Tulsa and Desert Spring Church: A Relationship and a Note of Hope

For more than a decade, Desert Spring United Methodist Church has had an indirect but meaningful relationship to Tulsa, Oklahoma. That relationship has had an impact not only upon the life of our Church and our spirituality, but upon our Christian vision of a healthier American society. For some time before he left Las Vegas, one of our members, Geoffrey Woodson, played in our Praise Band. He had taught in the Tulsa public schools before coming to our city; and he had played a role in the establishment of the Jazz Museum in the state of Oklahoma. Today, we also have at least one member in our Church from the city that describes itself as the “Oil Capital” of the world. In other ways, too, we have also been a beneficiary of our contact with Tulsa.

This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the infamous Tulsa Riot. At this critical juncture in our national life, that tragic event vividly reminds us of the pain and senselessness of violence in our culture and what it can do for relationships. That riot began with an outrageous lie about an incident that never happened in downtown Tulsa. Yet it led to the creation of a mob, and to destruction that devastated more than thirty-two blocks of Tulsa’s hard-working and law abiding black community–including one of the most prosperous black business areas in America at the time, a section proudly called “Black Wall Street.” Within less than two days, most of it was gone! Churches, too, fell to the torch, including popular Mount Zion Baptist, which had to pay off a remaining mortgage. Determined black Christians did that; and then they rebuilt the church which still stands today in North Tulsa! The destruction of churches, homes, and other property in Tulsa, however, only aggravated the bitterness and pain of those who had lost loved ones, perhaps as many as 300 black souls.

For years, many Oklahomans preferred to “let the dead past bury the dead!” The riot took place, they exclaimed, “so let’s move on.” There were those, nevertheless, who could not easily accept such casual dismissal of what had taken place in 1921. After many decades, Tulsa has begun to remember its past and to acknowledge the existence of continuing racial challenges. It has chosen to take important steps forward. The city has established the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation and a City Park, named for one of its most famous native sons, the late and distinguished American historian. And after one hundred years, the state and city are presently engaged in an excavation project to discover any mass graves of blacks murdered in the massacre.

The beginning of this essay mentioned the connection–albeit indirect–between our Church and the City of Tulsa. There is yet another attachment that both of them have in their peaceful efforts to move toward healthier race relations. One of the most important churches in Tulsa to stress the need for racial progress is that city’s Unitarian-Universalist Church. When one of our forward-looking members proposed the idea for a Mission that would explore “Common Ground,” among people who shared Christian ideals, two of the people who graciously provided help in that endeavor were members of the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Tulsa!

As we continue to acknowledge the value of diversity in our culture, Tulsa’s past history can speak to us here and across America. It can tell us that looking back can remind a democratic society, built essentially upon a Judeo-Christian ethic, of the need to re-examine our painful, almost debilitating past; and that may excite within us a Christian willingness to examine courageously personal relationships. Sober reflection, if we permit it, can speak to us with great clarity, and it can highlight an unmistakable historical truth–that once upon a time practically all of our families in our land were “the other.”