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The Rev. Jesse Jackson, other faith, political leaders, help dedicate Prayer Wall for Racial Healing at Vernon AME Church
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Tulsa Race Massacre

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, other faith, political leaders, help dedicate Prayer Wall for Racial Healing at Vernon AME Church

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A century after it somehow survived the burning and destruction all around it, one of the basement walls at Tulsa’s Vernon AME Church has been given a new future and a new purpose.

As part of commemoration activities Monday for the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, members of the historic church and the community came together to officially dedicate Vernon’s Prayer Wall of Racial Healing.

Well over 200 attended the event, which included contributions from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other faith and political leaders, both local and national.

“We pray that this program touches your heart and touches your soul,” the Rev. Robert Turner, Vernon pastor, told the crowd, which packed the grounds around the wall, an area that will be further developed into a prayer garden.

The prayer wall, located on the south side of the church, is an exterior wall of the church’s basement, which was the only part of the then-unfinished building to survive the 1921 massacre.

Turner said restoration of the wall was completed as part of the first phase in the larger ongoing restoration of the aging facility, 311 N. Greenwood Ave.

He said the idea for the prayer wall was inspired by the story behind the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, a wall that also survived destruction and became a site of prayer.

“I’ve never had the good pleasure to go, but I’ve seen people of all faiths praying at that wall,” Turner said.

He said Vernon’s wall, in much the same spirit, is intended to draw all faiths.

“Christians are not the only people that have a problem with racism,” he said. “There is racism in every religion in this world. And it is important that all of us come and seek wisdom and guidance from God.”

Underscoring that idea, faith leaders representing different traditions were invited to be part of the prayer wall dedication.

Rabbi Marc Fitzerman of Tulsa’s Congregation B’nai Emunah said, “We have seen the pictures of the smoking ruins of Greenwood. … And that smoke still clings to the shape of this city.”

“But Vernon AME remains,” the rabbi added. “The ground floor that was gutted did not remain gutted forever. This building arose because a determined congregation refused to be erased.

“And now it has a wall to focus the prayers of all people, to serve as a place to speak truth and righteousness, to concentrate our thoughts about love and respect, to act as a container for hope and restoration. … It will serve our community for generations.”

Offering prayers at the event were the Rev. David Konderla, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa; the Rev. Poulson Reed, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma; and the Rev. Shannon Fleck, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches.

Representatives of the Islamic and Buddhist communities participated, as well.

The Rev. William J. Barber, a minister and national political activist, used the occasion to affirm his support for survivors and descendants of the massacre and the ongoing push to secure reparations.

“The blood is still speaking,” he said. “You can kill the people, but you cannot kill the voice of their blood. And the blood can’t rest until reparations come. You can’t cover over the blood by trying to make a tourist event out of a tragedy.”

Barber added: “The only way we can honor those that were killed and murdered is we must be more powerful than even they were — so that nothing like this ever happens again in public policy or in public violence.”

Joining the clergy were a trio of national lawmakers in town for the centennial.

They included U.S. Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware and Barbara Lee of California, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, along with U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, also of Delaware.

“This wall behind me endured the flames of hate,” Coons said. “It stood strong and resilient. And today we gather to dedicate it as a place of prayer, of hope, of gathering and of renewal. … Thank you for what you’re doing by being here, and let us all put our hearts and hands and spirit to the work that remains undone.”

Both Rochester and Lee linked the call for massacre reparations to a current push nationally for reparations for slavery.

“Prayer does lead to healing, I know that,” Lee said. “And we have reason to be hopeful today because in that healing, prayer leads to transformation. Which means we must repair the damage and we must support reparations.”

Turner recognized others who were in the crowd but did not participate in the ceremony. They included philanthropists Stacy Schusterman and George Kaiser, and Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum.

Jackson closed out the dedication, making his remarks in call-and-response fashion.

“Racism is a disease,” he said, as many in the audience recited along. “Racists are mentally ill. They believe God made a mistake, making someone other than their own race. But that’s not so. God did not make a mistake.

“We are God’s children — red and yellow, brown, black and white. We are all precious in God’s sight.”

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