It will be 50 years ago come this April, but the memory is vivid as ever. I was a 22 year old seminarian in Rochester, New York and was doing my field education at a large, liberally oriented American Baptist church in a Rochester suburb. Just as I was going into a meeting there on the evening of April 4, 1968 someone said they’d heard on the news that Martin Luther King had been shot. Whatever the meeting was about I wasn’t much focused on it—wondering instead about the condition of Dr. King. As the meeting ended and we all prepared to leave, a church member came in with the news that Dr. King had died from his gunshot wounds.
All I knew at that moment was that I had to get back to the seminary as quickly as I could. I needed to be with my fellow classmates. There was a sizable number of African-American—the term then was “Black”—students at the Colgate Rochester Divinity School. One of them had grown up in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama where Rev. King began his ministry.
While Martin Luther King was a national figure, for us his death was personal. Personal in the sense that, whether we’d known him or not, he was one of our primary mentors as we prepared for the ministry. It wasn’t that any of us thought we’d achieve the kind of prominence he did, but personal in the sense that he had demonstrated that religion went far beyond personal salvation, or even connection to a religious community—important as those things are.
For us, Dr. King was the one who had shown how religion, rightly harnessed and channeled, can be a vital force for social justice, and a transformative force for changing social attitudes and values. The one time I had been in Dr. King’s presence had come a few months prior to his assassination. It was in Washington, D.C. at a rally of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. In a packed Presbyterian Church, I listened to Martin Luther King bring his strong, and biting, message of peace and justice to hundreds of religious leaders. I cherish that experience to this day.
I must add this note here: Dr. King had experience in being in the halls of power. He’d had White House meetings with both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. For all the issues issues he had with its occupants, he must have had some feel for the majesty of the Presidential Office itself. And in thinking on events of these past few days, I wonder if even Dr. King—for all of his harsh critiques of racism in America—could have imagined the Presidential office, and the one who now occupies it, as the source of the crude and hateful racist commentary we’ve lately been witness to.
To return to 1968: Martin Luther King’s death brought home, for us seminarians, the price one may end up paying for being a faith based leader who is driving and directing a religiously motivated force for justice and social change. We were about a week away from Good Friday and Easter that year. We felt like we were witnesses to a crucifixion; and it was one of our own who had been put to death. While the media mostly used and uses the term “Doctor”, for us he was Reverend King, a minister, even as we were preparing to be ministers ourselves.
A day or two after his murder the Black students at the seminary prepared a Memorial Service for Rev. King with notices going out to the African American churches in Rochester. Another vivid memory for me from that time is when I looked at the faces of those African American church folk who came to that service. For all of the grief and anger and bewilderment that I was feeling, when I saw those faces I realized that there was only so far I could go, as white person, in really knowing what was happening with them. And that is a truth that has stayed with me for fifty years since—that however racially conscious and aware I may become, there is still only so far I can go, as a white person, in fully knowing and entering into the experience of being Black, or African-American in this country we call America.
What I am sharing with you today is really a point of departure for a sermon I’ll offer in two weeks. My working title is “God and the Constitution.” My point will be that while, as our Constitution rightly has it, the institutions of religion and government are kept separate in our country, we have always had an interaction between religion and society or religion and culture.
That interaction has been a double-edged sword throughout of our history. Practically every movement for greater levels of social change, for social justice, and for greater levels of equality and equity within our country have had a religious motivation; and practically every kind of resistance and reaction to, and repression of, such efforts have also been religiously motivated in one way or another. I’ll return to this topic on January 28.
It was Martin Luther King who demonstrated for me, and for others of my generation who prepared for the ministry, how “spiritual power”, let’s call it, could be harnessed for the sake of the greater good. Rev. King was fond of recalling the words our Unitarian forbearer, and radical 19th century Abolitionist, Rev. Theodore Parker, who said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It was Rev. King, who called on us aspiring ministers to be agents of that moral arc as we would take up our own ministries.
However well, or not, I may have risen to that challenge during my time in the ministry, I bless and revere the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King for his enduring example.
January 14, 2018