When Weston UMC celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. day on a Sunday afternoon before the holiday, the sanctuary was full, as it should have been. The program was a combination of education, inspiration and celebration that was not to be missed. It was clear the event was not just something put together for the day but was possible through relationships and partnerships forged through the years.
Rev. Kara Wilson, pastor of the church, opened the ceremony by acknowledging that although they were gathered to celebrate, the history of their church included things that would be hard to hear. But the church did not want to gloss over part of its history that it isn’t proud of. Instead, the intention is to acknowledge history and be better.
“Our carpet here may be red, but our floor is love,” Wilson said.
A symbol for the event was the Sankofa, a bird looking back and dropping a seed – the seed of knowledge. It comes from the Ghanaian Twi culture and is symbolic of the theme underlying the event, moving back to the future by way of the past.
“We must use knowledge of the past to shape the future,” said Angela Hagenbach, chair and founder of Weston’s Black Ancestor Awareness Campaign (BAAC), formed in June 2021, which helped plan the event.
Weston United Methodist Church traces its origins back to 1838 – about 16 years after Missouri joined the union as a slave state.
Wilson gave an account of the history of the United Methodist Church, including the split over slavery. The church in Weston was part of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, the side that supported slavery.
Rik Jackson told of the history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Leavenworth, Kansas. Bethel AME was founded 164 years ago. Light in its bell tower helped guide people escaping slavery in Missouri to freedom in Kansas.
Jackson mentioned that Sunday mornings are the most segregated time in the country. Still, Weston UMC wasn’t segregated that afternoon, with a diverse audience in attendance.
Jackson encouraged people to visit the Richard Allen Cultural Center & Museum in Leavenworth, located next to Bethel AME. The museum
honors not only Bishop Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, but also Buffalo Soldiers, the Underground Railroad and other parts of African American history.
Efforts to bridge the racial divide are not new for the people of Weston UMC. Carla Sutton, with Rev. Bill Sutton, pastor there from 1978 – 86, was shocked to learn about the 400 unmarked graves of enslaved and freed Black people at the local Laurel Hill Cemetery. The couple led an effort to raise $9,000 in two months for a Black granite marker erected at the cemetery in 2020. The couple was presented an award for their efforts at the event.
Motivational storyteller, tribute vocalist and oral historian Brother John Anderson shared some history of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., noting he wrote over 2,000 speeches. He set the scene for the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., and then delivered an excerpt with perfect tone, inflection and cadence while scenes from the crowd at the original speech showed on the screens behind him.
Music at the event included the Bethel AME Choir and the Jubilee Singers, a volunteer group of singers formed for a Juneteenth celebration last year.
In researching her family in Weston, Hagenbach learned that her fifth-generation grandmother, Dinah Robinson, was an enslaved person who had purchased her freedom and properties in Weston. A courtyard entrance to a city park was established in her honor. The BAAC now has office space in the church, overlooking the park.
“This congregation not only talks the talk, but they also walk the walk,” Hagenbach said.
The courtyard is built from engraved antebellum brick, shaped by ancestral hands, cleaned of their mortar by volunteers of Weston today who aren’t afraid to acknowledge their past as they shape the future.
“This event came about because of prayers, the prayers of people here and the prayers of people who came before us who may have dreamed there would be an event like this in Weston someday,” Wilson said. “That doesn’t end with us, but goes on to the next generation, and the generation after that.”