One of the anthems of the Civil Rights Movement, “Keep your Eyes of the Prize,” is a song about pressing on — no matter what. Educator, storyteller and baker Rose McGee has set her eyes on the prize of building a stronger, more caring community through the gift of sweet potato comfort pie.
“The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Southern Baptist preacher. I grew up in the South too, and sweet potato pie is the sacred dessert there of Black culture,” McGee said. “I watched my great grandmother, my grandmother and my aunts bake pies whenever someone was in need of comfort. This act of love was so simple, and it strengthened relationships.”
On Saturday, Jan. 16, the kitchen of Calvary Lutheran Church in Golden Valley was filled to bursting. McGee didn’t know exactly who would turn up to help, but she and a few friends were going to bake 87 sweet potato comfort pies in honor of what would have been MLK’s 87th birthday.
“I couldn’t believe all the people who came and rolled up their sleeves: Hennepin County Commissioner Linda Higgins, Representative Mike Freiberg and his family, Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris, members of the Minneapolis City Council, staff from the Human Rights Departments of Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal and New Hope, National Honor Society members from Cooper High School, the We Win Institute for Youth of Color, students from Perpich High School, friends and neighbors all answered the invitation,” she said.
Sweet potato pie is a labor of love. The savory root vegetables have to be scrubbed, peeled boiled and mashed. Sugar is added slowly, then eggs, milk, vanilla and cinnamon. McGee has built her Sweet Potato Comfort Pie Initiative slowly and lovingly too, and the number of pies just keeps growing.
In August 2014, McGee was moved to bring several pies to Ferguson, Mo., after the shooting of Michael Brown. Almost a year later, she and friend Eden Bart brought more than 50 pies to Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C., following the slaying of nine church members there. Two months ago, McGee and others brought arms full of pies to the 4th Precinct in North Minneapolis, and served them to people protesting the killing of Jamar Clark, police and city officials.
In times of struggle, somebody gives a pie and somebody gets a pie. As Congressman Keith Ellison would say the next day at Calvary Lutheran Church’s event honoring the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “There’s power in the pies.”
More than 100 people gathered in the fellowship room on Sunday, and found their seats at round tables arranged for discussion.
Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris said in his welcoming remarks: “Our community is becoming more diverse all the time. We now have a Native American legislator, an African American congressman and, in me, a Jewish mayor. We’re grateful to have this opportunity to sit down from many walks of life and create some real connections — over pie.”
Hector Matascastillo was the first recipient of one of Rose’s pies. He remembered,” It came at a time when I was so low. I’m a war veteran and I had just come home from another tour of duty in the Middle East. That gift of pie, a tangible sign that I was loved and valued — right then it was… lifesaving.”
“I was able to visit Mother Emanuel Church last year,” Ellison said. “It’s 190 years old, and was founded by former slaves. Three or four times the church has been burned to the ground, but nothing has stopped it yet.”
He continued, “Can’t we use the pies to heal some wounds?”
Guests at the event were asked to introduce themselves to their tablemates, and share a story of a time when they felt they’d been treated unfairly, when they could have used some loving comfort.
All 87 pies baked by community volunteers the day before would be given away. Guests brainstormed and decided together where the pies would go.
One pie went to Jamar Clark’s brother in North Minneapolis, another to the grandmother of an entire family killed in an automobile accident over the holidays. One guest, a teacher in the St. Paul Public Schools, asked to give a pie to the district superintendent. Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris asked to bring a pie to Governor Mark Dayton, and Congressman Keith Ellison volunteered to bring one to the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.
Each Sweet Potato Comfort Pie comes with a poem written by Pastor Roslyn Harmon. It begins, “From the community of Golden Valley to wherever you reside, may this sweet potato pie soothe and warm your insides.” These pies travel far and wide.
On Sunday, Feb. 21, the community is invited back to Calvary Lutheran Church to share reflections on giving their pies away. This inter-generational, inter-cultural conversation begins at 2 p.m. and anyone is welcome, even if you weren’t part of the MLK celebration. The church is located at 7520 Golden Valley Road in Golden Valley.
Moving forward, McGee and her colleagues have been awarded a Connect Grant through the Bush Foundation. They’ve been invited to be presenters at a regional community engagement conference being held at the Guthrie Theatre in May. As part of the experience, participants can come to Calvary Lutheran Church on the second day to bake pies — and to learn the facilitation methods McGee has developed to be, “a catalyst for caring, and for building community.”