The Dallas Examiner
A simple, neatly packed boxed dinner served at the Together We Dine program June 20 contrasted the messy and complex work that race relations in the South have represented for centuries. Yet for Senior Pastor Richie Butler of St. Paul United Methodist Church, that one shared meal played a key role to soothing past wrongs and generating greater common understandings.
One hundred individuals seated within the Highland Park United Methodist Church gathered at dining tables of eight, all strategically mixed as much as possible by ethnicity and sex; two Black women and a White man might share a meal with Vietnamese man and a Japanese and a Hispanic couple; another table might seat an Indian woman, a Black couple, a White couple, a Jamaican man, and so on.
The event was part of the Year Of Unity Challenge, the pastor said.
The roots of the challenge reach back to 2014 in response to a St. Paul community forum after the protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri, occurred. Leaders of local law enforcement agencies were present, and the full-house event was made up of a diverse audience.
“But the one thing that a pastor does not want, in terms of the emotions, that’s what resonated: anger, frustration, disenfranchisement, mistrust. And so, out of that, Project Unity was born to really bridge divides,” Butler said as he described the four pillars of the project as dialog, community building, education and empowerment.
Together We Dine was the first event in the Year Of Unity Challenge; there have been past, more structured affairs, but this was the inaugural, broad-based dinner for the general public.
“So, we will continue to build those types of events and allow people who just want to come together and have honest, courageous conversations about race,” Butler said.
Facilitators trained in starting conversations and keeping them progressing were at each table. As the meal began, multiple cards used to “seed” conversation were passed around; tools for chatting with strangers that posed questions such as “How do recent violent events between police and racial minorities, primarily African Americans, make you feel?” or “Who is the most influential person for positive race relation in your life, and why?”
Diners would each have some time to answer a question, with no other questions or comments allowed. After everyone spoke, diners were each asked to reflect upon what they heard, and finally a wider, unregulated conversing took place. That natural engagement was exactly what the pastor was hoping for.
“Our city responded to the events of 7-07 last year with a great show of unity,” the pastor related, referencing the shooting of 16 people by Micah Johnson after a protest march, “and I think there was a conversation among community leaders, you know, how do we keep this going?”
The moment became the Year of Unity, which in turn led to the challenge – a series of community gatherings to improve race relations in steps, according to the pastor.
“This is organized, and part of the vision – if we’re talking about a movement – is using this organized moment to create an organic moment, and ultimately, I hope there are other Together We Dines that we don’t know about, or that people let us know what they’re doing, but that it takes on a life of its own,” Butler voiced. “And that’s ultimately what we want; we want a movement, and a movement is organic, and it just flourishes…”
Sammy Yang, executive vice president and 2017 Banquet Chair of the DFW Asian-American Citizens Council, remarked that, as he is also a member of AT&T Biometric Academy, a diverse community was of some importance to him.
“I was approached by AT&T about this, and I feel that this is a very good start,” Yang said. “As our chairman and the CEO said last year at our yearly conference – talking about racial issues – it also starts with me. That’s what he said. So we do have the passion and we’re going to make a difference in Dallas.”
Yang admitted that he heard some things at his table that he did not expect.
“Our table [was] very diverse, so there was one gentleman who … is a lawyer; he said when he was growing up he was taking advantage that he was blind to racial issues out there.”
He also voiced that there were assumptions made about him due to his race.
“Usually, when people see my Asian face and say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s good with math and he probability won’t speak up,’” Yang smiled somewhat as he recalled such comments.
Once again, he considered the purpose of the evening.
“I think it’s a good open dialogue,” he said, adding that he believed that progress was made through the pastor’s efforts. “Definitely, and I think it’s a good start and we should do this more often.”
Liza Ellis, part of Butler’s congregation, affirmed this was the church’s second such event that she and her husband had attended.
“They have mapped out events during the year, basically to bring people together of different races to show why it’s important that we get along,” she said, reiterating the spirit of the pastor’s message. “And really, I think to start a conversation, and to continue a conversation that needs to be happening in our city and every place else.”
She said that the dinner was not an end unto itself, but instead, “A piece of a huge part that needs to come together and be recognized. And I think the idea that, yes, we’re different, but we can sit down for two hours and have a great conversation.”
Ellis emphasized that at her table, all the attendees took to the night’s mission with enthusiasm.
“The conversation never stopped, it never ended, everybody was interested, not one person took out their phone, and everyone’s eyes kept on each other,” she continued. “It was fun to watch and it was fun to be a part of.”
It was exactly what Butler had hoped for.
“We want people to engage in constructive dialogue and activities that improve race relations. We have plenty of destructive stuff that is tearing the goal for improving race relations,” he admitted. “That engagement; ‘constructive’ does not mean that it’s not wrought with challenges and pain, and it’s uncomfortable – and that’s all right. But we need to engage in that so it improves racial relations.
“Hopefully, we set the stage for there to be honest communication so that we can move forward.”
The principles of the challenge and upcoming events can be found online at http://www.yearofunity.com.