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A will to help others find the wayOriginally Published January 6, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated January 4, 2013 at 10:33 a.m.
BENTON When Karl Barnes leads the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Parade in Benton as grand marshal on Jan. 21, he will not only be carrying on King’s dream of unity and empowerment, but he will be carrying on the work of his father, who worked to unify his community and move it forward.
Barnes is an elder and pastor of the Elect Temple Church of God in Christ in the Ralph Bunche community of Benton. He became leader of his church on the day of his father’s funeral in December 2009. His father had been the pastor at the Elect Temple Church for 30 years.
The appointment of Barnes must have seemed like the next preordained step for him, but Barnes said he originally had a very different plan for his life.
“When I was in the Navy, I had plans to get out of the service overseas and live outside the U.S. for a while and at least study abroad before even thinking about coming back,” Barnes said during a conversation in his church office.
This was not the first plan the young Barnes had for leaving his home in Arkansas and living elsewhere. He said leaving has been a plan for many young African-Americans who believed they had limited options in the state a few decades ago.
“Many left and would never come back,” he said. “Many who did come back after being gone found their friends were gone; they had lost their connections to the community.”
Soon after graduation from Benton High School, Barnes took his motorcycle and left for the Pacific Coast.
“After high school, I decided I wanted to live in California,” Barnes said. “I had family there.”
But, he said, his move west did not last the full summer.
“My aunt died, and my mother came out and asked me to return,” he said. “Every time I tried to get away, all I could think of was to come home.”
When he returned, his father said he should go to college. Barnes always listened to his father and usually ended up following his lead.
“My parents married as teens, and along with being a pipefitter for Alcoa, he had a plumbing business,” Barnes said. “My parents had seven boys and three girls, and I think he wanted to keep an eye on us, so we had an opportunity to spend a lot of time with him working for him.”
Along with learning to work, Barnes also learned about his father’s approach to life and the challenges it brought.
“I would watch his face and see how he handled them with wisdom and aplomb,” Barnes said. “There would not be any arguments, but he always carried the way.”
He said his father was always saying the old proverb “Where there is a will, there is a way.”
“Regardless of whatever obstacles [he met], he never considered defeat but kept working on a problem until it was resolved,” Barnes said of his father.
Following his father’s advice, Barnes entered Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. At first he thought he wanted to study business, but he settled on history and political science. However, his time in college only lasted three semesters, and he joined the Navy.
Four years later, after all his plans to live outside America, Barnes returned to Benton.
“I was settled then; I had married,” he said.
Another part of being settled was Barnes’ desire to become a minister.
“My father was a minister, and I had always had a life in the church, but I had resisted, but in 1973 when I was 23, I told my pastor that I had received the call.
“I felt like I should finish something, so I went back to Henderson.”
He earned a degree in education and was certified to teach social studies. He taught in junior high school, starting in El Dorado.
For a while, he also worked at the Reynolds bauxite mine in Saline County until it closed. He then went back to Henderson State to earn a master’s degree in education.
“My wife taught school in Benton; then I taught junior high school social studies for 24 years in Benton,” Barnes said.
During this time, he worked with the youth in the Elect Temple Church, where his father was then the pastor. He watched and helped his father work for the community.
“My father wanted there to be a sense of unity in the community,” he said. “The Ralph Bunche community had started as the servant quarters of the town, and [the residents] often felt marginalized.”
His father worked to bring new, affordable housing to the community and to help develop the Ralph Bunche area.
“Working as a plumber, my father could see that the community was a safe place to build,” Barnes said. “It was on a hillside, and there was no flooding and good drainage, and it has never been hit by a tornado. He wanted to make it attractive as a place worthy of coming back to, but better yet, to stay and build a life.”
Also promoting the unity of the community is the Ralph Bunche Neighborhood Association. Today, Barnes is president of the association, which he says gives residents a united voice to speak up for themselves.
“There have always been a number of entities working for the community,” Barnes said. “There is the Garden Club and the Cemetery Association, all working for the betterment of the neighborhood, but it was better to have one group as an umbrella organization so we could have a united front, and one voice to talk with the city government.”
Barnes said that while the complaints of a few citizens could be passed over, a unified community would be heard. He said the city government has been working with the neighborhood and listening to the issues it faces.
The MLK weekend celebration, starting Jan. 18, is a symbol of that cooperation and the unity of the neighborhood with the rest of the city.
“This is a time when Benton acknowledges the cultural diversity of the city, and the events see participation from all quarters of Benton,” Barnes said. “It is an event that shows things change, and we grow closer.”
He praised the way businesses have joined the MLK celebration, and especially the way churches have come together to host the many events.
“It is encouraging all of the community and gathering momentum for the future,” he said.
Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or email@example.com.