Churches in Bellville, Mount Vernon, elsewhere having conversations about racism

CLEAR FORK VALLEY — A group of folks interested in looking beyond their local way of life has been working at learning more about racism.

People from All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Bellville are partnering with the First Congregational Church of Christ in Mount Vernon in a project named “Conversations on racial justice.”

The idea to study racism got started after there was vandalism of a sign the Mount Vernon church had posted: it said “Black lives matter.”

Pastor Will Humphrey of All Souls said when Mount Vernon police said the sign was vandalized because Black Lives Matter was a terrorist group, he and others “discerned” the need to “educate the public.”

Humphrey and pastor Scott Elliott of First Congregational put together the “conversations” sessions because they felt there were needs — both religious and secular, — Humphrey said.

Both All Souls and First Congregational Church of Christ have been recognized nationally for their efforts.

All Souls will receive an award for being a “breakthrough congregation” at the general assemble for the denomination in St. Louis. First Congregational Church of Christ is receiving a similar award.

Humphrey said All Souls was a church — that before the Civil War — was advocating full citizenship for slaves.

He said as he was growing up around Chilicothe, he remembers Ku Klux Klan meetings, and he knew Klansmen.

Because people near towns like Bellville don’t see people “of color” on the streets, they might believe it is odd to care about the meaning of racism.

Said Humphrey: “The fact we don’t have blacks. That is the issue.”

People might ask: “why is that?”

It could be there are things which are systematic, or remnants of an older system, which make it difficult for people of color to feel comfortable in certain places, he said.

In Mount Vernon, people of color are told to not go to certain communities, he said. People ask why swimming pools are closed on Thursday, for instance. But that is because under old Jim Crow ideas, a pool would have to be closed on certain day so blacks could use it.

All Souls is working with churches in Mansfield on the racism sessions. People from All Souls serve on the board at the NAACP in Mansfield, Humphrey said.

Elliott said a number of books have been used as “springboards” for the sessions. One local woman, Ellamae Simmons, wrote a book called “Overcome: My life in pursuit of a dream.

Simmons grew up in Mount Vernon, and wanted to get into nursing school at The Ohio State University. She was told there were no positions for black students. She served in the Nursing Core in World War II, after attending Hampton Institute. After that, she made it to medical school at Howard University in Washington, DC.

She became the first African American female physician to be hired by Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, California and she now lives in Oakland, California.

There also is an Ellamae Simmons scholarship awarded to someone who is going to Howard University.

Ten to 12 faith communities have been participating in the sessions. The first was in September, two years ago. There was a session on the recent Martin Luther King Day. Planning is underway for a session in May.

Elliott said a “wide variety of folks” have been participating. They are people who believe in “pushing their own edges.”

It was church people at first, said Elliott. Now it has become an “interfaith” event where people from different denominations participate. There are people who are Methodist, Buddhist, apostolic, atheist and agnostic, he added.

These are all people who understand that racism exists.

Though there aren’t “people of color” in some of the communities involved, colleges in the area bring a wide variety people here, said Elliott.

Several books have been used in the studies. They include “America’s original sin,” by Jim Wallis; “Way up north in Dixie,” by Howard L. Sacks; and “Waking up White,” by Debby Irving.

The Wallis book talks about racism and white privilege. Sacks has written about a family named the Snowdens, an African American family of musicians and farmers living in Knox County.

The Irving book is about a woman who goes to Kenya, and then writes about those experiences..

Submitted photo Ellamae Simmons, whose ancestors came to American aboard a slaving vessel, went on from her beginnings in Mount Vernon to become a physician. photo Ellamae Simmons, whose ancestors came to American aboard a slaving vessel, went on from her beginnings in Mount Vernon to become a physician.