The national post-election racial climate mirrors America from half a century ago, a local pastor says, pointing to a time of unrest, anger and hate speech from the 1960s.

“We are at a place where things are almost toxic,” said the Rev. Jane Sims, co-pastor and co-founder of Calvary Community Church in Columbus. “The level of racial tension reminds me of and brings flashbacks of the civil rights movement.”

Sims will be the featured speaker during the church’s 40th annual Martin Luther King Day Scholarship Program, which will be at 4 p.m. Jan. 15 at the church, 1031 Chestnut St. in Columbus.

The service awards academic scholarships to outstanding local students attending colleges nationwide to encourage them to pursue their dreams.

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In each of the past several years, about 125 people from a variety of churches and community organizations have attended the service, which often highlights King’s roots as a church pastor and his leadership of the civil rights movement largely through churches and church groups nationwide.

Sims’ remarks will focus mostly on the service theme, “Pursuing Spiritual and Educational Excellence in a Changing Culture.” But she acknowledged that “the national climate is the foundation of what we will be talking about.”

She said part of the problem with today’s racial wounds, which she links to slavery, “never really have been effectively dealt with long-term in this country. It always has been the elephant in the room. And it’s something that many of us don’t want to acknowledge.”

Locally, she applauds strides in racial relations, such as the Columbus Police Department’s efforts over the past year to address the black community’s concerns about police shootings of unarmed black citizens nationwide.

She also said blacks locally “must take ownership” of addressing racial challenges. She said she feels that best can be done first within local churches before spreading out to the city and beyond.

Sims said cellphone videos, especially those taken at scenes of violence against minorities, have provided the nation with a look at one component of racial tension.

Amid such complex problems, Sims said she believes that answers do exist.

“With the (Christian) churches, we have with us a gospel that transforms,” Sims said. “And you have to change someone’s heart before you can begin to change their beliefs or behavior. And the gospel changes hearts.”

The local African American Pastors Alliance has taken its minority community concerns to the Columbus mayor, police chief, school system and media over the past two years.

People “now feel more free to open their mouth and say divisive things,” including using racial slurs, said the Rev. Mike Harris, leader of the pastors alliance, before a public meeting to help students deal with ethnic and racial bullying that occurred in the wake of the Nov. 8 presidential election.

So he understands Sims’ comments and concerns.

“I think she’s right on target,” Harris said. “It’s a very precarious situation where it seems like we’ve taken a step back to a time 40 or more years ago.”

Harris, who frequently has said the underpinning of the local black community is the church, agrees with Sims that the church must become an agent of change to fight racism.

He added that part of being a catalyst for change includes the uncomfortable role of calling out people or actions that divide races, as he did in a Martin Luther King Day community breakfast in January 2014.

Using a theme of “Rise Up! Restore the Dream,” Harris gave personal observations during his 2014 keynote speech about examples of prejudice that Columbus had yet to overcome at the time.

Being followed closely by sales associates in local stores, thinking they might be wondering if he’s a thief.

Noticing local women pulling their purses closer to them when he gets on an elevator with them.

Matters of school discipline issues involving black students that could have been addressed better by better communications with parents and black leaders.

The Rev. Fred King, Calvary’s associate minister who has helped publicize the annual service and program, said the event remains as significant as ever.

“Sometimes it’s important just to see that we have speakers who challenge us and encourage us to aim at higher goals,” King said.

About the service and program

What: 40th Annual Calvary Community Church Martin Luther King Day Scholarship Program.

When: 4 p.m. Jan. 15.

Where: Calvary Community Church, 1031 Chestnut St., Columbus.

Why: To present college scholarships to local residents attending college and pursuing dreams, and to recognize King’s international impact that began through the Christian church.

Information: 812-372-3077.

About the featured speaker

Who: The Rev. Jane Sims, co-pastor and co-founder of Calvary Community Church, which began in 1975.

Hometown: Indianapolis.

Family: Married for 45 years to Bishop Charles A. Sims of Calvary.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Butler University. Also has a doctor of theological studies degree from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.

Her roles: Within the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, she served as editor of the The Christian Outlook magazine and as executive assistant to the president of Aenon Bible College. Currently, she is president of the Indiana District Council Minister’s Wives and Widows Alliance.

About the scholarship winners

  • Coleman Tennyson Jr., a senior at Columbus North High School, where he has been a member of the varsity football team and an all-conference and all-state selection. He has scholarship offers from two colleges, but still is deciding. He is the son of Coleman and Tasha Tennyson.
  • Brijanna Nix is a December graduate of Columbus North High School. She is an active youth member in her home church and plans to attend Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana. She is currently in the process of deciding between two career paths: nursing or early childhood education. She is the daughter of Brian and Stephanie Nix.
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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.