“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
—Strength to Love, 1963 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Written by Marsha MacKinnon, Webmaster for the Presbytery of Lake Erie
Every January the Martin Luther King Center in Erie, PA recognizes an individual or organization that personifies the challenge Dr. King issued to all of us. He once said ‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘what are you doing for others?’ and this is the basis of what led the King Holiday Committee to select the First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant for the prestigious “Dr. King Award.”
Erie’s MLK Center celebrated the 10th Anniversary of the King Holiday Awards with a dinner on January 11, 2020 at the Erie Bayfront Convention Center. “The Dr. King Award is presented to an individual or organization that personifies the concept of that quote by Dr. King and is committed to making the community a better place by the contribution of time, actions, talents and dedication. It is the living, breathing mission of the First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant that made the decision to present the 2020 Dr. King Award to First Covenant an easy one,” says James Sherrod, executive director of the MLK Center.
First Covenant Pastor Chris Weichman, Seph Kumer – Director of Community Engagement, Monty Service – Coordinator of Missional Music and several church elders and members attended the awards dinner. The keynote speaker for the evening was Dr. King’s son, Martin Luther King the III. Sherrod presented the award to the First Covenant. The inscription on the award reads “Presented by The Dr. Martin Luther King Holiday Committee to the First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant for their passion for the under represented and the compassion for fair and equitable treatment for all.”
Five years ago First Covenant conducted a mission study in preparation for the calling of a new pastor. This extensive study asked members of the congregation and staff about the church’s activities, ministries and the community. The results provided a new vision for First Covenant that became known as ‘Our Future Direction.’ The summary includes the ‘Four Pillars of First Covenant.’ They are: neighborhood relevance; better use of our building; a renewed focus on children, youth and families; and a focus on hospitality. By embracing these ‘Four Pillars,’ First Covenant has fundamentally changed how it does ‘church.’
“God has called us through some interesting and challenging years over the past decade. But when we paused and asked God to show us His desires for us as a church, and then we really, truly put effort into listening, God took us in some uncharted, unfamiliar, uncomfortable, risky direction. Let’s keep asking God for that guidance and let’s keep listening and risking. For I am sure God has more uncharted, unfamiliar, uncomfortable, risky things in store for us! Aren’t you excited for that?!” says Kumer.
When asked about the significance of First Covenant receiving the Dr. King Award, Kumer believes it is really not a recognition of US so much as a recognition that God is doing something IN US and THROUGH US that others have noticed. “The recognition is really all about God’s work, showing us how to build bridges and partnerships. It shows that listening and taking risks and being about the long, slow business of building relationships is worthy of our time and resources. It’s not so much that we have accomplished something as it is that God is inviting us to look around and see where God is already at work, and to join in,” says Kumer.
Since the mission study in 2015, First Covenant has been transformed by this new focus on community engagement, outreach and neighborhood relevance in Erie’s west bayfront neighborhood. What has evolved includes partnering with the Martin Luther King Center for annual Thanksgiving dinners, and developing other partnerships that include Gannon University, Erie City Mission, Strong Vincent Middle School and the City of Erie. “I believe this honor is the result of humbly listen to and learning from our neighbors. Over the past five years we have been willing to take risks and step out of our comfort zone. Our hope for the future is to continually learn from our neighbors and partner with other organizations to more fully live out MLK’s dream for Erie,” says Service.
“I hope it is humbling us. I hope it is helping us realize our community has much to offer. Much we can learn from. If we want to. If we listen. If we are willing to engage outside of the box. If we are willing to ask God what our blinders might be. What we are missing when we think we are so gifted and wise and talented that we miss the gifts and wisdom and talents of those around us. I think there are things God wants to teach our congregation that we can only learn from a posture of humility, of eagerness to learn, of willingness to “walk with” instead of ‘need to lead.’ Truly it is God’s amazing work,”says Kumer.
Dr. David Oyler is the General Presbyter for the Presbytery of Lake Erie. Oyler, believes in a post-Christendom culture the church is re-learning that the building of trust in Christ as Lord occurs one relationship at a time. “The honoring of First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant with the MLK Award indicates something quite profound about what it means to be ‘church.’ Church, of course, involves worship, music and education. At the same time it involves mission – and sometimes that mission is right outside our front door. That involves understanding that tradition is still powerful (and important) while at the same time initiating new connections in new ways. Sometimes we barely know where to begin. First Covenant has had the courage to take risks and look toward nontraditional ministries,” says Oyler.
The ‘Four Pillars’ of First Covenant, including neighborhood relevance, is serving as a pathway to the future, a future that looks considerably different from the past.“At one time – not all that long ago – mission was seen as ‘out there’; often across salt water. Early in the 21st century there is a new appreciation for mission as being nearby. This is particularly true as we observe the neighborhoods changing around us. When a church becomes increasingly disconnected from a neighborhood it creates complications for effective ministry and worship. Attention to the culture and traditions of our neighborhood is vital for future effectiveness,” says Oyler.
Several years ago Seph Kumer gathered some folks, including neighbors of First Covenant, and invited them to join him at Perry Square in downtown Erie for the start of Erie’s annual MLK Day walk. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law legislation honoring Dr. King and making the third Monday of January a federal holiday. The Nobel Prize winning, civil rights leader was born January 15, 1929. This year Kumer gathered folks again for the annual walk, which is held on MLK Day. The walkers travel along West 6th Street, passing right in front of the First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant and then walk on to the MLK Center.
“We walk in solidarity with our Erie neighbors to remind ourselves of the values and dreams Dr. King challenged us to live out. Dreams for a united community where ALL know they are valued, NONE are left behind, and injustices are dismantled. A vision Dr. King took right from the Bible. So, YAY for ALL of US. But even more importantly, thank you GOD,” says Kumer.