Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the famous speech by Martin Luther King, “I have a dream”. This anniversary is a significant milestone for the country politically, now in the second term Presidency of an African American, Barak Obama. In many ways, people could consider MLK’s dream realized. And yet, a widely acknowledged reality is found in another of his reputed quotes; that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in America”. This has not changed in many cities across the USA. I’ve had various conversations with my African American friends studying with me at Fuller Theological Seminary on this topic, and so I asked one gorgeous girl in particular, Avril Speaks, to comment based on her experience in American churches. I’ve learned so much from Avril during our time studying so I hope you enjoy hearing her perspective. She’s usually behind a camera, so I thought this was a good opportunity to get to see and hear from her!
Avril has over seventeen years of experience as a filmmaker, scholar, and educator. She holds a Master’s degree in Film Directing from Columbia University, and is currently studying her second Master’s degree at Fuller Theological Seminary, majoring in Theology and Film. She also has seventeen years ministry experience serving in various congregations across the country as a writer, video production coordinator, and youth leader. She has directed two award-winning feature films, as well as numerous short films. She is also currently an adjunct professor in the Theater, Film and Television department at Azusa Pacific University. For more information, visit http://about.me/azuspeak.
Tanya: How do you describe the legacy MLK has left the African American community?
Avril: I think MLK has left a legacy of service to all mankind. I think he has also left a legacy of courage to fight no matter the odds.
Tanya: There is such respect for him from all over the world – for example, our leading MLK scholar at Fuller, Dr Hak Jun Lee is Korean American – do you think the African American community mind how widely his “I have a dream” speech quotes are being taken out of context, and how broadly they are being applied to other countries and contexts?
Avril: MLK is one of those historical figures that we hold very highly in the African American community. The fact that he is so revered and modeled in other countries is something of which we are very proud. I am always struck by the fact that King was fighting for equality during a time in which African Americans were being denied this right. But equality is something many people have had to fight for, not just African Americans. It is no wonder his words resonate with people all across the globe.
Tanya: Many people internationally still consider America as backwards in regards to race relations. Do you think this is a reality?
Avril: In many ways, yes. America has a very rich and interesting history. The fact that we have people who fought so hard for freedom and independence is a pretty amazing thing. But then the very same people turned around and committed genocide on Native Americans, enslavement on millions of Africans, and countless other criminal acts on various people groups. You can look at all the atrocities that have been done in this country against so many cultures and ethnicities, and how many people have had their freedom and independence denied, and it just doesn’t add up….
I don’t think this country knows how to own up to the painful, misguided parts of its past, which is why there is still so much unspoken racial tension. I think the younger generation is trying, but it’s a long, slow process.
Tanya: What does it mean to have a black President in the Whitehouse? Is it meaningful to you personally?
Avril: It is very meaningful to me. I often think about the fact that only 50 years ago, people stood on the Washington Mall to fight for their right to fair wages and jobs. We still have people living in this country who remember being bussed to another neighborhood to attend school, and others who lived through the violence that ensued once integration in schools began to take effect. The fact that America voted for a black President — TWICE — speaks volumes.
But it’s also scary because we can easily get comfortable and think that we have arrived in terms of race relations in this country, when that is far from the case.
Tanya: Who are some of your role models as an African American woman? Who would you want people to google after reading this interview?
Avril: Everyone should google Assata Shakur and read her autobiography. She is most known for being a Black Panther party member, but there is so much more to her story that inspires me.
Tanya: You’ve attended some pretty awesome churches, but you’ve recently decided to go back to your roots in the AME. Why is that?
Avril: Because the AME church is an awesome church — haha! It was a very long and prayerful process, making the decision to go “back”, and trust me there was a part of me that fought it every step of the way! The irony is, I never left the AME church on bad terms, I enjoyed my 25 years there very much. But for many years I chose to attend more multi-ethnic and/or predominantly white churches. I built some fantastic relationships in those churches, and learned so much!
But as I got older, I began to look back and appreciate the rich history of the AME church, and once again saw it as a place that was historically, theologically and socially hitting the mark. Social justice has become a buzzword in many Christian circles, and I started to realize that this has been the platform of the AME church since its inception. I wanted to be a part of what they were doing. Also, as much as I am committed to multi-ethnic church, I realized that I’m not bringing very much to that discussion if I can’t learn to appreciate what is good about my own tradition. I think we do ourselves a great disservice when we downplay or ridicule our traditions, and wrongly acquiesce to everything from the dominant culture. If we are all going to worship as one, then we need to bring our whole selves to the table!
Tanya: Can you explain the AME for those Aussies who haven’t been to “black church” in the USA?
Avril: Absolutely! AME stands for African Methodist Episcopal church – so our worship and discipline comes out of the Methodist tradition, but our form of polity is modeled after the Episcopal church. Richard Allen founded the church as an official denomination in 1816. He was a former slave who bought his freedom after converting to Christianity during a Methodist revival. Allen had seen the need for an African American church when many years prior a group of black parishoners were told they could not pray at the altar of St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia, PA because of the color of their skin. This was the catalyst for what would become known as the AME church, and because of this reality, the AME church has always prided itself on being a church committed to justice, equality and serving its community.
Tanya: Do you think it’s possible to be able to be African American and attend a multi-ethnic church in the States?
Avril: I do. But I dare say it is not easy. There are times you may get weary because your concerns may not be the concerns of the church at large. There are times you may feel lonely because people around you do not share or understand your point of view. I think African Americans in multi-ethnic churches are in a unique position to be able to educate fellow Christians and to facilitate meaningful conversations about race and faith. Those conversations are often difficult to have, especially with people you consider your friends. But they are necessary, and I think they can help foster deep, impacting relationships with people of other backgrounds.
Tanya: What can other Christians learn from African Americans as a broad generalization?
Avril: Celebration! As I’ve visited and been part of so many multi-ethnic or predominantly white churches, one thing I’ve missed so much from the black church was the spirit of rejoicing during worship. It is ok to clap your hands, to lift your hands, to shout, and to dance in church. That’s a broad generalization, because there are some black churches that still haven’t learned that lesson yet — haha! I also think Christians can learn how social justice means serving your community. The black church has been a hub for the black community for many years, so there is keen sense of awareness regarding the needs of its poor and disenfranchised.
Tanya: How do we add our energy towards seeing MLK’s dream realized in America?
Avril: Let’s stop reinventing the wheel. Let’s join our efforts together and learn how to serve our communities well. For example, there’s no need to have five different food pantries within the same block. How about churches of multiple ethnicities and backgrounds have one food pantry and serve together? I think that would be a great start to recognizing King’s dream. I would also love to see more churches worship together. I think this could be started at the individual level. In many ways, simply attending church with friends who are of a different ethnicity and sharing in a different experience on Sunday can go a long way in opening up dialogue and bringing about equality.
Thanks so much Avril for sharing your perspective! You’re an amazing lady and friend. Much love xxxx Tanya