At an event commemorating the birthday of slain civil rights leader and minister Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a local pastor challenged members of his audience to do their part to end division.
“It seems like the division has run so deep, and how can we overcome it? It’s really disheartening,” Chris Hopkins, lead pastor of Reimage Church, told hundreds viewing the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce’s annual Community Unity event online. The event, now in its 25th year, has been held virtually the last two years due to COVID-19.
Hopkins, whose church is known as one of the most racially diverse in eastern North Carolina, said that while it was a privilege to be asked to speak for King’s birthday, the honor belongs to his congregation.
“It’s the people of Reimage Church who have really fought the battles, and I get to stand here and represent them today,” he said. “Many of our people have fought battles that I will never have to fight, but they also have taught me the battles I will have to fight in this war are worth fighting.”
Hopkins, who is white, said Reimage is often asked how it manages to reflect the racial diversity of its community. The Greenville native said one reason might be is that founding pastor John Zabawski did not sound like a white pastor on his radio programs.
“Therefore, different people would show up on Sundays and they would be surprised at what they found at our church,” Hopkins said. “In 1980 and 1985, if the people walking into the front door of the church at the same time as you didn’t look like you, you expected that you were in the wrong place.”
Moving with his family to Carteret County and later spending three years in New York after graduating from East Carolina University, Hopkins said he encountered racism in different forms no matter where he lived.
Referring to King’s often-quoted comment that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday,” Hopkins said the problem persists more than 50 years later.
“Division is still a problem today,” he said. “Division exists in us, and really, if we’re honest, division exists because of us.”
Hopkins said the same can be said for nationalism, sexism, ageism, racism and “any other ‘ism’ you can think of.”
“I want to tell us today that division can stop with me,” he said. “I think the better solution is to go back to the root of the actual problem, which is the fact that we don’t esteem people with dignity. Because we are all made in the image of God, we have dignity or worth that you cannot put a price tag on.”
As King did in numerous speeches, Hopkins made reference to the story of the Good Samaritan. A New Testament story that Jesus told, it involves a man who is beaten, robbed and then overlooked by people who would have been expected to help him. The man is left for dead until he receives help from a Samaritan, someone who would have been considered his enemy.
“The poor man who was beaten wasn’t anything like him,” Hopkins said. “He wasn’t in his in group. It was a risk for the good Samaritan even to step into that situation, yet he did it anyway.
“The question asked (in the biblical story) was, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ and Jesus turns it on its head and says, ‘Who was a neighbor to that man?’ Mr. Rogers used to sing a song, ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ But I think the better option Jesus is saying here is, can I be a neighbor to you? Those two things are not the same. One of them involves you coming and being a part of where I already am, and the other involves me stepping into the place where you are.”
Citing individualism as a driving force in today’s culture, Hopkins said people are often too concerned with their own personal success to care about others. But he said individuals can make a decision to end division.
“We (need to) say, ‘People, in my eyes, have value; they have value that there’s no replacement for,’” he said. “If instead of trying to overcome our difference, we value the things that make us different we will see that the things we thought we were protecting ourselves from actually make us better.”
More than half a dozen speakers made brief remarks at Monday’s event, including C.M. Eppes Middle School student Morgan Taylor, 12. With her father, G. Todd Taylor, she co-authored “Daddy’s Little Princess,” a children’s book designed to promote diversity by introducing readers to African queens and princesses.
The seventh-grader paid tribute to King as a teacher, historian and activist.
“King spoke about the death of Medgar Evers, while my generation will speak about the death of George Floyd,” she said. “… We are living in the middle of so much chaos. It’s scary to think how things change yet remain the same.”
In her comments, Morgan, who was named the city’s Youth of the Year in 2019 and Miss Preteen International in 2021, shared her concerns regarding issues including voting access, the criminal justice system, segregation and funding for schools.
“By no means am I complaining,” she said. “This is a call to action. As Dr. King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”
The event can be viewed at //www.facebook.com/GPCChamber.