St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge leads Community Matters public forums

Father Brent Shelton joins pastors at neighboring churches in hosting town hall meetings aimed at bringing city together           

By Bill Brewer

Black lives matter. Young lives matter. Police lives matter. All lives matter.

As those mantras reached a crescendo around the country in recent months, the city of Oak Ridge ­— through the cooperation of three pastors including St. Mary Parish’s Father Brent Shelton — has been the site of a series of town hall meetings to show that “Community Matters.”

The public discussion began several weeks ago when an Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church sign along the Oak Ridge Turnpike said “Black Lives Matter,” mirroring sentiments expressed in communities across the nation.

The sign provoked responses, including public displays saying ‘Police Lives Matter,” which prompted Father Shelton, Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist senior minister Jake Morrill, and Rev. Derrick Hammond of Oak Valley Baptist Church in the Scarboro community of Oak Ridge to host town hall meetings at each pastor’s church to discuss what unites the Oak Ridge community as well as what divides it.

The first town hall meeting was hosted by Father Shelton at St. Mary on Oct. 11. The second town hall meeting was hosted by Rev. Hammond at Oak Valley Baptist, and the third town hall meeting was hosted by Rev. Morrill at Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist on Nov. 1.

Each community meeting attracted about 100 people, ranging from residents and activists to representatives from local government and the Oak Ridge Police Department, including Oak Ridge Police Chief James T. Akagi.

Rev. Hammond said steps needed to be taken “to bring this community together,” so the three pastors decided to delve into the issues in three public forums to reach as many community residents as possible and seek “inspiration, perspiration, and collaboration.”

“The goal was for three pastors to bring people together so they could voice their personal insights into race relations, police relations, and community relations,” Father Shelton said. “I would say that is exactly what happened, and I think it was successful. I think there were expressions of frustration, but also there were comments of practical solutions ranging from psychology to community block grants.”

Much of the discussion at the town hall meetings involved community issues other than race relations and police. Opportunities for youth, schools, economic development, and the need for social and health-care programs for the elderly and mentally ill were among the other issues raised.

Father Shelton said the diversity of issues discussed reflects the theme of the public meetings: Community Matters.

“The ultimate goal is to provide a forum for people to voice their concerns. What we’ll do is provide a summary of these concerns, and we’ll apply the wisdom of our faith traditions to these concerns to see what emerges,” he added.

Chief Akagi was invested in the town hall meetings, listening intently, taking notes, responding to questions and sharing his thoughts.

The police chief expressed support for building relations between his officers and the community and said the town hall meetings were a good way to begin that process.

“This is a movement that is not government or official in nature. It’s a grassroots movement that started with three diverse ministers with three diverse groups of parishioners. A lot of this is just talking about it. I’m here to listen. That’s my role. I’m not a facilitator,” the chief said, referring to his status at the community forums.

Responding to some of the issues brought up during the St. Mary town hall meeting, Chief Akagi said he would like to see more community involvement in reaching at-risk youth and would like to see more details regarding citizen review panels or citizen advisory boards for the police department. “There’s no magic silver bullet that will solve everything. It starts with the community, one block at a time,” he said.

In an October guest column in the Oak Ridger newspaper, Rev. Hammond said that “painful conversations about race across our country have continued in Baltimore, Minneapolis, Dallas, Charleston, and now Oak Ridge” in the wake of strife in Ferguson, Mo., late last year and earlier this year. The “painful conversations” prompted a response from Oak Ridge clergy.

In the column, Rev. Hammond recalled saying in late 2014 that “We, the faith community, look forward to partnering in 2015 to foster holistic, long-term, and systemic solutions to the complex set of social, economic, and community challenges that plague our great society.”

The town hall meetings are an effort to achieve that goal.

“As a student of American history, and especially African American history, I observe that significant change often requires a season of raising awareness and making bold declarations. But then there must come a time to go deeper than this; a time to move from awareness to action, from declaration to dialogue, from slogans to solutions,” Rev. Hammond wrote, inviting the Oak Ridge community to the public forums.

Rev. Hammond said he was pleased with response to the town hall meetings, both in attendance and dialogue. He believes a key goal of the meetings, for people to learn from one another, was accomplished.

“I thought it went well. I thought it served the purpose for which we came together, and that purpose is to gather actionable information that we, as a faith community, can follow up on as it relates to our service to this community and use it as a measure to how we are serving the community. I’m absolutely positive we got that,” Rev. Hammond said.

When community tensions escalated because of the different signs, Rev. Hammond said he, Father Shelton, and Rev. Morrill began looking at ways to diffuse the situation and asked, “How can we address this?”

“The issue is becoming a distraction. We needed to de-escalate the situation very strategically. We came together and worked as a team to address this situation,” Rev. Hammond added.

Rev. Morrill said he is cautiously optimistic the town hall meetings will lead to solutions to ease community tensions and improve ways of life.

He is heartened by the dialogue from a diverse group of residents.

“I understand this is an initial phase of raising shared understanding and creating a space for the community’s diverse perspective to be heard with respect, and I believe dialogue will not be the last step. We’ve heard some excellent ideas put forward. I believe dialogue is the necessary first step,” Rev. Morrill said. ■

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