Almost 200 people entered a grand room in Auburn’s First Presbyterian Church on Thursday night to engage in a unifying event.
The gathering, titled Becoming the Beloved Community, saw individuals of all ages, faiths, races, ethnicities, political leanings, and gender and sexual identities hailing from Auburn, Opelika and surrounding areas.
United only by their presence at the church, the intent of the meeting was to demonstrate that people with differences could create meaningful bonds despite of the tragedies that have occurred across the nation in recent times.
“It was the 50th anniversary year that [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] was assassinated,” said Joan Harrell, lecturer and diversity coordinator in the School of Communication and Journalism, who organized the event. “I was asked to write a proposal and quite honestly, it was placed on my heart that we needed to give a celebration of Dr. King’s legacy within the unfortunate context that his vision for the ‘beloved community’ had not and has not become a reality.”
The name of the meetup refers to a phrase by philosopher Josiah Royce, describing a reality of lambs and lions coexisting peacefully that later laid the foundation for King’s nonviolence activism during the Civil Rights Movement.
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“His vision was for us as a nation and the world to think about what [the ‘beloved community’] means and act upon the need to become a just and equal society,” Harrell said. “When he made that announcement, it was moments after the court decision that the Montgomery bus boycott was not legal.”
Out of respect for the multiple faiths among the soon-to-be “families,” the gathering was opened by religious leaders in the community to bless the food prepared for dinner. Muslim representative Asim Ali honored his by reciting the beginning of the Quran, Susan Youngblood of Beth Shalom Synagogue read from the Torah, and Clifford Jones led a Christian prayer.
“There was an intentional intersectionality of people who were Christian, Muslim, Jewish, people who did not practice a faith,” Harrell said.
Several keynote speakers headlined the event to share their perspectives on cultural understanding and diversity. Auburn Mayor Ron Anders detailed his proposed diversity task force that's in development in city government, as well as his Auburn 2040 plan. Gary Fuller, mayor of Opelika, described the relationship between the two cities and their once contrasting people that has strengthened during his time in office.
Attendees were asked to find their seat at one of 14 various tables in the room signified with a colored balloon. It was then that they were left to their own devices to share their life story with a neighbor by discussing cultural differences.
Facilitators made up of the religious leaders and Harrell encouraged families to share contact information and outline upcoming direct meetups. One group settled on a day trip to The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Another decided on having a potluck in Tuskegee. A third wanted to convene on Samford Lawn for an ice cream social.
“The person who made the announcement for inviting her members of the ‘beloved community’ to Tuskegee is Dr. Lucenia Dunn, who was the first woman mayor of Tuskegee,” Harrell said. “What are the odds of that happening?”
Families were suggested to make their meetups by April 4, 2020, the 52nd anniversary of King’s assassination. Between the end of the meeting and that date, the families will recongregate to report progress.
With meeting ideas set in stone, it was then time for a candlelight vigil in which all new beloved communities filled the church courtyard, where ending prayers were said and a tribute was given in honor of victims of hate crimes.
“Candles bring a mood of quietness and causes one to focus in the light,” Harrell said. “Our purpose of the candlelight vigil was to have a moment of silence for the souls that have been lost, in particular in the last decade, in the last 3 months.
Harrell noted that some participants invited her to a diversity dialogue elsewhere and that Ron Anders had indicated interest in continued partnership when asked about similar upcoming events that could create peace among mixed cultures through personal interaction.
“I am without words in this moment,” Harrell said. “I’m humbled and excited about what I witnessed here tonight. For our new family members, everyone stated that they were excited about [the fact that] not only are we going to come together as a large group, the relationships that started tonight [will see] people working on an individual level.”
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