Living Spirit UMC members help heal racial divide over proposed dog park

October 01, 2015

By: Amanda Willis

Racial reconciliation is one of main areas of focus for the multicultural and intergenerational congregation at Living Spirit United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. So when the church’s neighborhood divided along racial lines over a dog park, church members stepped in to help heal the community.

In 2010, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board proposed a new dog park at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park, located near Nicollet Ave. and 41st St. in Minneapolis. The proposal angered some members of the Black community. Dogs were used against civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, during the 1960s as a method of intimidation and dispersing the crowd. The idea of a dog park taking over the memorial site was upsetting for members of a local AARP group who happened to hold meetings in the park.

After hearing about the plans, Doris Christopher, a Living Spirit member, AARP member, and civil rights activist, called her local councilperson to voice her opposition. After several conversations with other members of the Black community and the Park Board, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park Legacy Council was formed in an effort to heal wounds that had been reopened.

Christopher, four other Living Spirit members, and Rev. Donna Dempewolf were part of that council and played an instrumental role in bringing different groups together and bridging the divide within the community.

“You’d be surprised at how many people didn’t realize what this would have done for the community [if the dog park had been built],” said Christopher. “I think it really would have hurt race relations…if they had put that dog park in.”

Four years of listening sessions and community conversations, with the intent to hear one another and speak one’s own truth, led to the dog park being moved to an alternate location and the memorial park receiving a generous update from the Park Board and community members. The park reopened in late August with a “Beloved Community” celebration.

A new $650,000 playground isn’t just for playing. Various signs and interactive activities within the playground teach children about King and the Civil Rights Movement in America. King’s march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, and his “I Have a Dream” speech are highlighted to teach children about Black history.

Dempewolf has been on the Legacy Council for the past three years.

“I was honored to deliver the prayers at the celebration,” she said. “As a faith community, we are strongly influenced by the Civil Rights Movement and what’s happening today, and taking it into the next generation.”

The Legacy Council isn’t finished yet. Its 15 to 20 members are meeting this month to discuss what the second phase of the park will look like. The desire is for the park to be a must-see attraction, just like other landmarks in Minneapolis.

“I have great-grandkids and that’s my fight now, to make sure they have the knowledge [about Black history],” said Christopher. “If you know something, then you are better equipped to go forth in the world. This playground is a good start.”

Through the work of the Legacy Council, community members of different backgrounds have gotten to know each other and worked together as the decision about the park was being made. Christopher is also leading a multicultural book club to provide space for neighbors to have open dialogue.

Living Spirit has opened its doors to all cultures and led civil rights seminars at the park. Through its commitment to reach out to people of all backgrounds and promote peace and understanding, the church is healing a broken world.

“The Holy Spirit is not an abstraction—it moves in specific contexts and communities,” said Dempewolf. “It is present in our midst, in our neighborhoods, in our communities, in our parks, in our schools, in our interactions with one another. It calls us to be present too. It is the Holy Spirit that compels the congregation that is Living Spirit to be engaged in community with our neighbors.”

Read the prayers that Rev. Donna Dempewolf delivered during the Beloved Community celebration.

Amanda Willis is communications associate for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

122 West Franklin Avenue, Suite 400 Minneapolis, MN 55404

(612) 870-0058