The woman was showing them around a parsonage where the Rev. Martin Luther King had lived, near the Montgomery, Alabama, church King pastored in the mid- to late 1950s.

There on the wall was a picture of people, many from the congregation, gathered at a party. The woman leading the tour was a little girl in the photo.

As the Rev. Mark Havel and his family toured the house, he thought about this congregation — the bonds it nurtured, the life it knew with its pastor before King became a famous civil rights leader, and all that this woman and her fellow parishioners had witnessed.

“It was beautiful … It brought it all down to a more human, personal, small level than when you’re reading it in a book,” he said.

Havel, lead pastor at Cross of Grace Lutheran Church in New Palestine, received a grant through Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Program for Indiana Congregations. The program, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. and administered by Christian Theological Seminary, awards grants of up to $50,000 to Indiana congregations to fund a sabbatical for clergy.

The sabbaticals are designed for rest and renewal. Havel traveled to workshops at a retreat center in Washington state, and he went on a getaway with his wife, Christa, to Puerto Rico.

But a focus of Havel’s sabbatical was touring sites significant in the history of the civil rights movement. Over the summer he and his family traveled to Nashville and Memphis in Tennessee; and Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham in Alabama; and New Orleans, Louisiana.

 Sam Walker was a child who saw the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. He talked about his experiences with the Havel family. From left are the Rev. Mark Havel, Sam Walker, Christa Havel, Jack Havel and Max Havel. Photo provided

Havel chatted with a museum tour guide in Selma, who told what he saw during a 1965 voting rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge that was greeted by state troopers and then became deadly. He toured a museum in Memphis, where King was shot outside the Lorraine Motel in 1968.

He reflected at a national lynching memorial in Montgomery. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is close to a museum Havel also found impactful, The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.

There was a lot to take in on his travels, but “It didn’t feel

 The Rev. Mark Havel stands in the pulpit at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A bombing there on a Sunday morning in 1963 killed four Black girls. Photo provided

as academic as I thought it might,” Havel said. “It was more of an emotional experience; it felt more like a spiritual, emotional endeavor.”

Havel hopes when youth of the church travel to New Orleans next summer — for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s National Youth Gathering — the group will be able to leave a couple of days early and visit the memorial and museum in Montgomery.

While Havel was away, the congregation at Cross of Grace was also exploring themes of racism and racial justice. Some members were sent to an Interrupting Racism workshop with Child Advocates in Indianapolis.

Also, parishioner Francia Kissel facilitated a book discussion of “How the Word is Passed.” Author Clint Smith visits tourist sites that relate to the history of slavery in America and notes how people are talking about slavery there now — whether they are frank about what happened there or “gloss it over,” Kissel said.

Some of the group members took a field trip of their own to the Levi & Catharine Coffin House in Fountain City. The Quaker couple’s Indiana home was a major hub in the Underground Railroad, a network of people assisting those fleeing slavery in the 1800s and headed north to Canada.

“We wanted to do a trip, like Pastor Mark was doing a trip,” Kissel said. “We wanted to grow in the same way with him.”

Another book group over the summer discussed “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson. It examines long-term influence and impact of slavery on American society. The Rev. Cogan Blackmon, associate pastor at Cross of Grace, facilitated this group.

“We had folks all over the spectrum engaging in the conversation …,” he said. “We want to be able to create a space where that can happen.”

Following the book studies, a racial justice group is forming at the church.

“I think most people felt energized to learn more and challenged to do something,” Kissel said.

Blackmon said as New Palestine grows, “We want to be a place that is ready to be welcoming and hospitable.” Yet he said the congregation’s conversation about racial justice is not simply about adding people of color to the community. He said there are parishioners who want to learn more about how to respond to racism, and he hopes the church can be a training center.

“Racial justice is part of our ministry,” he said. “At the same time, it is not the only thing that we do, nor can we force anyone to have a belief or a stance…

“We tried to do our best to take Jesus seriously when he said his ministry was proclaiming release to the captives and setting free those who are oppressed …,” he said, referring to the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus reads aloud from Isaiah’s 61st chapter.

“For us, we think this is very much in line with the gospel and grace of Christ.”


Charla Yearwood will lead a workshop, “It’s Me. I’m the Problem: The Role of Personal Reflection in Antiracism Work” at 7 p.m. Nov. 15 at Cross of Grace Lutheran Church, 3519 S. County Road 600W, New Palestine. Yearwood is founder and CEO of Connected in Community. She is part of the Advancing Racial Equity Speakers Bureau through Indiana Humanities.


The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Program for Indiana Congregations was established in 1999. The Endowment established a similar program for churches around the United States the next year. The application window for the 2024 program year will open in early November. Learn more at The Rev. Mark Havel had received a previous clergy renewal grant, which sent him on 2014 travels that included visiting Stonehenge.


In addition to Havel, the Rev. Aaron Jenkins was another local recipient of one of the clergy renewal grants. Over this summer he was truck camping, fly fishing and art making in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

Jenkins pastors St. Michael Catholic Church in Greenfield and St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Fortville. He’ll share about his travels with people of both parishes at a fish fry at 6 p.m. Oct. 13 in the Parish Life Center at St. Michael. Learn more at