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Bethel audience challenged to “let suffering speak truth”

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Pondering the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. at Bethel College’s annual celebration of the King holiday, Mark McCormick recalled another man who fought racism with unconventional weapons.

McCormick, communications director for the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita, titled his address “A Choice of Weapons,” which is also the title of an autobiography of Kansas native Gordon Parks, an author, photographer and filmmaker.

In his welcome, Bethel President Perry D. White said, “What would our civilization be today if [Martin Luther King, Jr.] had been permitted to live and do his work? But more significantly, where would we be without him?”

“I see a lot of similarities between Dr. King and Gordon Parks,” McCormick said, including the fact that King preached Christ-like love and nonviolence in the face of racial hatred and Parks “responded to racism with a camera, a typewriter and a brilliant mind.”

McCormick pointed out that U.S. government officials once described King as “the most dangerous Negro in America.” McCormick noted that when he says this to many young people today, “they look at me like I’m crazy. They see Dr. King as a nice little old man, a Santa Claus, peddling kindness. We have forgotten he was so much more than that – he was someone who said that ‘extreme racism, extreme materialism, extreme militarism could become this country’s downfall.’

“Violence is typically a reaction,” McCormick said, “and peace is a courageous, personal choice.” He illustrated the statement with two stories, one taken from Gordon Parks’ autobiography, A Choice of Weapons, and one personal.

In the first illustration, McCormick read Parks’ description of his experience as a very young man in Chicago, hungry and broke, when he considered using a switchblade knife to rob another man. In the second, McCormick recalled his cousin, Riccardo Harris, who in 2008 lost his 19-year-old son, Robert Ridge, shot at a stoplight by another teenager, high on drugs at the time.

More than a year later, Harris was given the chance to speak at the sentencing hearing for his son’s killer.

“Riccardo came face to face with the child who killed his child,” McCormick remembered. “He said he immediately began thinking of the similarities between Robert and this boy – both of them someone’s son, someone’s grandson. When the judge asked Riccardo if he had anything to say, he made a choice.

“How would you feel? What would you do? What would you say? Just last week, I saw someone ask for the maximum penalty for the killing of their loved one, and I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same.

“I know there’s a God,” McCormick continued, “because that’s the only way Riccardo could have stood there and said what he did. With tears in his eyes, he pleaded for leniency for that young man.” McCormick also noted that since Robert’s death, Riccardo has been crossing the country to talk, especially with young men, about the cost of violence and the need for respect.

McCormick concluded with an adage he learned from the words of Cornel West: “Truth cannot surface until suffering is allowed to speak.”

“Suffering spoke in North Newton with the death of [19-month-old child abuse victim] Vincent Hill, and in Tucson where six people died [Jan. 8], including a 9-year-old girl. Yet 30-40 people die from gun violence every day in the United States – when will we make a different choice of weapons?

“Most of us here tonight, God willing, likely won’t experience exactly what Riccardo did that night [Robert was shot], but we will have times when we are forced to choose, moments when suffering will begin to speak and the truth of who we are begins to surface and we will have to choose, so let’s choose wisely. If Riccardo could do what he did, the rest of us have no excuse.”

The rest of the Bethel program focused largely on the arts, including an exhibit of artwork by local elementary school children hung on the Fine Arts Center walls outside Krehbiel Auditorium where the program took place. Cheryl Jefferson Bell, pastor of Trinity Heights United Methodist Church in Newton and the program emcee, called attention to the display, noting that the children had been asked to describe their “vision of peace – If Dr. King could come back, how would you show him you are living his dream?”

Roz McCommon, a Bethel alumna from Kansas City, Mo., sang several numbers accompanied by Nathan McCommon on bass, Nathaniel Yoder on djembe and Rich Toevs on piano, while three Bethel students and two local alumni read poetry.

Jerrell Williams, freshman from Garland, Texas, read an original poem, “I See,” which concluded with the lines: “Let’s make the future doing what Dr. King preached/Because I firmly believe love is a language that the whole world speaks.”

Nicole Eitzen, freshman from Xalapa, Mexico, also read an original work, “To Grow a Banana Tree,” and Megan Siebert, sophomore from Topeka, read Langston Hughes’ poem “Daybreak in Alabama.” Both were winners in two different categories of a poetry-reading contest held on campus Jan. 13.

Bridget Kratzer read Langston Hughes as well, a poem called “America,” and Sammie Simmons read excerpts from Mary McLeod Bethune’s “Last Will and Testament.”

In her benediction, Jefferson Bell said, “We hope you have heard something [this evening] that will help you be part of the dream, to choose weapons of peace – peace as Christ brings peace.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2010-11 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is in the first tier in its category in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of “America’s Top Colleges” for 2011. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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