Trinity UMC blessed with new pastor
The Rev. Dr. Michael D. Blackwell, who was recently hired as lead pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church, knew he wanted to make an impact on people’s lives, especially those who were struggling, after learning about Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.
Blackwell was born in Philadelphia in 1955, but his family settled in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He experienced different denominations, but primarily grew up Baptist. When he was 12-years-old his family, consisting of seven children, moved again to Stratford, Connecticut.
It was in Stratford when Blackwell became inspired by King.
“In the span of about nine or 10 months, my paternal grandfather died, Martin Luther King was assassinated and then Bobby Kennedy was assassinated,” Blackwell said. “These things were frightening to me, but they also sparked me to want to be involved in helping those who were struggling.’
He wanted to understand why someone would assassinate King. He read books and listened to his speeches recorded on albums until he began to understand what King stood for.
“He was mesmerizing,” Blackwell said. “His voice was so strong. He was very passionate about what he was speaking about. I was just very enamoured with him – almost to a fanatical level as a teen.
“So yes, just that he was concerned about helping lift black people to freedom and equality, but also he was concerned about peace and helping the poor of all races become more economically stable.”
After graduating high school in the 1970s, Blackwell moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in hopes of meeting those who knew King personally.
He arrived in Atlanta with less than $50 to his name. He worked at a local bank to make ends meet while becoming acquainted with educators, lawyers and preachers at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King used to preach. It was at Ebenezer where Blackwell became a licensed preacher.
Soon after, he enrolled at Yale Divinity School back in Connecticut. After finishing there in 1982 he became an ordained minister. His parents presented him with the same black vestment he still carries with him today.
He went on to obtain his doctorate degree in social ethics at Boston University. Blackwell wanted to grace the same halls and meet some of the same people King did.
“Many of his professors were still around in the 1980s,” he said. “It was neat to meet people who actually knew the man.”
While at Boston University, Blackwell was inspired by Walter George Muelder, who served as Dean of the institution and was credited for influencing King, Blackwell said.
Muelder broke down during one of Blackwell’s classes.
“We asked him why he was crying,” Blackwell said. “He said ‘telling Martin Luther King to be non-violent and then he gets killed.’
“He just felt really sad that day,” Blackwell said. “Things change so slowly, even if you feel you’re a revolutionary, things still change very slowly and that saddened him too. A lot has changed certainly, but the gap between the rich and the poor has widened since 40 years ago.”
Blackwell said the issues King was fighting for are still prevalent today.
“We have the Black Lives Matter movement – people were basically saying that in the ’60s,” he said. “Here we are 50 years later still dealing with that.”
He said even though it’s a difficult task, it’s important to continue working to make the community a better place.
“You just have to grit your teeth and keep at it,” he said. “You may not see that much of a difference, but working in that direction is still what you need to do. The service is still valuable.”
After earning his doctorate, Blackwell moved to Springfield, Missouri, where he taught religious studies at Southwest Missouri State University. He was also featured on a weekly television show on Ozarks Public Television.
In 1995 he left Southwest Missouri State for an opportunity at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
Since moving to Iowa he has been the pastor at three separate Methodist churches, he said.
“I liked the Methodist worship style,” he said.
In the early 2000s, Blackwell took on the role of director of the center for multicultural education at the University of Northern Iowa.
In 2015, Blackwell retired from that role after about 20 years of service.
“I took time off, thinking that I would take time off forever, but I decided to make myself available again,” he said.
In July, Blackwell was hired in Fort Dodge.
He also recently accepted a position with Iowa Central Community College as an adjunct instructor. He will teach a class called Introduction to Ethical Conflicts.
Blackwell said he is looking forward to helping Trinity become a more active church.
“Not just inside the church, but particularly out in the community,” he said. “Most churches are suffering from having relatively older congregations and not having as many young adults. So it’s trying to reach out to persons of that age group as well as young people.
“One way to do that is become more engaged in the community in a variety of programs, activities and services,” he said. “We have a large enough membership that we can do that kind of thing. That’s a central part of the Christian faith – to reach out to those who need encouragement and help find solutions to people’s problems.”