First giving honor to God, who is the head of my life. It is my honor to participate in this celebration of the life and work of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. I have always lived in a world partially shaped by Dr. King. I was in kindergarten when he was assassinated. So everything he ever did, every speech he ever gave, all that happened before I had any awareness of Dr. King or of the Civil Rights Movement. It was all "history" to me.
It was not until I graduated from Union College, went to seminary, and became the pastor of an African-American congregation that I began to understand the import of King’s life and work. I became good friends with a member of this congregation. He was (and still is) seven or eight years older than me. One day he and I were watching the Reds, and he was telling me about playing baseball in school. He mentioned the name of a school and said, “Of course, we never could play against them.” Mystified, I asked why. He said, “Rev, when I started Little League, I went to a black school. We weren't allowed to play against the white schools.” This friend of mine, just seven or eight years older than me had experienced segregation firsthand. My perspective of the world whirled a little in my head that day.
This congregation taught me how to preach. After I'd been there a few months, the Pastor/Parish Relations Committee sent Brian (my baseball friend) to talk to me about my sermons. He said they liked what I had to say, but they wished I'd just preach it like I believed it. Seminary may have taught me how to write a sermon, but this congregation taught me how to deliver it. The people there also taught me how to be a pastor out in the community, being a voice for people who may not have much of a voice in the community. I learned so much about the privilege I have, benefits I didn't earn but which are simply given to me because of the color of my skin.
When I graduated from seminary and it was time for me to move to another church, as we were packing my belongings into a horse trailer -- yes, the church I was going to moved us in a horse trailer -- people from the congregation we were leaving came and saw us off, family by family, person by person. They hugged our necks and wished us well. As I drove off to my new church, I sang spirituals and cried the entire way. This congregation taught me not just how to be a pastor but to be more fully a human being. As I was preparing these remarks, I said I just had to honor Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Cynthiana, Kentucky, even if I didn't mention them by name. Of course, I just had to mention them by name.
A provocative blog post making the rounds this week, but actually written three years ago, is entitled “Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did.” In it author Hamden Rice says that Dr. King did more than march and give speeches. He says, “Dr. King ended the terror of living . . . as a black person, especially in the south.” How did he do it? Rice says King “crisscrossed the south organizing people, helping them not be afraid, and encouraging them, like Gandhi did in India, to take the beating that they had been trying to avoid all their lives. Once the beating was over, we were free. It wasn't the Civil Rights Act, or the Voting Rights Act or the Fair Housing Act that freed us. It was taking the beating and thereafter not being afraid.”
Rice doesn't go into King’s philosophical or religious background that gave him the tools to organize people in this way, but I think this is the core of King’s work. He trained people to prepare themselves spiritually before a nonviolent direct action, to purge themselves of hatred and to prepare themselves to accept suffering without retaliation. I don't know how they did this or if I could ever do it myself.
We gather today at this courthouse under no threat of police dogs, no threat of fire hoses, no threat of billy clubs, no threat of vigilantes meeting us with guns. King and others like him taught people how to meet those threats and those realities, how to accept them, and how not to retaliate against them. Because the triple evils of poverty, racism, and militarism are still strong, we could do worse than to engage King’s dream through our own spiritual preparation for nonviolent direct action in order to confront these triple evils and in so doing to bring about the Beloved Community that King described as one “where justice prevails and persons attain their full human potential.”
Thank God for what Martin Luther King has done in the past, and thank God for what others are doing now and will do in the future for the sake of God’s vision for the world. With Dr. King we invoke the prophet Amos and beseech God, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”