Amid an intense election season and increased polarization of America, more than a few speakers and participants at a recent Peace Walk said that unity in the community is needed now more than ever.
The last Peace Walk of the year highlighted Native Americans, and the event held on Sunday appeared to draw one of the walk initiative’s largest crowds — an estimated 300 people. The walk, coordinated by the Stronger Together movement, began at Victory Indian Baptist Church, 2301 SE 15, and ended at the First Americans Museum, 659 First Americans Blvd. Speakers and walkers reflected on the initiative’s goal to bring people of different parts of the Oklahoma City metro area together for fellowship and, for many, an opportunity to share their common Christian faith.
“As I’m walking, I’m thinking about the land and I’m not thinking about color or race or creed,” said flautist Shawn Joseph, a Chickasaw Nation member from Midwest City, as he made the trek.
“I’m thinking that we are all part of the great circle of life. I think about how our Lord Jesus Christ gave us this great privilege to represent him.”
At Victory Baptist, the Rev. Larry Factory and the Rev. Mike Toney, the church’s co-pastors, led prayers and gave a brief history of their house of worship. Phillip Billy, who is an Air Force veteran and husband of former state Legislator Lisa Billy, their son Nahinli Billy, and other musicians led walkers in praise and worship songs. The couple helped coordinate Sunday’s walk highlighting Native American culture. Phillip Billy led songs in Choctaw and in English, while participants were also treated to a musical version of “The Lord’s Prayer” in American Indian Sign Language by two Native American princesses. Sisters Kay Cooper and Pat Kopesah traveled from Anadarko to Oklahoma City to sing several Kiowa prayer songs for the crowd.
Walkers were treated to traditional soup and cornbread made by members of the Native American community, but not before the Rev. Junior Pratt, a member of the Pawnee Nation, shared a gospel message as dusk descended on the lawn of the First Americans Museum. At a time when the state and nation are in the midst of a divisive election season and polarizing issues, Pratt spoke about the criminals who were crucified alongside Jesus, as chronicled in the Bible. Jesus hung on a cross in the center, while one criminal hung on a cross to the left of him and another to his right.
“Folks, we do live in a crazy time ― ain’t nobody here that is going to deny that,” Pratt said. “But in the time that we live in, there has got to be something true. … There’s got to be one place of truth ― it’s got to be found in the word of God. All that mattered was the one hanging in the middle. That’s the great truth that our country needs to know. There’s no left and there’s no right. There’s only one in the middle and his name is Jesus Christ.”
Meanwhile, Lisa Billy, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, said she was encouraged by the turnout for Sunday’s walk.
“I thought today was amazing,” she said. “There have been many who have been praying over this and it’s been an amazing day. I’m so thankful ― we were just literally bringing in the presence of the Holy Spirit.”
Todd Schatzman said he and his wife, Cindy, had been to all but one of the walks and they appreciated the efforts to bring people together.
“We don’t ask, ‘What church are you from?’ We come together and worship and praise a God who has created all men and women in his image,” Schatzman said. “This just brings joy to my heart. I believe if you worship as a group, we may not agree on everything, but that goes away when we worship together.”
Walkers on a mission
The Stronger Together movement, founded by the Rev. Clarence Hill, began conducting the Peace Walks in May on a mission to unify the community.
Monday, Hill said he was pleased with the first Peace Walk season. He said he wanted to start the Peace Walks because he saw communities that had been overlooked and they felt pushed out of the conversation when there were conflicting ideas and expectations. There was a need to makes spaces for people to come together, he said.
“The narratives have been driven a lot by the political divide, and what has happened is that communities have moved away from the table instead of to the table together,” he said. “Oftentimes, they feel misunderstood. I’m not saying who is right and who is wrong, but there are a lot of people in Oklahoma of decent and high character who want to come together for mutual solutions, instead of division. We simply believe that there is a better way to get to tomorrow.”
The inaugural walk was held in May in south Oklahoma City, where walkers listened to the personal stories of ministers and other residents from the Hispanic community as they talked about the needs and dreams of people living in their part of the city. The second walk was held in June. It focused on northeast Oklahoma City and featured messages from civil rights leaders and social justice activists from different generations. In August, a third walk highlighted the stories of the Asian community, with several speakers sharing their stories of coming from immigrant families hoping to start new lives in Oklahoma.
A fourth walk on Sept. 11 highlighted the stories of first responders. The fifth walk, held in Norman in October, focused on the work of Hill, pastor of Norman’s Antioch Community Church, and others involved in community unification efforts.
Sunday, Hill spoke briefly to walkers, encouraging them to participate in future unity initiatives.
“This is just beautiful,” he said. “I would hope that next year, we would be so intentional to create these spaces where we can be together. Hopefully we can break through something so that our children won’t have to deal with all these divisions.”