Monday, January 16, 2012

Church Went to Me

I went to church today. Or, rather, church went to me. The thing is, I didn’t expect to find myself at church … but there I was. No, I didn’t wander unsuspectingly into the National Cathedral for its observance of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., though that would have been a great thing to do.

Instead, I found myself at the Smithsonian American History Museum, where my family and I listened to a young man reading passages from some of Dr. King’s speeches. He opened by singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” A few of us in the crowd sang along. Then he gave a brief biography of Dr. King, interspersed with recitations from his speeches and, sometimes, recordings of speeches punctuated with applause. Interestingly, after applauding for “Precious Lord,” nobody in the multi-generational, multi-racial crowd applauded the speeches. It was as if these speeches were holy—you know, the way we don’t applaud in church because we’re participating in a sacrament. It was like that with Dr. King’s speeches today.

After recounting the bus strike and the actions that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the young man went on to talk about Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence and his opposition to the war in Vietnam. He noted that it was at this point that fewer people found themselves able to get on board with Dr. King’s agenda—to be opposed to war, even on Christian principles, was simply going too far. And then, we got up to April 4, 1968.

I wasn’t born yet in 1968, but my own family has stories about the day. My mother remembers holding her roommate from Zaire while the young woman sobbed. They were both wearing shorts that warm spring day. In that moment, my mother hated the color of her skin and wished she could change it for the sake of her friend.

The young man read a selection from Dr. King’s final speech, and then he invited us all to stand, join hands with our neighbors, and sing “We Shall Overcome.” I looked over and found a young black girl standing next to me—she might have been about eight years old. She didn’t hesitate to take my hand while we sang. I looked down and her little sister, on the other side of her, was smiling up at me.

I remembered that on the train on the way downtown today, Sarah had shyly caught the attention of a black sister and brother about her age. She had tried to make friends with them. The hesitation on her part and theirs was merely the hesitation of strangers who have not yet become friends; there wasn’t the slightest overtone of racial suspicion on the children’s part or on the part of their mother, who smiled at us while our children attempted a short-lived friendship. By the time we got off the train, our two families were chatting away like old friends, just for a few minutes while we rode the escalator together and then parted ways. So later, as I stood there in the museum that had become a church, I prayed, “Yes, this is it. This is the dream. Sometimes it’s really here, Martin. God bless you for your life and your sacrifice.” There is no doubt in my mind that Dr. King's dream and God's dream overlap almost completely.

After that we all walked to the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. We had a general idea where it was, but we didn’t have to ask directions; we just followed the multicolored crowd of people as they made their way on this brief, holy pilgrimage past the Washington Monument, past the World War II memorial, to the place where Dr. King’s profile has been carved out of stone.

My photo here captures the misquote that I understand will soon be corrected (see this article to learn more). But indeed, whether or not Dr. King would like to have seen it written in stone, he “was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” And as President Obama reminded us today, so can we all be. All of us.

We strolled past the many quotes of Dr. King's that are carved into the wall there. I thought, "My God, we're still not listening, are we? Most of these ideas are too difficult for us to handle." Imagine an America that chooses not to win at everything, but rather, to work hard to foster peace. Imagine a world in which war is simply not an acceptable way of accomplishing anything. Can you imagine it?


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