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Watershed Moments At Montview

Taking Action For Racial Equality, Combatting Gun Violence

Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church members participate in March for Our Lives in Denver on March 24. Photo courtesy Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church

 Inside the imposing stone church at Montview and Dahlia Street, the light shines into the foyer. A banner of the historic visit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is proudly displayed in the hallway.

Karen Timmons, co-chair of the social justice ministry at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church, meets me there. Jennifer Seward, mission life coordinator, welcomes me into the office. Inside, co-pastors Ian Cummins and Clover Beal are wrapping up a conversation.

These clergy and lay leaders have invited me to come learn more about their community and their history of work in Greater Park Hill and beyond.

Working for justice

In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. came to the Park Hill neighborhood for three days, addressing and inspiring thousands. During his speeches, King spoke about both the Civil Rights Act, which would pass later that year, and the battle for racial equality in the United States.

Students from Stedman and Park Hill elementary schools singing songs on the steps of Montview Presbyterian to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the church’s annual mini-marade on Jan. 16. Photo courtesy Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church

At the time, the Park Hill neighborhood was deeply engaged in organizing around school integration and the fight for fair housing. Arthur Miller, then pastor at Montview, helped form the Park Hill Action Committee, which would later merge with the Northeast Park Hill Civic Association to become Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. in 1969. PHAC formed to combat segregation in housing.

Park Hill was a key location for the conversation around fair housing due to the influx of black families moving into the neighborhood. “Rather than go along with what is also called ‘white flight,’ many Park Hill residents worked to integrate the neighborhood,” noted a January 2014 Greater Park Hill News article highlighting King’s visit.

King arrived at the church on Montview on a cold and snowy Sunday afternoon, carrying the message, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

An estimated 3,000 people were in attendance, the overflow spilling out onto the sidewalks. Religious leaders, politicians, and neighbors of various races, religions, and identities attended.

Reinvigorating the conversation

In 2014, Montview celebrated the 50th anniversary of King’s historic visit.

“We asked ourselves what Dr. King would say if he were looking at where Montview was now,” said Cummins. “It raised a lot of good questions about our role in our neighborhood, in a changing neighborhood, in a diverse neighborhood, and it reinvigorated a conversation about race right about the time of Ferguson.”

On Aug. 9, 2014, an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting set off a series of protests and unrest there and around the country.

“That was really the beginning of this second wave [of engagement around racial equity],” Cummins said.

When Beal joined Cummins at Montview in the fall of 2015, she brought experience facilitating and encouraging what she calls “courageous conversations around race.”

Cummins and Beal decided such conversations would be one of their four priorities for the church. They recruited two congregants to lead these conversations, which have primarily taken the form of workshops, adult education, and book groups.

“This congregation has very few African American folks and we all thought what needed to happen is [to have] conversations around white supremacy and privilege and our assumptions,” said Beal. A steering committee was formed the first year. “This year, that committee has been intentional about [providing] more education opportunities.”

These opportunities include an ongoing discussion on the book Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. The reading started in early May, and extends through the end of July. The wider community is welcome to join in conversation around the book, which addresses racial inequality, police brutality, and identity.

The church’s leaders wants to go beyond creating space for courageous conversations by forming relationships with African American churches, but they want to make sure they’re ready before they do so.

Relationship with Stedman

One of the ways the priority of working toward racial equality manifests is through Montview’s relationship with Stedman Elementary School in north Park Hill.

“We started out doing a drive for food for holiday breaks since kids didn’t get the free and reduced lunch when school was closed. Then we started a school supply drive,” said Timmons, whose sons attended Stedman and who formerly served as the school psychologist there.

From there, the relationship has only become stronger. Montview has granted the school with funds to provide additional classroom support. Its Soul Food program has provided home cooked meals to families in need at the school.

Racial equity underpins much of the church’s mission life and social justice ministry. Cummins notes that their work is interconnected in a web. “We realize touching [racial equity] sends tremors over there.” Cummins added, “[Our work is] also bringing some people together that would have been siloed.”

The atrocity of gun violence

One area where the tremors of connectivity can be felt is around gun violence.

“While the school shootings grab a lot of the headlines because they are just so atrocious, the issue connects for a lot of folks at Montview to some other things we’re interested in,” said Cummins. “So much of gun violence [affects] young black men,” including via gang violence and suicide.

The group struggled to identify exactly when the congregation began organizing around gun violence. Clergy-led actions, Cummins noted, have included at least one vigil and Sunday sermons against gun violence.

A couple years ago, a small group of congregants formed and began pressing the issue of organizing against gun violence at Montview. As the national attention toward mass shootings increased, more and more congregants started calling for action.

The group has continued to work within the community and asked the leadership committee – called the Session – to become an official endorsing member of the coalition Colorado Faith Communities United to End Gun Violence. In February 2017, the Session confirmed this endorsement. CFCU helps coordinate faith communities’ response to tragedies and legislation and helps inform members of how to get involved.

“There was a feeling of movement to more advocacy work when we joined,” said Beal. “[We’re] feeling less powerless.”

In solidarity with students

On March 24, around 30 congregants attended the March for Our Lives demonstration, in solidarity with the student-led protests and in recognition of their desire for change.

“A lot of folks in the congregation sense that we’re at a watershed moment with the kids in Florida leading the way,” said Cummins. “Maybe we really are finally at a time when we’re willing to stand up to the NRA and those who would keep the gun laws where they are now.”

Said Beal, “I think people were relieved, or glad to hear that Montview is already involved in anti-gun violence work.”

It is obvious how much of what happens at Montview is a team effort. “Everybody is doing something somewhere, but we can all come together here and make a bigger impact,” said Seward, “It’s been really exciting to see people bring their passions together around these topics because Montview is the safe and right place to be doing that.”

While the clergy and lay leaders are to some degree responsible for pushing these conversations, they know that they can only do so because the congregation is open to being challenged and stretched in their faith.

“We’ll go from there,” said Cummins. “And trust that God is with us as we do.”

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