The Martin Luther King Jr. Dream Rises in the City of His Demise

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It’s a school merger that’s making national headlines. It will combine the overwhelmingly black Memphis city school district and the majority-white Shelby county schools. It’s a result of actions by the Memphis school board and City Council, a March referendum and a federal court order. It’s the largest school district consolidation in American history, and it comes with major challenges – namely bridging rifts in race and class. But our guest poster today says Christ is doing something new there. Maxie Dunnam was the President of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1994 to 2004 and is currently the Senior Pastor Emeritus of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which has more than 6,000 members. Dunnam writes:

We are experiencing a dynamic birthing and creative expression of ministry and mission in Memphis.  Ours is a very troubled city. Poverty and the huge racial divide play the most monumental role in our many “troubles”. The Holy Spirit is leading some of us to believe that a huge part of the reconciliation/redemptive process is public education. We have come to believe that public education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century, and the Christian community must give priority to our response to this issue.

The Holy Spirit is at work in a palpable way.  One of the boldest, mission expressions I know is a teacher residency training program, explicitly Christian, modeled in some ways after Teach For America. Along with the Director of this program, I believe this is an expression, creatively “birthed” by the Holy Spirit, which will not simply produce the best teachers for our Memphis schools, but will be a witness to the fact that “only God could do it.”

We have had and will continue to have “days of prayer” which bring the faith community together, and certainly releases power.  There is a small group of 8-10 folks who are convinced that God is giving birth to something in Memphis that is going to be a powerful witness to the nation. We are focusing our prayers now on the creation (birthing) of a new school board that will bring two formerly separate boards (county and city) together, the engagement of churches in communities and schools that have been designated by the state as “failing,” and wholistic community development in these “failing schools” areas. A few families have already moved into these communities to practice incarnational ministry. It is not a “done deal” yet, but a congregation will probably give up an “explicitly Christian” private school in order to be totally committed and use all her resources in a “charter school” that will take responsibility for one of the “worst” of the designated failing schools. Our prayer is for the “birthing” of an educational program that will serve the most underserved population in a “secular” arena, yet making explicit in all sorts of ways that we are doing what we do in the name of and for the sake of Christ who calls us to respond to the least of these.

Some have called Memphis a “God forsaken city.” A national magazine recently featured an article claiming Memphis to be one of the least favorite cities in America in which to live. My small group believes that it will be just like God’s pattern of action throughout history, to do something in Memphis that will be a model and challenge to the nation. I am seeing signs of the Holy Spirit giving birth to that witness.

Please join Maxie Dunnam and the Seedbed team in praying for the public education system in Memphis.

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