Moor or less: Two churches sponsor a race while talking about race

A few fast runners led the way, followed by a bunch of dedicated joggers and then a lot of carefree walkers at last Saturday’s 5K Peace Run that started and finished at Olivet AME Church on Notre Dame Avenue.

All the participants, no matter what their speed, had at least one thing in common: They completed the course by taking it one step at a time.

And that’s pretty much what my church, Sunnyside Presbyterian and a co-sponsor of the run, and Olivet AME, South Bend’s oldest traditionally Black church, are trying to do when it comes to discussions on race.

We’re taking it one step at a time.

Race director Jeff Thomas, top center, is surrounded by some of the 5K Peace Run finishers.

The 5K run (3.1 miles for those who don’t speak metric) was the culmination of a shared effort by our two congregations. But before we were able to get our hands involved in a project like this, we needed to get our heads together. Committees from both churches have been meeting and talking about race and each other for more than a year.

Enlightening conversations … invigorating conversations … and sometimes uncomfortable conversations.

It started out a little unsettling, to be honest. I suggested a picnic to begin our bonding. Jeff Thomas, who has headed Olivet’s side of this venture, told me to hold off on the potato salad and plastic silverware.

“We don’t know each other,” he basically said. “We need to talk first, examine where we come from and ask some tough questions if we’re going to accomplish anything. Then we can sit down and break bread together.”

Okaaaay. He backed me on my heels a little, but he was right.

Four or five of us from each church started out by watching a forum featuring  Bryan Stevenson, the author of “Just Mercy,” and the lawyer who has represented poor people — mostly Blacks — on death row in the South. Then we talked about it pretty intensely.

In later meetings — mostly on Zoom —  we began talking about ourselves and our own views on race and how they might have evolved over the years. A few of us admitted there were times in our past we weren’t necessarily proud of.

It was cathartic. It was kind of cool. It was a plus for both of our churches.

We aren’t the only churches to pair up in our area. I’ve been told that members of Our Lady of Loretto on the Saint Mary’s campus and Abundant Faith Family Ministries have been meeting regularly as have Gloria Dei Lutheran on South Bend’s southeast side and First English Lutheran in Mishawaka. I’m sure there are others, too.

Pastors Joel Moody and Susan Arner of Sunnyside Presbyterian Church ran the 5K Peace Run in their robes.

After our groups from Sunnyside and Olivet got to know each other better, we started to work together on the 5K Peace Run. Olivet has sponsored it in the past with Jeff Thomas as the dedicated race director.

“It was great to finally get our hands dirty,” said Marylou Deardorff of Sunnyside about getting to the point where we could roll up our sleeves and share a project together.

The Peace Run benefits Heroes Camp in Mishawaka that helps underserved youth through athletics and spiritual guidance. its mission is to “provide a Godly example of what a father is to look like and help alleviate the pressures of the single parent household.”

For the run, many of Olivet’s stalwarts helped out and Sunnyside had 50 people who either participated or volunteered.

Some of the people who cheered on the competitors were retired South Bend fire chief Howard Buchanon, retired assistant police chief Lynn Coleman, city councilman Henry Davis Jr., longtime educator and Olivet member Alma Powell and Heroes Camp founders Pat and B.J. Magley.

Gavin Stabnik, 13 years old and a member of Sunnyside, won the race n 19:12. (Full disclosure: He’s my grandson who I once thought was too lazy to be a distance runner.) P.J. Perri, a Heroes Camps director, was second.

But the real excitement came after the speedsters with everyone coming in coated in sweat on this warm but beautiful morning and looking like they couldn’t have had a better time. Pastors Joel Moody and Susan Arner of Sunnyside even ran in their robes just to add to the fun.

There was a point in the run where it seemed like a Black runner would finish … and then a white … and then a Black … and then a white … all of them running their own races but mixing together and, in some ways, running as one. 

We’ll keep at this, slowly but surely, one step at a time, while continuing to pull other members into our quest to better understand each other and get to be friends.

And while we’re at it, maybe I can convince Jeff that it’s about time for that picnic.