Local pastor sparks Ferguson dialogue at town hall meeting

Bishop Joseph Walker welcoming the audience members before the discussion began    Photo by Jomilla Newsom

Bishop Joseph Walker welcoming the audience members before the discussion began.
Photo by Jomilla Newsom

There was only standing room last Thursday at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Jefferson Street as people got together to discuss the recent Ferguson, Mo. uprisings.

Bishop Joseph Walker, senior pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, the largest African American mega church in Tennessee, brought together Nashville’s chief of police, precinct commanders, religious leaders, local politicians and youth leaders for a town hall meeting.

The purpose of the meeting was to ask Metro police what they would do to handle a tense, racial incident if it happened in Nashville. And how could the city prevent it altogether?

The two-hour meeting opened up with prayer. With emotions running high, the prayer-leader prayed that they all could find a “common language” with an honest dialogue about trust, race and a generation of young people who are in shock.

John Faison, who is the senior pastor of Watson Grove Missionary Baptist Church, then set the tone of the discussion by sharing his first experience with Metro police when he was visiting Nashville two years ago.

Faison told about being pulled over by police, who said they saw him throw a cigarette butt out the window.

“I’m a health nut,” he said. “I don’t smoke.”

The officers asked if they could search his car, which Faison refused because they showed no probable cause.

“But they did check my license and my registration, came back and let me go. Welcome to Nashville!”

His story set off the dialogue of the issue everyone was there for. Many people had a lot to say. They all got to share their thoughts, opinions and ask Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson any questions they wanted to.

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Tons of members from the community gathered at Mt. Zion MB Church last Thursday to discuss the events in Ferguson.
Photo by Jomilla Newsom

When one of the many polite yet forceful questioners asked the chief about the diversity in his department, the chief said 11% of the sworn officers are African American. Metro’s population is about 28% black.

The chief quickly added that he welcomed applicants from the community, saying the department would like to increase the number of officers who live in Davidson County—currently about 50%.

That’s something one audience member and questionnaire would appreciate.

“Recruit officers so they look like the people they serve,” one audience member requested of the chief.

Anderson told the audience: “This is your police department. It’s not my police department. I merely manage it for you”—something he repeated many times during the night’s discussion.

It is important that members of the community have a relationship with the police department so anything like what happened in Ferguson will not happen in Nashville.

This town hall meeting was the first gathering in a church to discuss the events in Fergusson, but Bishop Walker hopes it will not be the last. He says that is important that people not only talk about the events, but also put forth some action.

“We’re going to leave here tonight with some solutions,” said Walker.

His first step at a solution? Nashville Unites.

Nashville Unites is an initiative with the following objectives: 1) foster dialogue between police and citizens; 2) propose a community liaison program between precincts and their communities; 3) develop youth leadership; 4) highlight Mt. Zion’s mentoring program for adult men; and 5) commit to follow-through on all initiatives so as to build trust and ensure a more peaceful city that is a national model for collaboration.

“Nashville Unites is about real change. Working to impact every community in Nashville,” Walker continued. “Come together because we are better together.”

A National Town Hall Meeting on Police Killings of Black People was conducted in Washington D.C. this week.