Second "Healing" Forum Draws About 250 Residents



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Pastor David Bennett of Kirkwood United Methodist addresses a Saturday morning audience assembled at St. Louis Community College-Meramec for a meeting hosted by Community for Understanding and Healing. photo by Ashley Heifner (click for larger version)
March 14, 2008
About 250 Kirkwood residents attended a discussion forum hosted last Saturday by Community for Understanding and Healing (CFUH). Many said they came alone, drawn by a sense of duty, the need for answers in the wake of recent tragedy, or by the desire to meet neighbors whom they know little about.

Through such forums, organizers hope to reconcile recent tensions in Kirkwood first through dialogue, then via action plans based on common discussion themes.

An initiative of the existing Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, CFUH is a non-political, volunteer organization formed in response to the Feb. 7 shooting rampage at Kirkwood City Hall. Information published on the group's Web site (www.CFUH.org) calls on Kirkwood citizens to "work together in a journey for peace, healing and reconciliation."

Most participants arrived in casual attire, as if signaling their readiness to roll up their sleeves and begin immediately the work at hand. While waiting for registration to wrap up, they conversed over coffee and juice, sharing personal reasons for attending the event.

"Being a member of a community means stepping forward and seeing what you can do to make it better," Dave Reddick said. He and Pamela Gween, have lived in Kirkwood 12 years. They attended the session together after hearing positive things about the first forum, held Feb. 23.

"I haven't kept up with Kirkwood politics, but after this situation I felt compelled to be a part of the healing process," Gween said.

Sue Perry and Jane Jensen both said their love for Kirkwood brought them to the event, although each had different topics they hoped to address.

"I want to find out more about how Kirkwood and Meacham Park can come together and understand each other," Perry said.

"I am very concerned about fighting over another mayoral candidate," Jensen said.

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Ron Hodges, co-chair with Drew Ehrhardt of Community for Understanding and Healing. photo by Ashley Heifner (click for larger version)
Kinji Bailey recently learned that the Kirkwood Board of Adjustment rejected his appeal to spare his Meacham Park house from demolition.

"I want to talk about the unfairness in Kirkwood," he said.

"We have one desire and that is for a more unified Kirkwood," Ronald Hodges told last weekend's loose assembly of neighbors, strangers, and community leaders. Hodges co-chairs the CFUH with Drew Ehrhardt, who deferred comments to Hodges.

The first dialogue session involved 190 citizens, Hodges said.

"Their input was sincere, insightful, and needed to comprehend the impact of Feb. 7. We are asking individuals to keep the momentum and enthusiasm going at a high level," he said.

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The Rev. David Bennett of Kirkwood United Methodist Church is a CFUH committee member. Addressing participants before the breakout sessions, Bennett discussed why such open dialogue is necessary.

"Our Kirkwood community has a lot of talking and even more listening that needs to be done … There are many emotions moving through our community. In addition, there are many hard decisions needing to be made," he said.

Bennett also described the sort of dialogue organizers envisioned for the morning.

"This is very hard work because it is not just an intellectual exchange of ideas, but a time of personal growth that changes one's heart and alters one's values," he said.

Following his remarks, attendees broke away for smaller, two-hour dialogues. The press was barred from reporting within those discussions.

Most groups were comprised of 12-15 participants of varying age, race and gender, Hodges said.

"There were probably four or five black people per group, which is not what I would want it to be, but the number is growing," he said. "Last time, there were a few groups with no blacks in them."

Although teenagers were encouraged to attend, few – except those already enlisted as volunteer greeters – did so. Future dialogue sessions will target the community's youth participation, Hodges said.

Derrick Staten, a Kirkwood High School senior who attended based on the recommendation of assistant principal Romona Miller, said that "without a doubt" the experience was valuable. He felt good about sharing his ideas within the group.

"Anytime people talk, they realize generalizations can't be made. They begin to see that even though other people have different ideas, they are not necessarily evil," he said. "I'll definitely go back and I'll probably invite a couple of friends."

Hodges said the main themes emerging from the first dialogue session included questions about the historical relationship between Kirkwood and Meacham Park, requests for more information on Charles Thornton's "situation," and talk of the upcoming Kirkwood mayoral election.

After Saturday's session, participants reported a continuation of those same discussions, with perhaps a deeper political tint. In the first session, Hodges said, politics was discouraged in small group discussions. This time around, there were no such restrictions on content.

"It was valuable seeing past political issues come to light again – like representation and lack of a ward system," Dave Eaton said. "Social issues came up, too, like race and economics. There were strong feelings, and people were passionate and committed. We had a good facilitator who kept things on a reflective level, like we were asked to do."

Eaton, a 29-year resident of Kirkwood, said continued dialogue is important for the community.

"It's up to the participant to maintain the energy and interest in it – and that's me," he said.

Kirkwood School Board candidate Carl Jones said some people in his group had never been to Meacham Park, and others did not know where it was.

"I had a nice time dialoguing with people and listening to them," Jones said. "Everyone had different perspectives but they were friendly, open, and respectful."

Reddick said the number of people there who were "grappling for answers" impressed him, as well as their eagerness to resolve issues dividing Meacham Park from the rest of Kirkwood.

"My group wished we had more time," he said. "In fact, some members intend to continue this conversation (outside the sessions) and I'll be one of them."

The camaraderie of his group, despite difficult subject matters, inspired Reddick.

"A lot of progress needs to be made and the only way to do it is one step at a time. These people were making those steps," he said. "If some individual friendships develop as a result of this, then maybe that will be progress."

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Next CFHU Dialogue Sessions

(All sessions begin with registration and continental breakfast at 9:30 a.m.; small group sessions run 10 a.m. - noon)

April 12 - Kirkwood United Methodist Church, 201 W. Adams

May 3 – location TBA

May 31 – location TBA

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