Talking won’t end disparities, but learning might. It depends on who is learning (and to a lesser extent, who is teaching).

Monday was April 4th, a sacred day in Memphis where Dr. King was murdered 43 years ago just down the street from the Center of Excellence on Faith and Health. In recent years we have joined with other organizations in town in a broad array of events, preaching, worship, lectures, march(es) and odds and ends. We shared a logo and a theme: “we are the beloved community.”

Our patients and employees look like Memphis in terms of race so we aren’t dumb about the subject. We are a very large organization serving hundreds of thousands of patients a year through the efforts of 10,000 Associates and a couple thousand affiliated physicians. Dr. King died before many of our staff were born yet the scandal lingers in the continued dramatic differences in the health of Black, White and Brown. Why? And what can we do?

So this year Methodist Healthcare decided to honor Dr. King by doing the labor of learning, seeking discernment about what our unfinished work is in removing disparities in the patients, families and neighborhoods we can influence.

We met in the Innovation Studio, seeing this as a most profound work of innovation. Led by Dr. Joyce Essien, Dr. Fred Smith and Dr. Elizabeth Williams we talked of the pain (and privilege) that are the lenses through which we are learning. We borrowed the IHP “4 frames” to keep our imagination from collapsing into simple “train everybody” reflex. Structure?How are we structured for disparities? And how could we lay down structures for equity? How might we use our symbolic role in Memphis? (The committee is called “equity” not “disparities,” for starters.)(And we met on April 4th….). What does power have to do with it and us. How could we use our power? We will meet again, but the organization seems to be at a true learning moment, tuned to hear what is possible. And then do it.

That evening most of us went to the April 4th Foundation Gala, a very Memphis thing that always crackles with gritty power of history and hope. This year Dr. Jeremiah Wright keynoted and chose the power of cool analysis rather than the fire and thunder he is known for. He reminded us of the “dangerous King” who wanted the Movement to help put out the “house on fire.” He channelled King’s clarity about the three demons of America–race, militarism and materialism. The history we gathered to honor was still around us; and still ahead of us.

I was just a high school kid in the Baltimore burbs when King fell. And nobody in my family felt much sorrow as we lived in the soft racism of the unaffected. A few years later when the triple demons of America finally caught my attention, I dropped out of ROTC, sought simplicity and began to see race. I thought I would have to dump Jesus, too, since my old god seemed so complicit (he was!). Richard McBride, a Wake Forest chaplain, gave me books of Berigan and King, telling me that I needed to see the Church was bigger than my tame little god.

King blew a hole in my soul that let me out into the real world–the one God so loves; the one God has still not given up on. Everything else in my life has been a footnote to that.

Thursday night was a normal night in the hospital, which is to say that the place is electric with learning. In the Innovation Studio 85 people were learning the art of spiritual accompaniment–how to truly be present amid the illness of another. (Chaplain Jonathan Watkins had them shout “It’s not about me!”) (We should to that at executive meetings, I thought.) Down the hall in the Medical Arts Auditorium another ninety were learning the practical arts of caring for those living in dementia, led by Dr. Teresa Cutts and Chaplain Belisle, but illuminated by the experience of nearly everyone present. Another 40 people were attending via video-conference from our Germantown campus.

Although the 330 CHN congregations are hugely ecumenical and multi-hued, for the most part Thursday night feels like Black Church. It is. These are the ones whose brothers die too young and whose mothers will die much younger than mine. So the night closes in shared prayer filled with pathos and power.

This goes on week after week after week, pretty much all year round as the congregations open themselves to knowledge respectfully offered up in the hopes it is smart enough for their tough streets.

Nobody was just talking this week, not the equity committee, not Jeremiah and, for sure, Thursday night. Fred talks about education as the work of “shalomalization.” That’s what all this felt like to this white guy, grateful to be carried on the movement.

Can we learn the ways of shalom? Enough to do it, know it, let it fill and move us? Jesus cried at the question as he pondered his town. I’m a bit more optimistic. Yes, I am.

– Posted on the journey

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Professor, Faith and the Health of the Public, Wake Forest University School of Divinity. NC Certified Beekeeper Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders, Religion and the Heath of the Public, Speak Life and God and the People. God and the People: Prayers for a Newer New Awakening. Secretary Stakeholder Health. Founder, Leading Causes of Life Initiative

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