By Emily Burleigh

Lake Charles First Presbyterian Church will host a six-week program based on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) original series “African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.”

The Sunday evening series will be hosted by church members Leonard Knapp and Willie Bellard.

The idea for this series stems from previous conversations about racism between Knapp, Bellard and other members of the congregation. They found themselves having honest conversations about racism in America and their lives, and the role of the Church in addressing injustices.

“I look at the role of the church in activism and the responsibility of a Christian community to encompass and bring all perspectives and aspects of a community,” Knapp said. “One of the things that bothered me a lot following the police shooting was people’s inability to communicate.

“We tend to think of people as Blues or African Americans. I think the Christian community is more than that, I think it takes a bigger perspective.

Through these discussions, they came to the conclusion that the only way to bridge the gap between racial groups is to provide a space to have open and honest conversations with the intention of understanding.

The docuseries integration, “Many Rivers to Cross”, was introduced by Bellard himself. Over the course of six weeks, participants will explore the full history of the African American experience and discuss how that history intersects with Christianity and church service.

“Hopefully by showing this and then talking about it, maybe we can get a glimpse of the shoes of other members of our community,” Knapp said. “I think it’s important that we have a dialogue.”

For Knapp and Bellard, understanding is the root of progress. Bellard referred to Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. He believes that habit 5, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” is important for this conversation.

According to Bellard, the first step to truly understanding someone different from you is to first know the story of their legacy and injustices.

“The key is that we want to try to understand where someone else is coming from or what their point of view is,” Bellard said. “I firmly believe that if you don’t know your story, you are bound to repeat it. There are certain aspects of the story that tend to come up again and again.

“We see some of that happening now. Some of the things that happened in the past can explain some of the emotions people have today, or at least some of the reactions people have. It has a lot to do with past experiences or historical events that took place,” he said. “When we don’t really know what those experiences were or what those cases were, it’s hard to understand why the backlash is so strong today.”

Knapp found himself grateful for this opportunity to provide understanding to others. Through this series, he hopes to give residents access to perspectives that were not available to him when he was younger.

“Growing up in the Lake Charles community, I just didn’t have an African-American perspective, and I thought it was important to learn and see,” he said.

“The story we’re looking at has a lot of the same issues that just keep repeating themselves. The point is to communicate, talk and at least understand each of us’ points of view.

This limited worldview is something they hope to expand. “Part of our goal is to understand the past and then see how that past impacts our present,” Bellard explained. “We also want to see how we can help the future. How can we improve the future? »

Seeking to understand through Christianity is a natural practice for the church. “From a Christian perspective, Jesus taught us that the two most important commandments are to love God and then to love your neighbor as yourself,” Bellard explained. “One of the ways we love our neighbor is by getting to know them. It’s hard to love someone from a distance.

He went on to explain that throughout history the church has always been an instrumental voice, positive or negative, for issues of race.

“When you think of the civil rights movement, a lot of the leaders were cabinet ministers. Dr. Martin Luther King and many other ministers have come together to try to lead civil rights events and bring equality,” he said. “Ultimately, their relationship with God and Jesus Christ is what motivated them to want to bring about justice and equality in a peaceful way.”

“I think it’s essential to try to get things done peacefully, as opposed to violence and fighting,” he continued. “Many churches have always helped improve race relations.”

Historically, Christianity has played an active role in African American history. “It’s absolutely been part of it from the very beginning with the idea of ​​slavery,” Knapp explained. “The banning of slavery was facilitated by the churches and the evangelical movement that was happening in the late 1700s and early 1800s.”

“So it’s been part of the religious discussion for a long time.”

Knapp went on to say that during the Civil War the emancipation of slaves caused a schism between the northern and southern Presbyterian churches. “The northern congregations and the southern congregations separated, and it wasn’t until 1967 that the two denominations came together again, and this was all a result of the slavery issue.

“He was part of this denomination and many denominations. You still see some of this same division happening in different congregations. It may have different connotations, but it stems from different people coming together. »

Knapp believes that the strength of American society is our diversity. For this reason, it is important that citizens try to “put themselves in other people’s shoes” and understand them.

“When you start to study the African American experience…it helps to understand and feel what your neighbor really is and who is, and our goal is just to reflect and let people reflect on some of the issues and how perspectives can differ,” he said.

This is the church’s first outreach program to encourage discussions about race. For them, the conversations that will take place after the viewings are the most vital part of this program. “It will create a platform where we can discuss things and just have the opportunity to understand those perspectives and have discussions that hopefully lead to further discussions.”

Bellard stressed that their main goal is simply to start a dialogue. “We want to create an understanding of how our history has unfolded and impacts where we are today. Then, how this discussion can lead to a better future and improve future communities. »

Knapp is a senior member of the congregation and a sessional member of the Presbyterian Church. He is also a former Calcasieu parish prosecutor. “I bring a law enforcement perspective and a church member perspective to bring into this conversation,” he said.

Bellard is an active church member and theological researcher. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Literature from Oral Roberts University, his Master of Arts in Biblical Studies from Regent University, and is currently working on a PhD in Biblical Studies from Faulkner University.

The series that will air for six weeks is “African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross”. The show was written and hosted by Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., and originally premiered on PBS from October 22 to November 26, 2013. “Many Rivers to Cross” is the recipient the 2014 Peabody Award, 2014 News & Documentary Emmy Award for Outstanding Historical Programming – Long Form, and the 2014 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding News/Information.

The series covers African American history from 1500 to 2013. This show will feature one episode per week, with a post-viewing discussion period.

The first night of this series will cover the first episode of the docuseries, “The Black Atlantic (1500-1800)” will explore the very beginnings of the African American canon.

“The first is about slavery,” Knapp said. “We’re going to look at it not just from a US perspective, but also from a global perspective.”

This video chat group is open to the public and kid-friendly. Locals who are not members of the church are encouraged to participate in the program and join in this conversation about religion and race.

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For more information, please visit www.firstpres-lc.org.


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