MEMPHIS, Tenn. Gold words reading “Christ our Redeemer” sit on a peeling stage, bordered by the words “God our Father, Man our Brother” in equally faded print. Three pots of yellow flowers border the podium, the rest of the background decorated by student artwork representing the Civil Rights movement. In downtown Memphis, evangelical Christians met for the first Memphis Teach-In conference.
While not the typical location of a conference, the Clayborn Temple, located a half mile from the popular Memphis barbeque drag, Beale St., was the headquarters for the 1968 Sanitation Strike led by Martin Luther King Jr. After decades in disuse, the paint of the building’s interior remains outdated and in need of repair. To the Memphis Center for Urban Theological Schools (MCUTS) however, it was the perfect location for a weekend of discussion and fellowship.
“The idea for the festival came in a conversation between myself and Dr. Frank Anderson who’s a professor at Union University,” Joseph Caldwell, President of the MCUTS program, said. “We knew that the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King here in Memphis was coming up. We wanted to have conversations around the issue of the church’s role in race and civil rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.”
MCUTS hosted the Teach-In Sept. 29 and Sept. 30 and promoted conversations about the relationship between the Christian faith and the problem of racism within the U.S. Historically, teach-ins were held during the Civil Rights era by African American students who were tired of only learning the “white” perspective of history. These students held teach-ins to educate each other about what they were not being taught in schools.
“Our idea of a teach-in was to say the church doesn’t talk about social justice, particularly the evangelical church, so maybe what we need to do is come together and have a time where we can teach each other and we listen to each other and we try to understand these issues,” Caldwell said.
The Teach-In also commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968. King was shot in front of room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, blocks from the Clayborn Temple and the headquarters of the Sanitation Strike. The Lorraine Motel is currently the headquarters for the National Civil Rights Museum and the museum partnered with MCUTS for the Teach-In.
“We thought about the idea of a teach-in as a way to start conversation so that people would have time prior to the actual anniversary day in April to think through what their response should be,” Caldwell said.
The Teach-In featured guest speakers such as local bishops and professors, as well as panelists and essayists. The keynote speaker for the Teach-In was Reverend James Morris Lawson Jr., civil rights activist and mentor to King. He spent time studying non-violent tactics with Mahatma Gandhi in India before educating King about the merits of lunch counter sit-ins and other non-violent tactics.
“I submit to you that we Christians learn the meaning of the love of God, especially as expressed in scripture: all kinds of people and all kinds of nations,” Lawson said in his keynote address. “Especially as lived by Jesus of Nazareth when he moved across what is Galilee, Palestine, Judea and Israel, stretching out his hand, inviting people to join him.”
Lawson urged the church to take a stand against injustice in our society. He said the church needs to caution itself against identifying with political parties and social ideals. We are “not to imitate the wrong, but to use the power of truth in our politics,” Lawson said. Lawson urged Christians, rather, to identify themselves as children of God. “I don’t consider myself a civil rights worker…all that I am and all that I hope to be is wrapped up in eternity.”
Caldwell agreed with Lawson, and emphasized the need for Christians to act on their faith.
Caldwell charged Christians to go out into the world and work to make a difference in the pain and social unrest within society instead of simply starting “conversations toward conversations.”
“As a minimum we need to look at issues around poverty and economic disparity that follow the lines of race,” Caldwell said. “We need to look at issues around education and the achievement gap we find between white students and African-American students.”