Charlotte Talks About Race
The idea came to Danny Trapp as he sat in the audience at race and religion forums across Charlotte. He could sense frustration all around him as panels of experts, not people in the seats, got to do most of the talking.
Then, on June 17, nine African-Americans were gunned down in a church in Charleston. Trapp, a Presbyterian minister who leads MeckMin, an interfaith group of almost 100 white, black and mixed houses of worship, decided to act: He would get Charlotte talking by finding the time and space to let everyday people – not just experts, clergy and politicians – say what was on their minds and in their hearts: about race, about change, about tension and about healing.
At the first “We Need to Talk” gathering, held the Monday after the Charleston killings, 300 people showed up in the chapel at Queens University of Charlotte. “It was pretty raw,” said Trapp. “We told them, ‘Here are two microphones. Form a line and come talk. You’ve got three minutes. What do you need to say?’ It was amazing, inspiring.”
And candid. Danielle Hilton told the people in the crowd that if they wanted to spark lasting change, it wasn’t enough to congregate in a chapel in south Charlotte.
“I love that we’re gathered in this place,” said Hilton, who is African-American and lives in a majority black neighborhood. “What would be nice would be to see all these people in my neighborhood, in the places that are frequented by black men, that are frequented by black teenagers.
“Go into the discomfort. If you feel uncomfortable, then you are on your way.”
MeckMin’s series of conversations is now 5 weeks old and will continue every Monday night through Aug. 31. The locale has changed: Participants gather one week in predominantly black west Charlotte (Johnson C. Smith University) and the next in mostly white south Charlotte (Myers Park Presbyterian Church).
Over time, the sessions have evolved into a roomful of small group discussions, with the talk turning more to possible action – from serving the poor together to advocating for economic equality issues. And some in these multiracial, multireligious circles have banded together to continue the dialogue over wine and dinner, at movie outings, even while walking from a white church to a black neighborhood.
It’s important to talk, to understand where other people are coming from. You need to give people space to be different.
Turnout is more white than black, but Trapp is hoping that will change as the word gets out.
At the gathering this past Monday, Elaine Leo, who is black and drove in from Concord, listened as her small group’s talk centered on what has become a core topic.
How can whites and blacks get to know and feel more comfortable with each other?
“People don’t know how to start a conversation,” said the Rev. Deborah Conner, who is white and a pastor at Myers Park Presbyterian. “They don’t know what to say.”
Leo had an answer.
“As an African-American, I’m telling you how to do it,” she said. “You invite people to your table. Or you meet them for lunch. … And it’s got to come from the heart.”
New sense of purpose
Besides giving African-Americans, whites, Latinos and others in Charlotte a chance to express themselves and get to know each other, “We Need to Talk” has given 28-year-old MeckMin a new sense of purpose and identity. Formerly called Mecklenburg Ministries, the group had been struggling – sometimes patiently, sometimes anxiously – to discern “who we are, what we need to be and where we’re going,” said Trapp, who became executive director in late 2013.
The weekly meetings have helped restore lost clarity for MeckMin. They’ve also offered Charlotteans of various backgrounds a forum and a catalyst for interaction at a time when the city is feeling racial tension surrounding the voluntary manslaughter trial of white police officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick, who is accused of the fatal shooting in 2013 of an unarmed black man, Jonathan Ferrell.
With jury selection now underway, the Charlotte shooting, along with the Charleston killings, is expected to dominate much of the conversation in the weeks to come.
Trapp made that clear Monday night, as he laid out the ground rules for the gatherings: “Something may happen in the Kerrick trial, and we might say, ‘Time out! We need to talk about it.’”
The power of talk, especially eye-opening conversations with people different from himself, has defined much of Trapp’s life journey.
Working with Charlotte’s Urban Ministry in the late 1990s, his dialogues were with homeless people. As an active member of Myers Park Presbyterian, he recalled the time, also in the 1990s, when he traveled with others from the church to Nogales, Mexico – 60 miles south of Tucson.
“We didn’t go there to paint things or build things,” he said. “We went to learn, to forge relationships. And we had folks there who would set up conversations.”
He remembers talking with a Catholic woman who ministered to the street kids in the Mexican city. She didn’t own a Bible, Trapp said, “but she didn’t need one because it was basically written in her heart.”
Trapp, who grew up a Bible-believing Presbyterian in Sumter, S.C., now leads an organization whose members subscribe to various sacred books – including the Torah, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon and the Gospels of the New Testament.
In his job, Trapp, 56, has tried to focus on common ground without air-brushing away differences in religious beliefs and practices. The key to making it work: Communication.
“It’s important to talk, to understand where other people are coming from,” he said. “You need to give them space to be different.”
Trapp started in the banking business, moving to Charlotte in 1985. But eventually he felt “an itch” to go into the clergy. He aspired not to be the pastor of a church but to work in a social ministry that reached out to others in need.
One of his influences was a novel. “The Street Lawyer,” a legal thriller by John Grisham published in 1998, is about a well-paid antitrust lawyer who leaves his firm to go to work protecting the rights of the homeless.
Trapp enrolled in Union Presbyterian Seminary at Charlotte and, after attending years of weekend classes, graduated in 2013. That same year, he took the job at Mecklenburg Ministries, known in Charlotte for, among other things, being the group behind the Thanksgiving week interfaith service that fills a Charlotte house of worship every year.
His MeckMin office, on the campus of Park Road Baptist Church, is adorned with his framed diplomas, along with books from various religious traditions; family photos; a smiling Jesus doll that’s reaching out; a white board for brainstorming; signed photos of U2, the big-hearted Irish rock band; and two beer mugs.
One Sunday afternoon every month, Trapp travels to a saloon in Plaza Midwood to give the sermon at “The Thirsty Beaver Good Time Fellowship Hour.” The come-as-you-are service favors elbow bending over knee bending, but it features live gospel music and – no surprise – more talk as patrons ask one another to pray for ailing mothers and other special intentions.
Trapp said he did zero fundraising for MeckMin his first six months on the job, as he worked on quality programming – including a “Food for Thought” lunch series and an interfaith youth camp – and tried to discern what Charlotte needed MeckMin to be.
“We almost ran out of money doing it that way, and I questioned myself,” he said. “But I just sensed that we were on the right track as we waited for our time to come.”
Listening to the anger
The conversations at MeckMin’s “We Need to Talk” gathering last Monday night mostly happened in about a dozen small groups.
In one, Waldo Miller, who’s white, and Mayra S. Arteaga, who’s Latina, talked about cops.
Miller credited the community-oriented policing under recently retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe, who’s African-American, for sparing the city the kind of riots that hit Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. Arteaga saluted a Hispanic police officer in Charlotte who chats up Spanish-speaking listeners every morning on Radio Latina, 102.3 FM.
As a nation, we need to be color-blind and we need to know that God loves each and every one of us.
Catherine Harrington, sister of one of the Charleston shooting victims
There was talk in the Rev. Suz Cate’s group about trying to get more angry people to show up at future meetings. “We need to hear what they’re angry about,” said Cate, senior assistant to the rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church. “We need the practice of listening to people who are angry – it’s not easy.”
Also joining a group was Charlotte educator Catherine Harrington. Her older sister, Myra Thompson, was among the nine black parishioners slain during that prayer meeting – led by Thompson – at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Harrington said she had heard about the MeckMin-sponsored talk and had come to tell her family’s story, hear what others had to say and stress the need for good people to come together for change.
“As a nation, we need to be colorblind, and we need to know that God loves each and every one of us,” Harrington told the crowd before it broke into small groups. “So, tonight, I want to thank you all … on behalf of the nine Emanuel families and my family as well.”
Want to go?
The next “We Need to Talk” meetup will be 7 p.m. Monday at Johnson C. Smith University’s Joyce Taylor Crisp Student Union, 100 Beatties Ford Road.
The 90-minute gathering will open with a presentation from Tom Hanchett, historian with the Levine Museum of the New South. His topic: “Sorting Out Charlotte – How Charlotte Got Segregated.”
The Aug. 3 gathering will be held at Myers Park Presbyterian Church’s Oxford Hall, 2501 Oxford Place.
Position: executive director, MeckMin.
Hometown: Sumter, S.C.
Family: wife, Scottie, an accountant; and two grown daughters, Simmons Purdy, Columbia, and Catherine Trapp, Charlotte.
Education: B.A. in political science, Wofford College in Spartanburg, 1981; master of divinity, Union Presbyterian Seminary at Charlotte, 2013.
Past jobs: program director, Criminal Justice Services in Mecklenburg County and Center for Community Transitions, which deals with alternative sentencing issues.
Motto: “Let us go across to the other side,” which Jesus said to his disciples in the Gospel of Mark, 4:35.