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District celebrates MLK’s life and legacy

Scholarship recipients

For 30 years, the Greater Detroit District has given awards and scholarships to United Methodists who embody King’s dream.

Michigan Conference Communications

The Greater Detroit District is celebrating a significant anniversary — 2024 marks 30 years of upholding the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by bestowing special honors for worthy works of contribution. One of three awards recognizes high school seniors whose volunteer service and academic prowess demonstrate a clear appreciation of the goals of the slain civil rights leader and a continued desire to achieve them. The second is the Drum Major for Justice Award, aptly named after Dr. King’s sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct.” It honors those throughout the district who go above and beyond to serve the community, their churches, and the district. And the third is the Bailey-Brown President’s Award, which commends a person in the district who goes above and beyond the call of duty to be of service to others.

Royal Oak: First UMC hosted this year’s ceremony on Sunday, January 14. “Our goal is to lift up the dream,” shared Lead Pastor Rev. Jeff Nelson, “[and] it’s the dream of a Christian prophet who reminded us we are all God’s children. King emphasized these goals: a call for social justice and racial equality, to end poverty, and to work toward worldwide peace. That cost him, and it cost others. Yet we must remember, and remind others, that out of the broken systems of this world, God birthed something new.”

The popular essay contest, open to all the district’s high school seniors, focuses on how their lives exemplify that for which Dr. King stood during his own. The main focus of their written submissions is to explain how King’s influence impacts their lives as people of The United Methodist Church.

Rev. Darryl Totty speaking at MLK event
Rev. Dr. Darryl Totty, superintendent of the Greater Detroit District, welcomed everyone to the annual Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration. ~ photo by Jennell May, courtesy Greater Detroit District

This year’s theme, “Continuing the Dream,” specifically highlighted the three pillars of Dr. King’s work: equality, education, and justice. Three dynamic presenters spoke of the urgency of an ongoing commitment to these pursuits. Pastor Cornelius Davis of Detroit: Scott Memorial UMC, Jeanette Harris of Detroit: Metropolitan UMC, and Rev. George Covintree, retired elder and current chairperson of the Michigan Conference Board of Justice, explained why it remains important to focus on progressing toward upholding civil rights for all.

In addition to the highlight of exceptional speakers, the district honored three amazing students and three dynamic church leaders who embody the spirit of Drum Majors for Justice. Drum Majors for Justice are generally thought of as those who serve God by serving others. Dr. King employed this terminology in one of his last sermons, preached from the pulpit of his home church in Atlanta, precisely two months to the date of his assassination in 1968.

Dr. King employed the metaphor of a drum major who stands above and before the crowd, leading, directing, and pointing to explain his prophetic call to the pursuit of justice. Using that coveted role and respected position of a band leader as an allegory, Dr. King juxtaposed that notion with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:20, where Christ proclaimed that the first shall come last and the last shall come first.

Facing the threat of imminent death, Dr. King described his life purpose as that of a “drum major for justice.” Rather than one who keeps the timing and beat of the percussion, Dr. King envisioned his role as one whose heart was attuned to the pulse of the people while carefully seeking to maintain the measured cadence of social change. To him, a drum major for justice was one whose greatness is expressed through acts of humble service.

Zachary Betthauser, a member of Detroit: Cass Community UMC, was awarded the Bailey-Brown President’s Award. Certified Lay Minister Sherman Louis (left) presented the award to Betthauser. ~ photo by Jennell May, courtesy Greater Detroit District

In that spirit, the 2024 MLK Celebration Committee and the district’s Director of Justice and Mission Engagement, Susanna Webber, went about the tasks of selecting six honorees (three youth and three adults) from the list of nominees who were identified for their servant leadership, church participation, and community contributions. Here are a few details about the award recipients.

Braiden Betway, a Flat Rock Community High School senior, attends Flat Rock: First UMC. He’s a member of the National Honor Society, volunteers with Hands on Detroit, and serves meals at the NOAH Project shelter (a nonprofit of Detroit: Central UMC). Braiden was described as cheerful, welcoming, kind, smart, diligent, and caring. His essay stated: “King’s dream is about connection. It is about love, and it is about kindness. When we as communities adopt these ideals, miracles can happen. We can feed the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless, provide guidance to the lost, and offer love to the needy. The principles of King’s dream . . . extend beyond . . . what he envisioned. With new groups of individuals emerging, new conflicts arising . . . and old conflicts re-arising, it is more important now than ever that we continue to promote these ideals. King’s dream is a grand dream, and at times seemingly impossible. However, even the impossible becomes possible when you include God in your life. By living in both God’s path and King’s dream . . . sharing God’s grace . . . and . . . continuing to strive . . . we are setting the foundation for a world that is closer to each other, closer to what King envisioned, and ultimately closer to God.”

Kai’Yah King is a West Bloomfield High School senior. She attends Detroit: Resurrection UMC, teaches youth sign language and children’s church, and participates in the hospitality ministry, choir, and the NOAH Project. Kai’Yah is a member of the National Honor Society, student government treasurer, and field hockey team co-captain, and won both West Bloomfield’s MLK “United We Walk” and Juneteenth writing contests. She is described as one who goes “above and beyond in sharing [her] gifts.” An excerpt from her essay states: “I fight every day to prove that my skin color does not define my journey or my wits. I excel in school and make sure to give everybody a place of belonging, but seeing the world we live in, and all the hurt constantly surrounding us, it becomes hard . . . . Racism is still a bridge we build every day. It’s an obstacle . . . something everybody faces . . . [and] in order to defeat this . . . we all need to stand together in unity and harmony, whilst preaching for change.”

Claudette McMilan receiving an award
Claudette McMilan, a member of Detroit: Scott Memorial UMC, was one of the two Drum Major for Justice Awards recipients. ~ photo by Jennell May, courtesy Greater Detroit District

Isabel Stepaniak attends Birmingham: First UMC and Wyandotte’s Roosevelt High School. Amid several moves, she found a new church and new friends in each community, volunteering with the DownRiver Church food pantry and worship media team, Cass Community Social Services, Crossroads Soup Kitchen, and the former Trinity Soup Kitchen. Isabel is an elected member of her school’s student council and captain of the women’s varsity rowing team. She’s described as one whose “heart is full of compassion for others, [who] will be a great witness to our faith in Jesus Christ and the world’s yearning for justice, freedom, and equity . . . with a spirit of perseverance and courage.” Her essay states: “I know enough of good and evil to understand where there is light, and where there is darkness. Within that light, I know to look for Jesus and his teachings . . . . I know not to use my Christianity as a weapon, but . . . as a bridge . . . . This was how Dr. King was able to reach so many people in his short ministry; he shared the hope of Jesus’ light . . . . The root of his character was in love. This example of Dr. King is how I am actively making decisions to ignite change . . . . Though sometimes I experience fear and anxiety due to the dread of school shootings . . . I can create change by doing my part to not speak of, or feed into, the chaos that can dominate our days at school.”

The Bailey-Brown President’s Award recognizes an individual who continually rises above and beyond to lift others up, goes out of their way to be helpful, and chooses to truly see others. It was awarded to Zachary Betthauser, a member of Detroit: Cass Community UMC. He is also a member of the National Guard. He stepped in during the COVID-19 pandemic to single-handedly keep Cass Community Social Services operating when there were no volunteers.

Claudette McMilan, a member of Detroit: Scott Memorial UMC, and Rev. Paul Perez, Lead Minister of Detroit: Central UMC, were the two Drum Major for Justice Awards recipients.

It was said of Claudette McMilan that she “weaves love into every breath of every day, and every interaction with every individual.” She has served at the local church, district, jurisdictional, and general conference levels for decades. She serves as president of Scott Memorial’s United Women in Faith, a church choir member, and a Sunday school teacher, and regularly attends Bible study. It is said that Claudette lovingly ensures that every person is treated with dignity and respect in her work in the food pantry. She goes beyond the call of duty to provide food and hygiene assistance to those in need, whether it’s during scheduled times or to meet special needs situations. Those who nominated her say she is a “tireless servant for the cause of Jesus Christ who helps people enhance their quality of life. Her participation in numerous time-consuming programs and ministries shows her dedication to servanthood. She puts faith into action in all that she does and is a Drum Major for Justice in the way she allows God to work through her as a selfless disciple of Jesus Christ.”

Paul Perez receiving award
Rev. Paul Perez, Lead Minister of Detroit: Central UMC (center), was one of the two Drum Major for Justice Awards recipients. Susanna Webber, Director of Justice and Mission Engagement for the Greater Detroit District (left), and Sherman Louis (right), celebrate with Perez. ~ photo by Jennell May, courtesy Greater Detroit District

It is said of Rev. Perez that his “tireless and humble service has impacted the lives of many in the Michigan Annual Conference and The United Methodist Church. You can always count on him to respond with love and care as he supports the goals and aims of the . . . Church.” He has implemented programs and ministry efforts that continue to serve many, and all have this in common: they care for those most in need during some of their greatest moments of need. Examples include the following: helping to launch Livonia Cares, a collaboration of congregations and social service agencies; starting Livonia: Newburg UMC’s Non-Food Pantry to serve community members struggling in the wake of the Great Recession; implementing a revamp of the US-2 young adult mission program in partnership with the General Board of Global Ministries and the NOAH Project; launching Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School Programs in Detroit and Flint and assisting Flint’s clergy and community leaders during the height of that city’s water crisis; establishing After the Storm, the state of Michigan’s go-to disaster case management nonprofit that was birthed out of the Michigan Conference; and organizing Michigan United Methodists to resist the Traditional Plan in the wake of the 2019 Special General Conference, commission and ordain LBGTQIA+ people, and pass policies to more fully include LBGTQIA+ people in the life of the conference.

The entire evening was a celebration of our faith and the faithfulness demonstrated by the above recipients. The service in its entirety can be viewed online via this YouTube link.

The Martin Luther King, Jr., Scholarships are funded by district grants and individual donations. Click here to donate and help fund the 2025 scholarships.

Last Updated on January 24, 2024

The Michigan Conference