MLK Day 2019

Public speaking is the course I teach most. No matter what stage of my career, I have always found myself in the public speaking classroom and it is still — even 17 years after my first solo class — one of my favorite classes to teach. In addition to the coaching that happens in the course, I enjoy discussing unfamiliar speeches by familiar speakers with students, because it moves them away from cliches and encourages them to look at the content and delivery of the speaker in a new way.

Today, of course, I am thinking about King’s 1964 address to a Methodist Student Leadership Conference. King’s speeches to students and Christian leaders are among my favorites. In this address, he sought to encourage this body of young leaders of faith to not be bystanders in the social change of the 1960s. He made compelling arguments, as he did in many addresses, for the role of the church–the responsibility of the church–to lead the way in racial reconciliation in the US.

King said:

“The great challenge facing everyone assembled here tonight, the great challenge facing America, the great challenge facing every Christian is to remain awake through this great social revolution, for we have basic Christian responsibilities and great — basic Christian challenges as a result of this new age which is emerging. And so tonight, I would like to suggest some of the things that we must do, if we are to be responsible Christians in the midst of the racial revolution that is taking place in our nation and in the world.

First, I’d like to say that we’re challenged more than ever before to achieve a world perspective. Any individual or any nation that feels that it can live alone today is sleeping through a revolution. But in a real sense we are all interdependent.”

I find myself today wondering if we (the faith community) are awake or asleep. Are we, the church, willing to take on together the challenges of today’s social and political age? Are we doing the work to see the world and take a richer perspective, or are we huddled in our safe small groups and coffee shops and Wednesday night Bible studies after choir practice? Are we still insisting that we “don’t see color” and therefore are not cherishing the beauty in the diversity of God’s creation? Are we avoiding courageous conversations for fear of being misunderstood rather than for the excitement at the opportunity that God might use our simple words to bring about change? As “fearless” continues to frame my thinking, I am asking these questions of myself and inviting the Holy Spirit to reveal my role as a Christian in the changing world. I want to be more fearless in my advocacy this year.

I hope that as a faith community, we will continue to push ourselves to address the issues King and other advocates for justice and equality raised in previous decades. One of those lingering issues is racial diversity in the church. It is in this same speech that King discussed America’s most segregated hour. He said:

“And as I stand before you tonight I must still say that the Church is the most segregated major institution in America, and we must face the shameful fact that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning, when we stand to sing, “In Christ there is no East or West” — we stand in the most segregated hour of America; and the most segregated school of the week is the Sunday School. This means that all too many Christians have had a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.”

Ouch. I do not know about you, but I do not want to be found high on creeds and low on deeds when it comes to showing God’s love in the world today. I know that (based on issues like location and transportation) racially diverse houses of worship are not always possible. Political practices have continued to reinforce the residential and economic segregation that was status quo in the 1960s. But we should not let that limit us. I have seen up close how much we can learn from each other when we do the work required to achieve “King’s dream.”

One example of this is at our current church. Central to its mission is to be a “place for all people” even in the midst of an area of our state that has not historically been welcoming to people of color. So far we’ve seen authentic efforts to blend worship styles, invite diverse speakers (at more than just “missions Sunday”), and recognize varying cultural expectations. What has been even more compelling and new to me in this body is that conversations about diversity are not limited to the congregation membership and styles of music, but are also reflected and manifested in the church leadership. I love that this church chooses to see color and then do something about it by placing people of all backgrounds into visible church leadership roles. I think those are the types of deeds that Dr. King was interested in seeing as a true measure of what we like to call “progress.”

I am going to spend some more time today reading through the words of Dr. King. Hopefully I will find some new-to-me nuggets to share with students. How are you spending this day of observance in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.?

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