Last week I spent a few days visiting a friend in Atlanta, GA. A most delightful discovery I made was to learn that Martin Luther King Jr is from this city! I made it a point take time to learn what made this man so great that he is memorialized all across the country by buildings, street names, gardens, a foundation, and a 30ft high statue at the capitol. I found my answer in a church, or rather, two churches.
Before leaving town on a 6 hour drive up to Raleigh, NC to see another friend, I stopped at the Martin Luther King National Historical Site. This place baffles me—on one hand, it’s an ordinary Atlanta city street with houses, churches and shops, but with the addition of large buildings standing in honor of the great man and the National Park Rangers in the usual forest-green slacks and wide-brimmed hats guiding visitors through city streets.
I only had 30 min to spare for my tour and walked briskly to first visit Ebenezer Baptist Church. I sat down quietly in one of the pews in the mostly-empty chapel which played a track of one of MLK’s sermons. The place was beautiful with its carved wood and stained glass. But it was also very ordinary—the typical city church. I tried to take it all in, imagine that MLK was at the pulpit, to consider what inspired him in this place.
About 40 junior rangers filed in, interrupting my reverie and sat in the pews in front of me to listen to a blind ranger share the church’s history. When he was only 5 days old, MLK was dedicated in this church. His father was the pastor, later MLK became the pastor. Again, it was all so ordinary—the typical pastor’s kid.
I walked a few blocks up the road to get a glimpse of his birth home. Painted in a humble tan with espresso trim, it was unassuming… just another house in the neighborhood. I imagined that this is where MLK was disciplined, perhaps spanked, perhaps made to memorize Bible verses, and taught to walk in the ways of the Lord.
Ordinary. That’s what struck me most of all. This was an ordinary man who feared God and stood up to walk in courage and truth in his generation. Many of us have taken similar bold steps but not before the eyes of the entire nation, and perhaps not with 80% of the American church chastising us for our nonviolent actions. Perhaps we haven’t faced death threats to ourselves and our family, or given one of the most remembered speeches in American history to a quarter of a million people at the capitol.
What made him different? MLK was the man chosen “for such a time as this.” He listened to God, walked with courage in the face of a thousand challenges, and when the time called for a righteous leader, he stood up with a prophetic message for his generation and inspired them to action.
Could you or I be that leader in our generation? MLK had a dream. What is yours?
In prophetic words that resonate with us 55 years later, King painted a picture of a nation not divided by skin color. Where children of all colors played together. Where former slaves and slave owners ate together. Where black and white Christians prayed and sang together.
“With this faith we’ll be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will he free one day.” – I have a Dream Speech, 1963
Could today be the day his dream is realized? I have seen a glimpse of this dream coming true at an ordinary church in Raleigh, NC. While it’s ordinary, it’s a lot less common than King and I should like.
The friend I visited in Raleigh is white and her husband is black, from Kenya. They were looking for a place where they both felt free to worship when they found King’s Park International Church (appropriately named, is it not?). I went to worship with them last Sunday to see if what I’d heard was true… The people around me were of many colors—black and white in equal proportion along with Asians and a diversity of internationals. My mind went to the heavenly vision of John in Revelation 7:9,
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”
What would it look like for us to pray as Jesus taught us, “Your Kingdom Come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? What would heaven look like on earth?
Right in front of me at King’s Park, I saw a picture of it. The pastors were both black and white, the worship team members were black and white. Tears cascaded down my cheeks as I lifted my hands in worship with this multi-colored family in a soulful song to our heavenly Father. Around the sanctuary people stood in mixed groups—in one row I saw three women–white, black, and Asian–all in a row. During the sermon, I was distracted watching an older white woman sitting between two black women and bottle-feeding an adorable black baby girl (perhaps the mother was beside her). These weren’t people trying to be diverse because it’s politically correct or fashionable, they were a family—God’s family!
In that moment, gratitude welled up within me and I wished MLK could’ve been there with me to see his dream becoming reality. It may have taken several decades and we may have a very long way to go before this kind of church family becomes the norm, but we have something new emerging.
As someone committed to the journey of reconciliation amidst all its ups and downs, this experience fills me with HOPE and inspires me to dream of what might be possible in the Kingdom of God.
Let’s live into the dream with King!
Additional Quotes & Food for Thought
“I think it is one tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies is that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour in Christian America. I definitely think the Christian church should be integrated and any church that stands against integration and has a segregated body is standing against the spirit and teachings of Jesus Christa and it fails to be a true witness. But this is something the church will have to do itself, I don’t think church integration will come through legal processes.” — MLK in a TV spot on “Meet the Press” April 17, 1960.
“When we allow freedom to ring-when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.” – MLK, I Have a Dream speech, August 28, 1963
“If we can’t build an inclusive church at the house of Dr. King, where can you have one?…I think it’s particularly powerful… I want to see white brothers and sisters joining this church. … If you are serious about fighting against what is America’s original sin, more white people should join what are historically black churches because that’s about shedding your privilege and hooking up with a community of faith… we welcome all to the body for Christ.” – Sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church Sunday, January 15, 2017