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MLK Day speaker says hugs are free but dialogue is costly

April 16th, 2018

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Although he doesn’t call it that, restorative justice in its basic form is the life’s work for Bethel College’s 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration speaker.

Peace activist Ken Nwadike Jr., Los Angeles, became a media sensation after his video of himself giving hugs to runners along the route of the 2014 Boston Marathon went viral.

He was the special guest at Bethel’s annual event held on the evening of the MLK Day holiday, Jan. 15 this year.

After Samuel Haynes, Bethel’s new vice president for student life and dean of students, introduced the evening’s theme, “(Re)Inspiring the Dream,” Maurice Jordan, junior from Antelope, California, and a member of the 2018 planning committee, led in an opening prayer.

Akiyaa Hagen-Depusoir, sophomore from Salina, also on the planning committee, read two original poems, while JDaijon Sumpter, junior from Bonsall, California, and Lyric Martin, junior from Hutchinson, together read Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise.”

The speaker, Ken Nwadike Jr., founded the Free Hugs Project after the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon.

He has since become a peace activist who travels to protests around the United States and the world with the purpose of standing between “combatants” – usually law enforcement and civilians – to try to get those with oppositional views to talk to each other.

But long before that, Nwadike was an 8-year-old boy living with his four siblings and parents in Seattle, who one day saw his father subdued and dragged away by the police.

In fact, his father was guilty of serious crimes that put him in prison. But to young Ken, “the police broke up my family.”

Nwadike with his mother, brother and three sisters spent a good part of the next few years in and out of homeless shelters in southern California, unluckily – in his words – moving to L.A. just after the police beating of Rodney King and the ensuing riots in 1991.

His life took a dramatic turn when a track coach stopped him in the hall of his high school and asked him to think about joining the track team.

Nwadike’s mother supported the idea, though she noted the family had no money for extracurriculars – so he found discarded shoes and shorts in the locker room and began training in those.

“The coach told me: ‘In your own mind, you can run away from homelessness, hardship and struggles,’” Nwadike recalled.

“My first time running the mile, I ran it in 4:17. It literally transformed my life.”

Nwadike’s running got him a college scholarship and a professional contract with Nike. It led him to found the Hollywood Half-Marathon as a fundraiser for a homeless shelter where he had been working with “the kids who were just like me, who I was trying to get to dream big and believe they could accomplish anything.”

It was in that vein of “dream big” that Nwadike decided to train for the 2014 Boston Marathon after seeing the “devastating” photos of the terrorist bombings at the marathon in April 2013.

When he failed to qualify by 23 seconds, Nwadike got the idea of standing along the route wearing a T-shirt and holding a sign that said “Free Hugs.”

Even though “the kids thought it was crazy,” Nwadike persisted – and succeeded beyond his wildest imagination.

He has no idea how many hugs he gave. “Nothing mattered except we were together in that moment. Race, age, politics – none of it mattered.”

Nwadike uploaded his video to Facebook before boarding the plane from Boston to L.A. In the six hours it took to fly from one coast to the other, the video went viral.

“From there, the vision started growing,” he says.

“From Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter and other movements, everyone seemed like they needed to take a side. To me, it was about love, about getting people to stop opposing each other [long enough] to talk.

“Activists began to ask me, and the police began to ask me, to come and help people de-escalate.”

One of the most dramatic of these encounters, of which he showed some of the video footage at the Bethel program, was in Charlotte, North Carolina, in October 2016, when young people rampaged in the downtown area after an unarmed black man was shot and killed by a black police officer.

Nwadike happened to be in Charlotte for a previously scheduled appearance on another college campus.

After he had spent a long time talking with and seemingly gaining the trust of some of the young leaders, one of the police officers, seeing Nwadike’s shirt, asked for a hug. Though it was a tough decision, Nwadike says, he did it – and feared he might pay a physical price.

“[The young people] began cursing me and picking up rocks to throw at me,” Nwadike recalled. “I knew I could run – I was still fast! But what would Dr. King do? I decided to talk to them [some more]. That was a major turning point in my work.”

That conversation was hard and frightening, and his actions didn’t stop all the violence. But the experience convinced Nwadike that “encouraging opposing sides to respect each other as human beings is a major step toward peace.”

In the question-and-answer period that followed Nwadike’s presentation, Sheryl Wilson, director of the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Bethel’s peacebuilding institute, noted, “Getting two sides to come together, to sit down and talk to each other – that’s one of the basics of restorative justice.”

Nwadike said he knew little about “restorative justice” but expressed interest in learning more, and he and Wilson exchanged business cards.

“To create change, you have to bring together people from opposite sides or different worlds and have them talk to each other and learn that we are all human,” Nwadike said.

“It will take the collective work of thousands, maybe millions, to change the [divided] state of this country right now.”

The freewill offering taken at the Bethel celebration, which raised $433, is for a new scholarship (intended to begin after the 2017 program, which had to be cancelled because of bad weather).

The Martin Luther King Jr. Day Scholarship will go to a freshman or sophomore from a minority background, who will help lead the planning for the next year’s MLK Day program and for other diversity events in that school year.

The student members of this year’s planning committee, in addition to Hagen-Depusoir and Jordan, were Ahmed Fall, freshman from Staten Island, New York, Jalal Gondal, sophomore from Noble, Oklahoma, Katrina Heinrichs, sophomore from Hesston, and Kyla Williams, sophomore from Clinton, Oklahoma.

Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the analysis of top colleges and universities, the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, all for 2017-18. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.