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The Benedictine College Black Student Union presented John Harris, pastor, educator and founder of two nonprofit ministries, for a talk on “Finding Common Ground” on October 26 on the college’s Atchison campus. His talk, which was focused on race relations in the United States, acknowledged that the country had come a long way, but still had a long way to go. A recording of the presentation is available on the school’s official Facebook page.
“We are still at a place…where the ideals of our land are yet to be realized,” he said. In speaking of the Pledge of Allegiance, he said many people in the country are “still waiting for the liberty, still waiting for the justice, and still waiting for it to be for all.”
He spoke of a little-known speech from 1962 by Dr. Martin Luther King to college students at Dartmouth College in which King referenced the overly optimistic who thought everything would be fine and the overly pessimistic who thought that nothing could be done and things would never change. Harris agreed with King in that people must be realists and look for what CAN be done.
“I have been challenged by history,” Harris said. “I have been challenged by the reality of what’s happening in our land and it bothers me.”
He had a friend paint some images to remind him that he “had to stay in the game.” He spoke of the painting of Harriet Tubman, who took it upon herself to make a difference with the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. He spoke of the image of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King, who also took action to affect change. And he spoke of the painting of George Floyd, whose death would become a flashpoint for change.
He also spoke of “the talk” he received from his mother. A talk that many people of color have had with their children that is basically telling them even if someone is violating your civil rights, don’t do anything. Don’t give anyone an excuse to kill. Harris said we should be ashamed in America that such a talk is necessary.
“But we’re not. Not enough,” he said. “If we were ashamed, folks would be held accountable.”
“So where is our common ground? Where is that place that we can find together to advance a cause of justice, of righteousness, of idealism that indeed makes our Pledge viable.”
He said the first step is to acknowledge that it is real.
“Acknowledge that your experience and the experiences of other people on this campus, away from this campus, around the nation, and around the world are not equal,” he said.
He also said everyone needs to admit that we are not in a perfect world, but we can all do something.
“Nobody can do everything, but we can all do something,” he said. And he asked the audience to take action when they see injustice.
“Act, not as people who are looking away from what’s real, but as people who acknowledge that there must be a change.”
He said he has found himself wondering if his grandsons will still be dealing with these issues when they are his age.
“Will they still be talking about racism?” he asked the crowd. “Will they still be talking about discrimination? Will they still need ‘the talk?’”
Harris has hope that the college students in the audience, that this generation, will help understand the reality and make a change. A change that he says is of the heart. A change that recognizes the humanity of everyone.
“I have to stay hopeful, I have to believe, as God is my witness, that there is enough compassion somewhere…somewhere to bring about the change,” he said. “It’s not just their fight, it’s our fight. It’s not just their struggle, it’s our struggle. You don’t have to do it for George Floyd. You don’t have to do it for me. But we can all do something.”
“Acknowledge…Admit…and Act,” concluded Harris. “Because we’re not there yet.”
Harris, the father of Benedictine basketball standout and 2017 graduate John Harris Jr., has dedicated much of his professional career to higher education and has also founded Encouragement Unlimited, Inc., a charitable nonprofit organization serving as a resource for low-income and otherwise disadvantaged individuals and families in Lincoln, Neb., and across the country. He created Encouragement Consulting Services and Encouragement Kingdom Outreach, as extensions of his ministry of encouragement and hope. Harris has served as the Senior Pastor at Christ Temple Mission Church and as Interim Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church in Lincoln, Neb. As a community leader, he serves as an advisor to both the mayor and chief of police and has led the effort to strengthen relations between law enforcement and community members with his “Can We Talk” community conversations.