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What can today's church learn from Civil Rights Movement? Edmond pastor's class explores that

Eric Laverentz [Photo provided]
Eric Laverentz [Photo provided]

Editor's note: This story is part of an ongoing series of stories exploring how Oklahoma faith communities have confronted racism and bigotry.

EDMOND — The Rev. Eric Laverentz's parents gave him a book of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s writings for Christmas.

As a student at an all-white high school in a rural Missouri city, Laverentz was intrigued by their gift of "A Testament of Hope," King's collected works.

His interest reached another level years later when he took a class about the civil rights leader's theology while studying at Princeton Theological Seminary. He ultimately did his graduate work at Princeton and Vanderbilt University exploring the Civil Rights Movement.

Laverentz, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Edmond, hopes to share some of the lessons he gleaned. He's leading an eight-week class exploring the biblical foundation of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

The class, titled "A Great Cloud of Witnesses: the Theology Behind the Civil Rights Movement," is set to begin at 6 p.m. Wednesday at First Presbyterian-Edmond, 1001 S Rankin. It will continue through May 12, excluding March 17 for spring break. People may participate in person or online. Attendees are asked to register and give a $10 donation for a book of readings to help defray the costs for all participants.

Laverentz said he decided to offer the class because he thinks its important to highlight the ways scripture informed the decisions made by civil rights leaders like King. He said he also wants to shine a spotlight on several lesser known civil rights leaders who aren't discussed as often as the slain civil rights icon.

"He was a very important figure, but there were a lot of other leaders, and I want to make sure they get their due, as well," Laverentz said.

The movement's biblical beginnings aren't often talked about, he said, and "Christians today can learn a lot from our brothers and sisters of the Black Church that lived that out."

"What people don't understand, especially early on, was that it was a church movement. There were a lot of other things going on, but what really moved the heart of the nation were followers of Jesus Christ. That's what changed people's hearts, and that's what's been lost. I think that's what we we need today, as well — Christians to follow Jesus boldly and not be dependent upon what the government may or may not do for us," Laverentz said.

"We need to let the church play the role the church is supposed to play, which is changing hearts."

'We can learn from it'

Laverentz has been senior pastor of First Presbyterian-Edmond for almost five years. He said he thinks his predominantly white church will respond favorably to the class.

"I think they'll respond well. They hear this message from me in the pulpit a lot, about the need for the church to be engaged and involved in society and culture but doing it in a very biblical manner, a very Christ-like manner, a very Holy Spirit-filled manner, and not dependent upon what others may do," he said. "They hear me often say that we're supposed to be the leaders; we're not supposed to look for government to fix everything. We have to do it and do it by the power of the Holy Spirit in us and not getting drug into wanting to disparage our neighbor, or drag them down or cancel them but to love our neighbor and most importantly, love God."

Laverentz said the class will include some guest speakers and videos in addition to readings. Among the guest speakers will be Joyce Henderson, a local civil rights leader who participated in the sit-ins to integrate the Katz Drug Store lunch counter in the late 1950s in Oklahoma City. Also, Laverentz said the class will explore books like University of Oklahoma history professor David L. Chappell's "Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow." Other books that will be part of the class discussion include "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down" by slain civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy and a book called "Balm in Gilead," written by one of Laverentz's college professors, Lewis Baldwin.

The preacher said the class is perhaps one of the ways he can contribute to the ongoing dialogue about eradicating racial inequality in America.

"Sometimes as a white person, you sometimes wonder what you have to contribute or what you have to add because clearly we're still dealing with a legacy of racism, and there's still active racism. You sometimes struggle because in some cases, you're told not to say anything because you don't have a dog in this fight. On the other hand, we second guess ourselves a lot," he said.

"For me, God gave me this education and setting and passion when I was in graduate school, and I don't see it being talked about a lot today. So I thought this is a good opportunity to bring it up, and we can learn from it. And, the good part is it's not just history. It is, but if there's no application to the present, if there's no application to today, then it won't be worth anything. We need to find ways to apply and use it and learn it."

Laverentz said Chappell, in his book "Stone of Hope," looked at some of the sermons delivered by some white preachers opposed to the Civil Rights Movement as it was taking place.

"They just stopped talking about it when it became clear they couldn't reconcile biblical theology with racism, and I think culture is paying a price for that because the church is so privately invested in our own affairs," Laverentz said.

"We need to find our distinct Christ-like voice in all of this, and I think we can learn from the Black church of the 1950s and 1960s."

Faith Editor Carla Hinton edits The Oklahoman’s Spiritual Life section, and covers faith and spirituality plus other topics for the newspaper and Contact her with story ideas and comments at Please support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a subscription today at

Going on

"A Great Cloud of Witness: The Theology Behind the Civil Rights Movement"

When: 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 10 through May 12 (excluding March 17).

Where: First Presbyterian Church of Edmond, 1001 S Rankin, Edmond.

Cost: $10 fee includes a book of readings.

Registration: Click the "Events" link at

Carla Hinton

Carla Hinton, an Oklahoma City native, joined The Oklahoman in 1986 as a National Society of Newspaper Editors minority intern. She began reporting full-time for The Oklahoman two years later and has served as a beat writer covering a wide... Read more ›