Conversation and storytelling: anti-racism and empathy

Hamline’s 2022 Mahle Lectures took place on March 10-13. One event included storytelling and a panel discussion further exploring this year’s topic around anti-racism and community repair.

Anika Besst and Cathryn Salis

You could hear a pin drop in Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church’s art gallery, clad with huge paintings of Eurocentric angels and depictions of Jesus, on March 13.  A story told by professor Tesfa Wondenmagegnehu was unfolding before an audience of the church’s elders, members of the community and Hamline students.

The storytelling event was part of Hamline’s annual Mahle Lectures, titled this year: “Let’s Not Go Back to Normal: Racial Reckoning, Repair, and Reconciliation.” 

During this event, Wondemagegnehu recounted the story of his 60-day journey across the United States. He traveled to locations where Black people were victims of police brutality and violence and he asked members of the community, “what do we need to repair our communities?”

In his story, Wondemagegnehu weaved in hymns from his childhood, “melodies that came into [his] heart” throughout his 60-day journey. 

Wondemagegnehu shared stories about witnessing apathy and empathy along his journey after meeting people who had a range of opinions and feelings towards the killings of Black people and the Black Lives Matter movement. He talked about the impact of capitalism and the historical events that impact society and regions of the country still today such as the Compromise of 1877 that, in short, ended the Reconstruction Era or the Rosewood Massacre of 1923 in Florida. He also spoke about the importance of allies and supporters putting their bodies on the line to not let the deaths of members of the Black community continue. 

A talk back with Mahle lecture panelists followed Wondemagegnehu’s story and discussed topics mentioned by him before fielding questions from the audience. Topics included empathy, the relationship between the white and Black communities, the concept of history, recognition and leverage of one’s power and privilege, accountability, Black joy and liberation. 

Poet Joe Davis was first to speak from the panel and discussed the importance of relationship building and caring for one’s self and each other in this work. 

“This work moves at the pace of relationship… [it] isn’t about Black people versus white people, it is about everybody versus racism and systems of oppression. So we all have a role to play and yes, there are different amounts of trauma, there are different amounts of power and privilege but my question is how are we using that power and privilege to benefit those who are being harmed and how are we healing from our trauma? I think that requires us to calm down and to build these relationships and listen to each other,” Davis said. 

 Rev. Dr. Curtis Paul DeYoung called attention to the word “co-conspirator” which Wondemagegnehu used in his story to describe historical figures, John Parker, a free Black man who helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad, and John Rankin, a white man who helped Parker. 


“Empathy is one thing, it helps us feel, but there needs to be an action that comes out of the feeling. It’s not being the white savior,” DeYoung said. “The word we use a lot is allies… but co-conspirator is a stronger term… co-conspirator, to me, is like this is for the long-haul, I am taking risks and this might cost me something.”

Rev. Nekima Levy Armstrong, Civil Rights attorney, former Law Professor and Freedom Fighter, reminded the audience that it is important for white people to remember “history is now,” when discussing the importance of storytelling and living out one’s faith versus saying one does. 

“We tend to think of American history or biblical history as something that happened a long time ago… but we need to begin to see ourselves in those stories. That’s what helped awaken me, cause I went through the education system just like everyone else, I went through the college system just like a lot of you…and you are conditioned to think a certain way in this society,” Armstrong said. 

She also brought up the fact that Minneapolis is ground zero for this work and that there are so many ways of getting involved whether it be protesting, using one’s power or calling legislatures, amongst other ways. 

Dr. Alton B. Pollard, III, brought up the turbulence of his community, Louisville, the location of Breonna Taylor’s killing exactly two years ago from the day of the panel. 

He mentioned the importance of recognizing if we have enough “wherewithal” to allow others into our care and hearts.

“The safest place that another person can be is within another person’s heart,” Pollard said. 

He also discussed the importance of finding one’s way home and the way members of his family never wanted to go back to Mississippi after leaving, living near where Emmett Till was lynched.

“It took this week to realize that I have been in the same predicament for not wanting to come back to Minnesota for my own traumatic experience of growing up in blizzard-like conditions that had nothing to do with the weather,” Pollard said. 

Arnett Arne mentioned the importance of healing. 

“I think about healing the most today and what that means and for us, Black people and other marginalized people, of course, we have to heal ourselves and find our way to our true selves because this world never wants us to see that. It’s always the gross, warped representation of what we are in white people’s eyes,” Arne said. “We want to have joy, we want to be loving, we want to be welcoming…we have to think about wanting to be in those spaces because I do think that’s the spirit of who we’re meant to be, but also think about what barriers there are to it, and what lack of safety there is in that often, because we have to think about what we are met with. So I would advise white people, even in the spiritual sense, to think about, throughout history, what have you done when you have been shown hospitality?” 

Arne discussed the impact economics has on this conversation. 

“Dr. Martin Luther King] said it, all the things that did not cost money they were able to do, integrate the lunch counters, get voting rights, but as soon as you start talking about reparations in the form of money that’s where people get upset. And it’s not truly about the money, it’s about your relationship with loss and risk and what you’re willing to give up…This room is interesting because white people love painting Jesus in their image instead of living in his image,” Arne said.  

Earlier in the day, Wondemagegnehu spoke at a church worship service about a story of his trip. While in Ferguson seeing where Michael Brown was shot, he remembered his dad lives in St. Louis. He decided to reach out and eventually stopped to see his father who he had not visited in some time and had an absent relationship with for most of his life. For him, seeing his dad gave him an opportunity to learn repentance and the important act that empathy plays in loving those around you. 

On the journey, he told the story of seeing his dad and repentance to friends he visited, and these friends told him, “you can say it in this space, but if you don’t say it to people who you have harmed, it is performative,” about addressing repentance. 

Chaplain Kelly Figueroa-Ray, along with help from members of the Hamline community and other organizations and groups, arranged the Mahle Lecture events. She is thankful for the many people who allowed the events to go so well. 

Professor Tesfa Wondemagegnehu worked tirelessly with us and is the reason we pulled together such an amazing group of panelists and set of events. We give thanks to Dr. Iva Carruthers, Dr. Alton B. Pollard, III, Rev. Nekima Levy Armstrong, Joe Davis, Arnett Arnett, and Rev. Dr. Curtiss Paul DeYoung for their gifts of wisdom and the work that they do everyday on the ground to repair our communities,” Figueroa-Ray wrote in an email. 

Wondemagegnehu accepted no honorarium for his work, Figueroa-Ray included. He would like his honorarium to be directed to people doing repair work in the community. As a nonprofit organization, Hamline is unable to pay businesses or individuals on Tesfa’s behalf, or other nonprofit organizations. 

“He’s hoping one day an institution will do just that – so proceeds generated from his repair efforts can go directly to people doing repair work in our communities,” Figueroa-Ray said. “For now, for all the work he has been doing with us–and across the country with a number of other institutions over the past year–he’s not found one institution to do it. So he goes unpaid for his labor.”

There was worship, lunch, storytelling and a panel on March 13. The lectures began on March 10 at Hamline. 


To watch Mahle Lecture events, please visit: