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Change in America will happen from the bottom up, not the top down, as recent demonstrations and social media campaigns have shown, said the Rev. Larry Hill, keynote speaker at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 25.

Racial parity and civil rights advancement, the tenants that King lived and died for, won’t come as a result of work by the nation’s leaders, Hill believes. They start, he said, with “the everyday man and woman on the street who simply wants a country where everyone has equal access

“It’s not dependent on politicians to help this movement go forward. I put my trust in the everyday people who will make it happen. That’s part of what Dr. King taught. And it’s a good strategy for trying to make some of the changes that have to be made.”

Hill, an author and pastor of the Woodland Presbyterian Church in Paw Creek (near Charlotte) will speak at the 27th annual prayer breakfast, held at Camp Dorothy Walls Conference & Retreat Center in Black Mountain. He received his bachelor of arts degree in religious education from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte and his master of divinity degree from the university’s theological seminary, where he was later named a distinguished alumnus.

He received the doctor of ministry degree from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia in 1990. Hill was ordained Oct. 5, 1974 in Ridgeway, South Carolina and has served churches in Huntersville; Charlotte; Sumter, South Carolina; and Augusta, Georgia.

In 1996, Hill was pastor of Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church in Charlotte when, police said, a 13-year-old girl set fire to its former sanctuary. The fire, part of a rash of fires that ruined black churches in the South, met with an unexpected reaction. Instead of blaming the girl and seeking justice, Hill and other church members met with the girl and prayed for her.

“We recognized that she was a troubled child,” Hill said in an interview last week. “We were not about to try to make her do hard time in jail. We wanted to help her and her parents and community, like Dr. King would have. She needed help, not vengeance.”

Hill and the pastor of the girl’s church became friends. The two pastors preached at each other’s churches. They arranged for the two congregations to meet. Hill attended the girl’s court hearing and asked the judge to be lenient.

“We were interested in getting her in a position of turning her life around,” he said.

Then-Sen. Lauch Faircloth invited Hill to testify before a congressional committee looking into the spate of church burnings. President Clinton asked Hill to advise him. Hill discussed the fire on national TV. He acted as a consultant to U.S. Justice Department workshops held across the South about preventing further fires.

“I was given an opportunity to try to make difference (during a time) when things could have gotten out of hand,” Hill said. “That was one time I felt a pressure to make a difference in a way that helped the community get through this.”

The MLK prayer breakfasts held around the country annually are still sorely needed, he said.

“We have to realize that even though we have made significant progress during and after (King’s) time, that progress today is not being fulfilled in a significant way for a lot of people in our country and the world. There are still significant amounts of poverty in our country and the world. There are still people working 40 hours a week who can’t pay their bills. There is still evidence of hatred, and until that has abated, we still have a whole lot of work to do.”

A lot of what Hill heard from President Trumps’ campaign last year was antithetical to King’s teachings of acceptance and love, he said.

“People can take that to mean that this administration and some people outside of it, associated with it, can use it to undo some of the progress that Dr. King made,” Hill said. Nonetheless, Hill is willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, for now.

“He said he’d be willing to be good to black people. I’m willing to give him a chance to do that,” Hill said. “We’ll be watching to see if he’s going to live up to that.”

Hill lays the blame for much of “racial acrimony” at the feet of “preachers, politicians and pundits,” he said. If they were listening instead of talking, they’d understand that “everyday people” want change and equality, he said. He compares the situation to an organized baseball game for children.

“The kids just want to have a good time, but it’s the parents who get upset” for various reasons, such as umpires’ calls or coaches’ decisions, he said. Similarly, the nation’s leaders often get in the way of solutions to racial problems, he believes.

“It’s those of us on the street every day working with each other who can really get these problems solved,” he said. “I am probably never going to shake hands with the president or a member of the Supreme Court. But I will meet (people) at the mall and at church. It is there that you begin to build relations with people, like Dr. King and so many others worked so hard to do. I want to impress on the people that I meet – let’s make a difference from the bottom up and not necessarily from the top down.”

Hill believes the children and grandchildren of people his age are more likely to put into action King’s teachings.

“They have come up pretty much having to interact with people that are different from them,” he said. “They learn from an early age that these people are not as bad as people portrayed” them to be. They see that their peers think like them and love the same things they love.

“At an early age, they get along. That’s the message of Dr. King,” he said.

Want to go?

Tickets to the 27th Annual Swannanoa Valley Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 25 - $15 adults, $6 children - are available at svmlk.org. Doors open at 8 a.m.

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