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Forum explores race relations in Rowan County

Could better integrated churches be key in improving race relations in Rowan County?
That was one of the hotter topics at a forum Wednesday night hosted by Covenant Community Connection on the Catawba College campus.
The latest in the Meet Your Neighbor series, the forum looked at local race relations past, present and future.
The conclusion: While strides have been made, there’s still work to do.
Panelists for the discussion were Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten, Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education member Jean Kennedy, Salisbury Ecumenical Choir director Dr. Phillip Burgess, Latin Mix owner Liliana Spears, Livingstone College student body President Christopher Pierre and Catawba College student body President Johnathon Boles.
About 60 people attended the forum in the Tom Smith Auditorium, and one of them asked what churches and pastors are doing to integrate.
Spears, who is Hispanic, said many churches are reaching out to the Latino community, but asked how many are responding.
Dr. Henry Diggs, one of the forum’s moderators and pastor of Faith Temple Triumphant Ministries in East Spencer, said people worship where they feel comfortable, and that’s still typically with others who look like them.
Diggs said he believes “what has to be done, and most churches do, is make it available.”
Several audience members weren’t sure that’s all that needs to be done. Churches reflect the culture, one said, and integrating on Sunday but not the rest of the week is pointless. Another said people of faith need to get together more outside church walls.
Mark Ritchie, a Covenant Community Connection steering committee member, pointed out that many young people are staying away from church. He argued that’s because the faith community doesn’t reflect their values, and if that doesn’t change “the problem will solve itself — churches will die out.”
Diggs said figuring out how to make churches more diverse is clearly important to the overall goal of better race relations.
“Perhaps if we focus in that area, maybe we can make a whole lot of progress,” he said.
It’s not the only area, though. One audience member asked Auten what he’s doing to hire more black deputies. The sheriff acknowledged law enforcement is predominantly made up of white men but said his department is actively recruiting on college campuses and elsewhere.
“And we do need to diversify,” he said.
Auten answered another question about economic inequity by saying schools need to focus on making youngsters good students — and more marketable to employers — and not on making sure they keep their athletic eligibility.
Other questions touched on interracial relationships, the impact of President Barack Obama’s election on race relations and whether Latino immigrants should learn English to better assimilate.
Spears, whose family roots are in Guatemala, said they should learn English.
“Everything should not have to be in two languages,” she said.
But, she said, Americans need to be more willing to allow other cultures to blend with their own.
“I believe we still have a long way to go as a community to … embrace all cultures,” she said. “We believe America is a great place to come, but other cultures coming to America have greatness in them.”
Several panelists said the way to better race relations is to look to younger generations.
“I think for us to actually move to where we need to be as a community, we’re going to have to follow the example of our children,” said Kennedy, who went to work at North Rowan High School in 1968 as the school’s first black female teacher.
The two youngest panelists — Boles and Pierre — said they had little experience with racial tension as very young children.
Pierre, a senior at Livingstone, said he never experienced racism as a child in Virginia Beach, Va., but when he moved to Charlotte at age 11, that changed.
“I was surprised,” he said. He called middle school “the worst time in my life.”
But Pierre said he was glad he learned how to work through those tough times and how to interact with different kinds of people.
Boles, a sophomore at Catawba, said growing up in Davie County he lived in a diverse population and had friends of different races. He never really thought about race, he said, until he entered college.
“I truly believe there is no easy solution to fix race relations, because racism is in the heart of the practitioner,” he said. “… If we can get some people to treat others like they want to be treated, that will solve the problem.”
One audience member pointed out that people who attended the forum already understand the need for diversity and asked how they can address people who weren’t there and “only want to widen the divide.”
“We shouldn’t be afraid to go out in public and say what we believe in,” Auten said. “We should be infectious.”
Another asked the panelists what they would like to see as the state of local race relations in five years.
“In five years, I would like to see this be a thing of the past,” Burgess said, “that we would not have to have these discussions.”
In the near term, though, “Rowan County is not perfect … and we can certainly improve on it,” said Raymond Coltrain, the other moderator for the forum.
“Our goal tonight is to learn how we can enhance our interactions and relations with people, especially those who may be different in some way,” he said.
Betty Jo Hardy, a member of the Covenant Community Connection steering committee, said “human beings tend to fear what we do not know. So tonight, I hope we have dispelled some fears.”

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