by Jim Boyle
The life and legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were held up in song this past Sunday at two
Elk River churches — in the hope that efforts to see his dream through to the end will continue.
Recording artist and actress Tonia Hughes performed a memorial concert at Central Lutheran Church as a benefit for D.I.V.I.N.E. Institute, an inner-city ministry for children aimed at Developing Interests Vital in Nurturing Education.
The popular entertainer, whose most recent work includes playing the Fairy Godmother in the Ordway’s production of “Cinderella: The Glass Slipper,” sang worship songs and selections from her latest release, “I’m ready now.”
Earlier in the day, Union Congregational Church welcomed Woody Mann, a world-class acoustic guitar master and song-writing storyteller.
Proceeds from this event will be used by the church — in part to pursue justice for the silent, marginalized and oppressed. An added attraction was the work of Rana Nestrud’s Elk River High School AP studio art class that tackled Martin Luther King-inspired material.
Hughes shared the stage with children from D.I.V.I.N.E. Institute, who sang their hearts out, and some of their parents, who praised the power of the pre-collegiate academic organization that promotes fun, games and prizes via learning.
This organization reaches youth in an arcade-like environment that includes stand-up arcade machines, Xbox 360’s with Kinect, Playstation 3’s and Wii’s.
In the summer, participants create a wish list and earn the items from their list by learning 50 advanced vocabulary words, reading, showing excellent social etiquette and internalizing proverbs.
“It takes the right circumstances and the right people,” said Elaine Landrum, a single parent of two children. “Children who are challenged will rise to the occasion.”
The Landrums come all the way from Chicago to access the program, and they will be back this coming summer to learn more vocabulary, etiquette and real-life skills.
Shonda Ofil, a single parent who lives in Oakdale, has one of the youngest participants, because the program allows siblings to join.
Evan Landrum, a 6-year-old affectionately known as “Butter,” shared that he loves using the iPads and one of the words he learned at the summer camp. It was “tirade,” which he said was a long, drawn-out speech.
Another proud mother shared how she has two children — one who gets straight A’s, loves to study and always puts her homework first, and a son who is a “challenge.”
Getting him to work on homework was tough enough, let alone getting him to finish it. Once in D.I.V.I.N.E., things changed, though.
“Sometimes children don’t have confidence,” Ofil said. “This program is truly a blessing.”
Menia Buckner, who is married and resides in north Minneapolis, talked about how it takes a village to raise a child.
“Because of the village, my children are outstanding young people,” Buckner said.
One of her children, a daughter who is now 24, is one of the oldest participants. She is now a candidate to be accepted into a master’s degree program for social work at the University of Minnesota.
D.I.V.I.N.E. Institute evolved from a housewife (Aretta-Rie Johnson) attempting to provide a structured environment for her young children during the summer months.
When relatives and friends discovered what Johnson was doing with her children in the summer, she received many requests to take in additional school-age children in her home for the same wholesome rigor.
The children thoroughly enjoyed the home-based program and word-of-mouth traveled to the extent that an organized program was needed.
D.I.V.I.N.E. Institute has helped many children since 1999. Johnson has been offering children a better choice of words (verbal advantage) as well as their diurnal table manners (business and social acumen). While doing graduate work at Capella University, she used her grantsmanship class to properly organize D.I.V.I.N.E. as a nonprofit organization as well as apply for its tax exemption status.
Central Lutheran Church has been a financial sponsor of the program.
D.I.V.I.N.E. Institute focuses on broadening vocabulary, courtesy and manners, exploring professional careers, critical thinking, reading and improved personal study habits.
Mann performed songs of Rev. Davis
The Woody Mann concert was an effort to build on the work of the church since it had the Twin Cities Gospel Choir out last year.
It was a chance for Mann, who is the brother of the Rev. Dana Mann, to perform some of the work of the Rev. Gary Davis, a legendary blues, gospel and ragtime guitarist who provided Mann’s first musical schooling.
Davis was a blind street musician who played in storefront churches in New York. Mann is working on a documentary about Davis’ life.
“He used his guitar to get people to sing,” Mann said.
The street performer and pastor never took credit for his song writing. He would say it was revealed to him or something along those lines.
Mann complemented Davis’ tutelage with formal training at New York’s celebrated Julliard School. In addition, he completed a period of intense study with noted Chicago-born pianist, Lennie Tristano.
Mann has performed with blues legends Son House and Bukka White, British great Jo Kelly and fingerstyle wizard John Fahey.
Mann has pursued a rich and diverse career that has included playing with jazz great Attila Zoller, accompanying songwriter Dory Previn, giving guitar lessons to recording artist Paul Simon and performing in more than 15 countries and recording 11 albums.
Person of prayer
The Rev. Bjorn Dixon shared a story at Central about Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s wife, who wrote about a memory in her book, “Standing in the Need of Prayer.” She wrote: “For my husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., prayer was a daily source of courage and strength that gave him the ability to carry on in even the darkest hours of our struggle.
“I remember one very difficult day when he came home bone-weary from the stress that came with his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In the middle of that night, he was awakened by a threatening and abusive phone call, one of many we received throughout the movement. On this particular occasion, however, Martin had had enough.
“After the call, he got up from bed and made himself some coffee. He began to worry about his family, and all of the burdens that came with our movement weighed heavily on his soul. With his head in his hands, Martin bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud to God: ‘Lord, I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’
“Later he told me, ‘At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear a voice saying: “Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth; and God will be at our side forever.”’
“When Martin stood up from the table, he was imbued with a new sense of confidence, and he was ready to face anything.”
Those who attended the services at Central Lutheran or Union Congregational were encouraged to move about with conviction and action in pursuit of King’s dreams.