The national observance of Martin Luther King is coming around again. I am so pleased that our country has chosen to honor the life and ministry of one of my fellow Atlantan as he offered an image of “the Beloved Community” as an aspirational goal. God knows, and I mean “God Knows” that after last Wednesday’s attempted insurrection in the sacred halls of our Capitol, we need an image to carry us forward through this despicable time of lawless violence.
In my office, immediately over my computer monitor, there is a black and white photograph of Martin, standing at this desk, with a picture of Gandhi by his side, reminding him, and now me, of the principles of non-violence. It’s hard when fire hoses, barking dogs, or screaming conspiracists are in your face to remain calm and non-reactive without falling victim to the natural response of returning the violence. But that is what Gandhi taught, that’s what Martin taught and trained his followers, as he tried to lead them toward the beloved community.
That was years ago, and today we face another battle for the soul of America. It’s one more battle that join the line of attempts to destroy our nation: from succession over slavery, the push back on Reconstruction, to the institution of Jim Crow laws, to the rise of the Klan marching down Pennsylvania Ave in 1925., to the McCarthy era in the 50’s, to the rebellion against the Brown vs. Board of Education judicial decision…..this insurrection falls in the long line of resistance to the dream that America be a country where ALL people have rights and privileges.
This right as a human to be treated with dignity and respect seems so obvious to me, but I had good raising, from parents and grandparents who taught me that people’s value and worth was not dependent on skin color, or their jobs, or the amount in their bank account, or how they chose, freely, to worship, or how they chose to connect sexually. Everyone had a right to be. It’s not up for grabs….it comes with the territory.
And while I am blessed to have been raised in that ethos, I also chose to be a part of a community that defines its very identity in that principle. In the Episcopal Church, we affirm in our baptismal covenant that we will respect the dignity of every human being. It goes with the territory of being a child of God, which is a birthright you have when you take your first breath, a birthright you can’t sell, even when you mindlessly follow conspiracy theories that just happen to fit your prejudices and anger. That’s why I have the picture of Martin in front of me most of the time: to remind me that the One I claim and intend to follow, who tells me that I have to love my enemies, for they are children of God, plain, but not so simple….but plain.
That’s why we observe this day…to REMEMBER Martin, not just the man who lived the vision out, even unto death, but the very principle of equality that he stood for and stands for, especially in times such as ours where so-called politically smart strategists advocate for suppressing the opportunity to vote.
And I get it, when the people, ALL the people vote, they lose. Then they cry “foul!”, the election was stolen, it was rigged. Because more people got to vote, they lost. It’s back to the old issue of “who counts?”. I only want people who look like me to vote, and count! I only think that those that agree with me should count. How can we limit the number of people who vote? What barriers can we place in the way? That’s not democracy by any stretch of Constitutional thinking.
So we have this day, Martin Luther King Day, prescribed to be celebrated on the third Monday of January. It’s coming up soon. I always found humor and irony that racists proudly take that day off. I imagine that they think it’s funny too. But we have gatherings across the United States to honor this man, to remember his legacy of civil rights for ALL people, and then, commit to leaning into his vision for such a democracy from sea to shining sea, from the “curvaceous slopes of California” even unto “the Stone Mountain of Georgia”…….let freedom ring!
I am usually at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sweet Auburn Avenue for the ecumenical service. This thing starts at 10 AM but goes on and on and on. For politicians who gather to be seen, the old religious goats like me who feel compelled, we are facing the proverbial Black Baptist schedule where everyone has a little something to say, that goes on and on and on. Did I mention this thing goes on and on and on. The true test of bladder capacity….note to self: no coffee in the morning.
At one point in my illustrious career, I was behind the Pine Curtain of Texas, in Tyler. It was the first, the FIRST observance of the MLK Day in that area. We would gather downtown on the Square, and march down Broadway, the main drag in Tyler, to the Roman Catholic cathedral where we would have an interfaith service. On the first march, there were literally SWAT teams positioned on the top of the buildings in response to threats we had received. My friend, Rabbi Art Flicker, once appeared in a film put together for my birthday, thanking me for teaching him how to march in an MLK Day march. Art deftly puts a bullseye target on his chest, and laughs a rabbinic laugh. It was not funny on that original day.
I had been asked to speak at this meeting, not because of my ordination as an Episcopal priest, not because I was the pastor of the downtown Episcopal parish, not because of my academic credentials. I was asked because I was from Atlanta, the home of MLK, and I knew “the Atlanta Way”, a way of cooperation and collaboration, at least that was what a couple of my black colleagues told me.
On this day, there were the usual officials who welcomed the gathering. There was a black Gospel choir that sang a spiritual, as I recall. Then, there was to be a prayer by one of the old black pastors, which was to lead up to my speech.
Well, it was an amazing prayer. No quick three sentences and an amen. No Episcopal or Roman Catholic constrained “collect” from ancient prayer books. No. This man really prayed. He “held forth” as we say in the trade. He was covering the waterfront of salvation history, beginning in Genesis, props to Abraham and Moses, bringing a smile to the Rabbi’s face, and then on to Jesus. The prayer hit all the marks going on for twelve minutes. And the crowd was with him, with an Amen here and a Praise the Lord there.
Listening to him “tearing it up”, in a good sense, I began to get nervous. W. C. Field always cautioned as to following a child or a dog. I was being taught an additional rule: don’t follow an brilliant charismatic pastor. But follow him I would have to do. When in crisis, I have learned to dive deep into my emotions to discover what is down there, and as I did, I became all too aware of the anxiety I was feeling.
As I walked to the pulpit of that elegant Cathedral, I could feel the blood rushing to my face. I wondered as to the shade of red my face was showing, highlighted against my black clerical shirt. And then, it came to me. How to deftly transition from this amazing preacher to my faithful but meager attempt at bringing to mind MLK and his spirit. It came completely without my thinking or planning, as if it were from the Spirit, if you believe in that spooky stuff.
“I feel today like Dennis Menke. (Pregnant pause) You know who Dennis Menke was, don’t you? (Pause again). Dennis Menke was the infielder, the shortstop that played for the Atlanta Braves. He always followed the immortal Henry Aaron at bat. So Dennis, would stand, taking practice swings, in the On Deck circle, waiting, watching Hank do his thing before it was his turn at bat. (pause) That is precisely how I felt, standing over there, watching The Rev pray, knowing I was going to have to follow him and his powerful prayer. “
People started to laugh, partly out of my self-deprecation but more out of my honestly telling about how I felt in my predicament. I went on to say that I knew I was not as eloquent as The Rev, just like Dennis Menke knew he was not the slugger Hank was. But like Dennis, I knew I had to do my best and deliver for the team. Transition made. Or as George W. might say, Mission Accomplished.
And so I delivered my speech on Martin King, on the beloved community. And I noted that we might not have the eloquence of this noble hero. That we might not have the learning and training of this man. That we might not have the confidence Martin had in the face of the challenge ahead. But, nonetheless, we had the opportunity, and the responsibility to lean into the work that is set before us in our own day. It is our calling, our vocation, to be people of the promise, the people of the beloved community to claim dignity and worth, not only for ourselves, but for our sisters and brothers.
That was my message on that chilly January day in Tyler, Texas. And it still is. It’s our time at bat. Let’s not shy away from the challenge of this moment. The fast ball of history is heading our way and it’s up to us to deliver, for those who came before us with a vision for this country, for those who share these precarious times that would rob us of our dignity, and for those who will come long after us.
It’s our turn at bat. Blessings.