaving from different parts of the state, and more participation from rural areas that don’t have an African-American population.
“The world is coming around to talking about culture competency, multiculturalism, diversity and inclusiveness,” Sledge said. “The church needs to proactively take the lead in these areas.”
“I would like to see people return home and do something in the name of unity, harmony and love,” she said.
She’s encouraged by the Fierce Conversations event preceding Annual Conference this year.
“We need to learn how to be with each other and talk about things,” Sledge said.
Rev. Cody Collier, special assistant to the Bishop for the Missouri Conference, said the conversations on the trip were a highlight for him.
“This (1968) was an unbelievable moment in time, and the Civil Right Museum does an excellent job of providing you with an experiential way to reflect on it and live through what led up to it,” Collier said. “You can do a book study, but this was much more meaningful. To be able to experience this together as a group, and then to be on the bus together and have relaxed conversations about our experiences was a powerful piece of the trip. I’m sure no one came back the same.”