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On King Day, let’s turn the racist act at Washburn into a transformative moment

While these high-school students are still young and malleable, let’s offer them another way.

Our community must use this moment not as just a “teachable moment,” but as a transformative moment.
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As the day honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. approached, citizens of the Twin Cities learned of a troubling act by some students at Washburn High School in southwest Minneapolis. This act cannot be swept under the rug; hanging a black doll in a school was a targeted act of bullying and intimidation.

Rev. G. Travis Norvell
Rev. G. Travis Norvell

Like many in our community, I too want to know how the punishment will be meted out by the administration. I am intrigued by the proposal of restorative justice, which the administration has signaled it will employ. 

As much as the act pains us all, I hope that the perpetrators will receive an opportunity to right their wrong and to redefine their young lives so that this act will not be the defining act of their young lives. Sometimes it takes acts of ugliness to bring about new realities of beauty. This act should serve as another wake up call to the damaging, destructive and degrading way of racism.

How can this instance be an opportunity for the community to communicate the constant vigilance it takes to see “others” as full human beings endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

Beyond ‘teachable moment’

I hope the school administration and the community use this moment not as just a “teachable moment,” but as a transformative moment.

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This terrible act has the possibility for real transformation, or metanoia. Metanoia was a concept offered by the Apostle Paul in the first century of the common era to describe the total transformation of the individual; it begins with repentance, change or turn, and ends with a new way of life. It was in this concept that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. rooted his prophetic Christianity in his work and life-long struggle for civil rights. The situation before us begs for repentance and longs for metanoia. 

It was not until I was in college, in the 1990s, that I began an earnest reading of King’s life, work and writings. And it was not until then that I learned of the rooted destruction of racism in my own life and community. King extended to me the opportunity for a transformation. My journey took me to Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y., the divinity school of King (through merger). An unlikely journey for a poor kid from Appalachia, but that is what metanoia is all about. 

Racism doesn’t disappear with a schoolwide or community meeting or a simple apology. In fact, it never disappears; it is always present. It has to be recognized, exposed and dealt with in healthy and proper fashions. There are no easy ways to make this situation go away. It will take conversations and positive experiences with coaches, teachers, principals, parents, family members, community leaders, faith communities, elected officials, public servants and others. It will take challenges from these same groups to see better ways of living and seeing “the other.” 

Hope that there is another way

It will take deep reservoirs of love to help the victims continue on with integrity, courage and dignity. And it takes an unending hope that the experiences of the present moment are not final; that there is another way, a more excellent way. 

While these students are still young and malleable, let’s offer them another way. As citizens longing for the Beloved Community, let us offer the victims and perpetrators an opportunity for metanoia. This is not something that the administration, staff and faculty of Washburn High School can solve on their own. Redeeming this act will take a community-wide effort. 

Let us show the students that for metanoia to take place, committed persons of reconciliation many times have to jump up, grab hold of, and help bend the moral arc of the universe more toward justice.  

The Rev. G. Travis Norvell is the pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis.


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