Remembering Rev. Allen A. Belton by Rosa Nicole Booker
I called my old friend the other day. Not old because he’s an octogenarian, but old because it’s been close to a year since we last spoke. Nearly five years ago I was introduced to Allen A. Belton or Pastor Belton, as I affectionately call him. With the passionate visionary work, he and other great leaders have done to lay a foundation for what the Seattle MLK Prayer Breakfast is today, I wanted sit at the feet of my old friend, an African American griot, to hear the story again as he once told me years ago.
Allen describes supporting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 60’s, as going against the tide. When Martin was living, there were even African Americans reluctant to protest, to speak out, and to take action against racism. He said they were referred to as rebel rousers and a litany of other ungodly names. Allen followed the leadership of Martin because he too believed you could not share the Gospel and not also speak out about injustices amongst African Americans. Then came a time for Martin to be invited to Seattle to speak but he was having just about as much trouble as the biblical Mary and Joseph to be welcomed in. Eventually love prevailed and a historical Seattle church basement became home to the first Seattle MLK Prayer Breakfast with a small group of people. The reason to focus on Martin was, the thing that drove Allen, was that Martin really believed God and was strong believer in the message of the Gospel and he felt like that was less known in the community. Martin was a theologian and an activist that gave his life for justice. Allen said, “People want to call Martin an advocate or politician, but he was a believer and I wanted people to know that. I wanted people to know the power of love. We made every attempt to invite democrats, republicans, all churches, and diversity and speakers with diversity that could speak to the aggregation of people and have it be an inspirational time of bringing community together and breaking bread together and that was the intent and purpose.”
Reconciliation has been a big part of Allen’s life. Allen is married to a Caucasian woman for over 55 years and it was illegal to do what they did back then. He doesn’t like to say “mix marry” because we are all homosapiens. But because of the strong distaste for what they did those years ago, Allen endured so much hate, including having glasses thrown at his head. He learned to love through that! The Breakfast was a great place for Allen’s vision to bring community together and to model this type of love. “My role is to be a catalyst,” he explained. And is honored that even as he passed the baton a couple years ago, The Breakfast still moves forward.
This whole thing started in a church basement, and when I had the chance to be a part of it, I had the honor of seeing it grow to over 800 people in a grand ballroom with standing room only.
I came to know the Seattle MLK Prayer Breakfast in January 2017 when Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil was the keynote. I sat at the Urban Impact Seattle table. As an Urban Impact staff member, I was gifted a complimentary ticket to experience the event as a first timer. Dr. Brenda was new to me, and so were most of the nearly 500 people in the room from different churches, universities, nonprofit organizations and local businesses. This was a large room! There were so many leaders in the community attending; and quite a rainbow of faces too, as I recall.
We were seated, welcomed, and served breakfast by the time the keynote began, and Dr. Brenda came to a pivotal point in her address where she began throwing balled-up pieces of paper on the stage. I had a seat close to the front stage and could see some of the balled-up pieces of paper roll down onto the main floor. All of us were captivated by her words and I was paused by my own interpretation of the “garbage” we deal with called racism still balled-up and resting on the ballroom floor.
Well, Dr. Brenda kept on speaking passionately, but I just couldn’t focus on her completely with the debris all around her on the stage and on the floor near the people sitting in the very front. I was feeling a huge impulse to go and pick it up. Instead, I sat stifled and torn about what to do. After all, this is a room with 500 people. 500 important people and I was new, new to my organization and new to this body of gatherers. I was struggling with how to impress them. And right when I was filling with gumption to get up and tend to the mess, a college student, two tables closer than me, got out of her seat and began gathering the balled-up pieces of paper. I and two others were empowered to join her. The audience roared with applause and Dr. Brenda had made her point. We were acting as a community and coming together to clean up the mess. It didn’t matter who started it or why. It mattered that we came together to make it better.
I was internally changed that day. As a fellow black woman, this was not my first MLK themed event or speech. However, it was a new lightbulb that had not been turned on in me before. The lightbulb that shines on the dark corner inside of me that revealed it’s not enough to be knowledgeable about a cause and well versed in historic quotes, names, and happenings. No, there is a next step, and that step is action based.
My attendance to the event in 2018 was just as powerful when Father Stephen Sundborg addressed his white brothers and sisters and gave them the 10 commandments of white allyship. And my excitement is that these powerful speakers continue to give us hope and charge year after year!
After having that beautiful conversation with my old friend, Pastor Belton, and as we both aren’t as close to the event as we used to be, my hope is that the leadership of the event will continue to be passed on for generations to come. My vision is that this gathering turns into a celebration of partnerships, growth, and unity of all walks of life with varying ages which is Dr. King’s dream actualized.
Hate is based off of fear. It’s fear of the unknown, fear of uncomfortable interactions, fear of personal inadequacies, and fear of past hurts being reopened. To unite communities would be to abolish fear. If we can abolish fear, we can remove hate. The only thing strong enough to do that is love. I possess a strong determination to support the idea of the MLK Prayer Breakfast to create opportunities for us to successfully love one another.