Monday, June 29, 2015

Virzola Jo-Nan Law chosen to lead historically white church

The Senior Minister Search Committee of Lindenwood Christian Church recently
elected Virzola Jo-Nan Law as their first female and first African American senior pastor. 
Virzola Jo-Nan Law is the first female and the first African American elected to serve in a senior clerical position at Lindenwood Christian Church, a historically white church located at the corner of Union Avenue and East Parkway in Midtown Memphis. The church is deeply rooted in the Memphis community dating back to 1853, before The Civil War raged, when the church was founded as Linden Avenue Christian Church. 
The Senior Minister Search Committee has referred to Law’s election as a “bold” and “historic” move on their part. The vote was unanimous on Wednesday (June 17) to affirm Law as its new senior pastor based on her credentials, past speaking engagements and two sermons that she delivered on June 14. She will assume her pastoral duties on Oct. 4 after wrapping up as Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church’s (Disciples of Christ) associate minister.
“We are extremely excited,” said Adrienne Sloan, chairperson of the Senior Minister Search Committee’s Search and Call listing, the process used to vet candidates. “Not only did we come to a unanimous decision, we agreed to do something different and bold. It was not only a hire…but you’re supposed to be led by God.”
Sloan said Lindenwood’s Board of Directors and the church congregants have been impressed with Law for several years now. In 2012 and each year thereafter, Law was one of seven area ministers tapped to deliver brief mediations on the “Seven Last Words of Christ” on Good Friday preceding Easter Sunday. 
“Pastor Law was one of our favorites,” said Sloan. “We are relatively familiar with her. A lot of people in the church said she’s an amazing preacher and that it would be good if we got her.”
 They now have her as their spiritual leader.
“I dreamed of a multicultural church,” said Law, a single mother of 23-year-old daughter Jasmin Williams. God, she said, had called her as a young child who would oversee a diverse church of mixed-race congregants. 
“To get the call affirmed my childhood dream, my seminary writing and my pastoral vocation. It is a call that God has chosen me to lead a church that would reflect a beloveth community.”
Law has served on the pastoral team at Mississippi Boulevard for 12 years. She’d relocated from Houston, Texas in 2003 to accept her first ministerial position at the church and never looked back. She’d served four years as the church’s youth pastor and stints as campus pastor, pastoral care pastor, pastor of the women’s ministry, pastor of outreach, and finally an associate minister.
“It has evolved like a flower that bloomed,” said Law, who was recommended by a congregant as a potential candidate for the position. 
“It is difficult for women in fulltime ministry in general and for African American women in particular,” she said. 
Women comprised 50 percent of available profiles through the denomination’s Search and Call listing… “so electing to not consider female candidates would have grossly impacted the potential candidate pool.” 
Rev. Dr. Alvin O’Neal Jackson, senior minister at Park Avenue Christian Church in New York and formerly the senior minister at Mississippi Boulevard, noted in a letter to the church: “…what a big, bold, bodacious, beautiful mission, and if you are true to it, nothing short of strong, visionary, courageous leadership and commitment is required.”
Law will replace Dr. William T. McConnell, the “Interim Transformational Senior Minister,” who was contracted in January 2013 to lead the church through its transitional period. He was tapped to replace the church’s last elected senior minister, who resigned the position in 2012. 
Thoughts about race had come up after Law was interviewed, said Sloan, who along with several members of the search committee had considered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote to justify their bold, historic move to tap Law for the leadership position: “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian American is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning, the same hour when many are standing to sing: ‘In Christ There Is No East Nor West.’” 
Lindenwood is a diverse church, said Sloan – “diverse in race, gender, politics, socioeconomics, worship style, and family experience.” She said they’re embracing the church of today and tomorrow rather than the church of yesterday. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

‘Coliseum Coalition’ rallies to save the Mid-South Coliseum from demolition

Ron Daniels, a retired Memphis Defense Depot worker, signs a petition at
"Roundhouse Revival" festivities to save the Mid-South Coliseum from being razed
and replaced with a youth sporting complex. (Photo: Wiley Henry)
      If a group of activists is successful in thwarting the city of Memphis’ plan to raze the Mid-South Coliseum for a youth sports complex and retail development, the turnaround just might jumpstart a plan to repurpose the languishing 12,000-seat facility.
      “We don’t need a youth sports facility,” said Mike McCarthy, president of the Coliseum Coalition, a nonprofit, 30-plus-member group intent on saving the Mid-South Coliseum from demolition. “If you can put Bass Pro into a pyramid, you can put wrestling, shows, and concerts back into the Coliseum.”
      McCarthy is referring to the 20,000-seat Pyramid, which first opened in 1991 and abandoned in 2004, when the Memphis Grizzlies basketball franchise packed up and moved its operation to the newly built FedExForum.
      After 10 years of back-and-forth negotiations between the city and Bass Pro officials, the Pyramid is now transformed into Bass Pro Shops, which reopened April 29. It has taken three years to repurpose the 32-story stainless steel building and retrofit it for stability.
      The Coliseum has been dormant as well, since 2006. McCarthy, a filmmaker, tour guide and cultural preservationist, noted that it, too, could be repurposed to attract smaller groups, concerts and other kinds of events to keep them from taking business and sorely needed tax dollars across the border to the Landers Center in Southaven, Miss., a multipurpose, 8,400-seat arena.
      McCarthy’s sentiments were shared Saturday (May 23) by a bevy of supporters converging on the west side of the Coliseum for the “Roundhouse Revival,” a Coalition-sponsored event organized to bring awareness to the empty husk of brick and mortar and the splendor of what the building once represented.
      “This is a good looking building, an available building, that needs to be repurposed,” said Mark Jones, a Coalition member. “Some people have never set foot on the property.”
      Marvin Stockwell has set foot on the property many times and is adamant about saving it. A communications director at the Church Health Center and a Coalition member as well, Stockwell said discussions about the Coliseum’s fate “felt adversarial” during earlier meetings with Mayor A C Wharton Jr.
      “Now they’re friendly,” he said.
      The free event was also supported by the city, which surprised the leaders of the Coalition, who did not expect the city’s full cooperation. Although there had been meetings with Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb, the city hunkered down and backed the event financially.
      Lipscomb has led the push to redevelop the area for a Fairgrounds Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) for some time now. The TDZ would yield additional sales tax revenue to finance the Fairgrounds project, it has been reported.
      The Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium and the Coliseum, of course, would figure into the city’s plan to attract amateur sporting events to the area. But because there has been public pushback, plans to raze the Coliseum have been temporarily put on hold – for now.
      The TDZ plan does not bode well for the Coalition and their supporters. In an effort to quell frustrations, the city is soliciting input, a civic discussion, from the community. The Coalition, however, is asking supporters to sign a petition to save the Coliseum.
      They claim more than 3,000 signatures have been collected from across the United States and over 20 foreign countries. Add to that 2,000 Facebook group members, they boast.
      Meanwhile, the city is assuring the community will have its say. On June 1 and 2, there will be four community meetings, each starting at 5:30 p.m.
      The meetings on June 1 will be held at the Airways Professional Building, 3385 Airways; and at Bert Ferguson Community Center, 8505 Trinity. The next two meetings will be held June 2 at the Kroc Center, 800 East Parkway South; and Cunningham Community Center, 3773 Old Allen.
      The city contracted with the National Charette Institute, a nonprofit educational institution in Portland, Ore., and Urban Land Institute, a District Council serving the Mid-South, to ascertain public feedback and ideas for a reconfigured Fairgrounds.
      Hundreds of supporters and those no doubt curious about the purpose of the daylong event – which included vendors, bands, and other forms of entertainment – expressed their concerns and shared ideas for a “revival” of the aging structure, once home to Monday Night Wrestling, where a “king” was crowned and a “superstar” was born.
      Wrestling aficionados and die-hard fans of Jerry “The King” Lawler and Bill “Superstar” Dundee put on a show Saturday that was reminiscent of Memphis wrestling. The two local legends took on The Coliseum Crushers, masked grapplers who worked up a sweat in the searing heat in one of two small rings in front of the Coliseum as spectators jeered.
      Wrestling brought back fond memories for many of them; but for others, it was the concerts, graduations and basketball games – nostalgic moments worthy of a rebirth – that ignited their activism and evoked ideas for a fresh start for the Coliseum.
      “I grew up here in Memphis and came to a lot of wonderful activities at the Coliseum, such as high school graduations, concerts and basketball games,” said Ron Daniels, a retired Memphis Defense Depot worker.
      “It was a good deal,” he said. “It used to be the largest venue other than the Ellis Auditorium (a 10,000-seat, multipurpose arena built in 1924 and demolished in 1997)” and replaced with the Memphis Cook Convention Center.
      Crafts artist Deborah Armour, one of the vendors, remembers being summoned to the Coliseum for jury duty selection. She also attended graduations there and The Jackson’s concert in 1981 when young, sizzling Michael Jackson and his brothers were burning up the charts with hits after hits.
      “Right now you’re limited to a number of people who can come to a graduation ceremony,” said Armour, explaining that high school graduates are only given a few tickets for family members to attend. “It (Coliseum) still can be used for other things as well…anything that requires a smaller venue other than the FedExForum.”
      Anita Wilson, a manicurist, sees the Coliseum fiasco through a political prism. “There’s politics in every decision the city makes,” she surmised. “[And] they don’t always make the right decision.”  
      Just like some of the others attending the Roundhouse Revival, Wilson offered ideas that could possibly resurrect and restore the Coliseum to its former glory. But so far the ideas from supporters have yet to determine the fate of the Coliseum or how the building could be transformed.
      Concerts were ongoing at the Coliseum, an overwhelming consensus that Wilson shares. She added that a return to this form of entertainment could generate additional revenue for the city’s coffers.
      “For concerts, etc., instead of [people] going to the Landers Center, why not keep the money in Memphis,” she said.
      Charlie “Chuck” Thomas, regional director of External and Legislative Affairs for AT&T, grew up in the Orange Mound community, where his mother taught music at Melrose High School. It is a stone’s throw from the Coliseum.
      Recalling the vitality and high energy that radiated from the Coliseum and reverberated throughout the community,” Thomas said, “I used to go here a lot. There’s no better structure in the Mid-South area than the Mid-South Coliseum. I spent my young life here.”

About the Mid-South Coliseum…

      The Mid-South Coliseum, located at 940 Early Maxwell, was built in 1964 under the old Memphis City Code of 1949. It is 11 stories tall (approximately 160 feet in height) and has a maximum seating capacity of 12,000.
      If the Coliseum were to return to its “useful life,” the building would have to be brought up to the International Existing Building Code as adopted by the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Construction Code Enforcement, according to a code analysis conducted by Code Solutions Group, LLC on July 30, 2009.
      The detail report noted that the interior of the Coliseum would have to be seriously reworked to ensure the safety of the building, among other repairs, and correct the number and percentage of handicap facilities.
      The Coliseum closed its doors in late 2006 because the building was not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law banning discrimination based on disability. It would have cost the city $30 million to fix the ADA violations and an estimated $33 million to demolish the building.
      On Dec. 6, 2000, the Mid-South Coliseum was listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior.

First-time authors write their way toward overcoming obstacles

"Don't Count Me Out: Contending Voices," published recently by Blues City
Cultural Center, is a collection of narratives and poetry by members of  "Seek
to Serve," a program that promotes servant leadership. (Photos: Wiley Henry)
Overcoming obstacles and turning them into successes is the crux of a recently published book of narratives written by members of a leadership program expressly designed to develop, enhance and promote servant leadership among persons living in affordable public housing.
“Don’t Count Me Out: Contending Voices,” compiled and edited by Carolyn Matthews for Blues City Cultural Center’s Seek to Serve Program, is the end-product of an idea spawned three years ago by a facilitator for Seek to Serve.  
“The book idea was incubating for a few years with the grassroots leadership training leaders, Naomi Dyson and Deborah Frazier,” said Matthews. “Dyson conceived the title and Frazier searched for ways to sustain the momentum and document the history of the organization.”
She (Dyson) felt the participants had such rich stories of overcoming that needed to be told,” added Frazier, who co-directs (with her husband Levi Frazier) Blues City Cultural Center (BCCC), an arts organization using the arts to enlighten, empower and transform.
"Don't Count Me Out..."
A subsequent book signing is set for Wednesday (June 3) at 6:30 p.m. at Southwest Tennessee Community College’s Parrish Library, Room 101. Some of the authors will be available to read their work.
Martha Perine Beard, vice president and regional executive of Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis – Memphis Branch, wrote the book’s preface. Robert Lipscomb, executive director of the Memphis Housing Authority, touted Seek to Serve in the book’s foreword.
“Seek to Serve” was created to reinforce to residents that they are valued citizens of Memphis,” Lipscomb wrote. “They have positive gifts and talents that should be shared to make Memphis better, and are vital to its well-being.”
Program participants had much to express in writing workshops facilitated by Matthews, who sought ways to hone their creativity in narratives by using their own voice. She also interviewed them about their lives in their homes and in the class.
I wanted to stay close to the initial premise of the project – to share the impact of Seek to Serve on the lives the authors,” Matthews explained. “As the participants shared their stories, there was a dominant thread: overcoming adversity due to lack of resources, unhealthy relationships, or from self-limiting mindsets or societal marginalization.”
Noticing the similarities in their stories, it became clear to Matthews “that this theme running through the stories was the life force of the impact of Seek to Serve (a six-month program) because it revealed how they were changed by their participation.”
Editing the colloquial voice can present a challenge, said Matthews, an accomplished writer whose poetry and prose have appeared in “Homespun Images: An Anthology of Black Memphis Writers,” “The Laurel Review,” “Newsmagazine,” “Jewel Magazine,” and the forthcoming “Cave Canem Anthology: 2010.”
“When you say to someone, ‘I value you. I want to teach you how to articulate YOUR issues and concerns, because you have something meaningful to contribute to your community, and I care about what you say,’ I think it is important to trust that their voice is powerful enough to communicate their message. (And) preserving their voices validates their message.”
The grassroots servant leadership program began with an idea on a Walgreen’s parking lot between Frazier and Lipscomb, then the newly appointed director of the Memphis Housing Authority. Frazier was program director at Leadership Memphis.  
There were 22 affordable housing communities in Memphis at that time, and Lipscomb, Frazier recalls, saw the need for a leadership program that would train the presidents of those housing communities.
The year was 2000. The following year the first class graduated. The Seek to Serve program, however, stayed with Leadership Memphis until 2007 and then moved to the Uptown Resource Center, where it is currently located at 314 A.W. Willis Ave.
“One of the goals of this servant leadership program is that a participant will NOT talk about his or her accomplishments or problems, but search to praise or help his neighbor,” said Frazier. “As a result, we celebrated the accomplishments of others and what they had done at home, at church, and in their community.
“This book says you never stop never stop never give up.  It takes the group to encourage the individual.  So it’s more than encouraging yourself; it’s about encouraging your neighbor and then you are encouraged.”
BCCC, whose tag line is “ARTS FOR A BETTER WAY OF LIFE,” has received funding and support from neighborhood grants – Community Development Block Grant, FedEx, St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Tennessee Arts Commission, and ArtsMemphis.
“Don’t Count Me Out: Contending Voices” was published with funds from ArtsMemphis’ Arts Build Communities (ABC) grants. Funds also were derived from the IOBY (In Our Backyard) crowdfunding program, an online fundraising platform.

        (For more information about the book “Don’t Count Me Out: Contending Voices,” or Blues City Cultural Center’s Seek to Serve Program, contact Deborah Frazier at 901-292-2397 or by email at The website is