On Monday evening, I had the honor of delivering the keynote speech for the DuPage County Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration. It was a great evening that included great music and a dramatic delivery of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Here is the text from which I gave my remarks on Monday.
I don’t have the words fully to express to you how honored I am to have the chance to stand in this pulpit this evening. I am humbled I am to stand in the line of the fine speakers you have had addressing God’s people on the occasion when we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I sat right there in the front row last year and was deeply moved by the words of Dr. Tracy Malone. I am grateful to my colleague and friend, Pastor Kevin Williams, and the people at Second Baptist Church for extending the invitation and for all the work that has gone into organizing and publicizing this event.
Pastor Williams called me on Friday afternoon to check in and see how things were with me. “Man, something has changed,” he said. “We are going to need this gathering and each other more than ever.” Amen to that.
When I accepted this invitation back in September, most of us thought we would be on the cusp of swearing in the first woman president of the United States. It didn’t work out that way. Instead, we are about to inaugurate a new president who campaigned on division, bigotry, and xenophobia. He won the presidency by way of the electoral college, though he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 millions votes. Some people have said that we have taken a step back in progress we had made in addressing the challenges of a racialized society. I wonder if that’s true. I have a hunch that the curtain has been pulled back revealing who we have been all along; but the ugliness is no longer hidden. It’s out there in the open for all of us to see; and it seems to legitimize action that comes of the darkest corners of our collective psyche.
I remember 8 years ago at inauguration time. There was almost this giddy sense of excitement and optimism. I invited our church staff over to our home to watch the inauguration. We ate snacks and toasted with champagne. The theme was hope, and in every place where a crowd gathered you could hear the chants, “Yes, we can.” What a contrast to “Lock her up.”
Something has shifted. I don’t know many who are feeling that sense of unbridled optimism, even among those who voted for the president elect. Instead it’s like a pall of fear has descended on our whole country. Fear seems to be consistent among those who voted for him and those who didn’t. I’ve spent some time talking with those who voted for our president-elect. I’ve wanted to understand. Among many things I’ve discovered is that even those who are happy with the results of the election are not feeling a great sense of optimism and hope; they don’t feel like we have taken some giant step forward. It’s hard to know for sure what’s going on.
Fear is nothing new. In an age of iphones, social media, and the constant, 24/7 barrage of headlines and sound bites it’s a wonder we ever come out of our homes. The evening news is often little more than an update on what we should be afraid of today. What we eat, what we drive, what’s going on halfway around the world, what’s going on in our own city — the list of things we should be afraid of is never ending.
But the present fear goes beyond that. The campaign language of bigotry has unleashed a storm of bigoted actions. The disregard for truth has left us with an even greater suspicion of the institutions that are so vital to our democracy. We’ve even coined language for it, as if it’s perfectly acceptable and normal — they say we now live in a post-truth culture.
But it’s not normal. And it’s not the kind of country that I want to live in. I do not want to live in a country where truth doesn’t matter. I do not want to live in a country where fear and suspicion and hatred and stridency are the dominant forces that drive our public life. Do we want communities where we are suspicious of each other? Where we choose to highlight our differences? Where there is no room for the stranger or for the person trying to make a new start, for the family trying to make a life for themselves, to escape the violence of their neighborhood or their home country? Do we want communities where we slice and dice and categorize based on color of skin or which street you live on or which symbols are in your house of worship or where your parents were born?
Dr. King had a vision for something greater and grander. On Christmas Eve, 1967, just a few months before he was assassinated he preached these words at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he was co-pastor: This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. And yet, my friends, the Christmas hope for peace and good will toward all men can no longer be dismissed as a kind of pious dream of some utopian. . .Let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means that we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. . .As nations and individuals, we are interdependent. . .All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.
That’s what we want. An interrelated community that reflects how the creator has made us. When God created that first man, God said it is not good for the man to be alone. So, God created the woman; in that moment began the interrelatedness of the human species. We are created to be in community. Not just created in community, but created to care for and love and support one another.
In my religious tradition, Jesus is kind of a big deal. Throughout his ministry, Jesus lifted up the necessity of caring for one another. When he was preaching for a crowd of thousands and saw that they had no lunch, he fed them. When he encountered a blind man, he restored his sight, the deaf man could hear again, the lame man could walk again, the lepers he cleansed. He authorized his followers to do the same thing. He told a story about how some folks had given food to the hungry and a drink of water to the thirsty and clothing to the naked. And when they did that, Jesus told them that they had done it for him. When we serve our neighbor, we are serving God. We see God in the face of our neighbor. Caring for one another in community and relationship is holy work. That’s the beloved community of our dreams.
The challenge always is to turn our dreams into reality. This week, all our attention is on Washington, there being an inauguration and all. Some folks think there’s this big thing called government that’s going to take care of stuff. We elect the right people and the right things will happen. And when we don’t elect the right people, well, bad things happen and that’s government. It’s too big and the forces are too strong and we can’t do anything about it. After all, you can’t fight city hall.
But I refuse to believe in that kind of determinism, that we are subject to inevitable and unassailable forces. We are not victims of the vagaries of history. If there’s anything the legacy of Dr. King has show us it’s that common, ordinary people have the agency to be a force for the good in the communities where they live.
Too many people subscribe to a narrative of the civil rights movement that is simplistic and simply not true. In his book, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Charles Payne summarizes that popular narrative like this:
Traditionally, relationships between the races in the South were oppressive. Many Southerners were very prejudiced against Blacks. In 1954, the Supreme Court decided this was wrong. Inspired by the court, courageous Americans, Black and white, took protest to the street, in the form of sit-ins, bus boycotts, and Freedom Rides. The nonviolent protest movement, led by the brilliant and eloquent Reverend Martin Luther King, aided by a sympathetic federal government, most notably the Kennedy brothers and a born-again Lyndon Johnson, was able to make America understand racial discrimination as a moral issue. Once Americans understood that discrimination was wrong, they quickly moved to remove racial prejudice and discrimination from American life, as evidenced by the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. Dr. King was tragically slain in 1968. Fortunately, by that time the country had been changed, changed for the better in some fundamental ways. The movement was a remarkable victory for all Americans. By the 1970s, Southern states where Blacks could not have voted ten years earlier were sending African Americans to Congress.
Simplistic. And wrong. The movement was much more than that. That’s not how it happened. The civil rights movement didn’t start in Washington with the courts or with federal government. It started in the towns and villages of Mississippi and Alabama where people whose names we don’t remember went door to door and did the long, slow, hard work of relating with people and organizing them, folks like Amzi Moore and Mrs. Haner and Mrs. McGhee and Annie Devine. Dozens of college students and a handful of high school students spread across Mississippi and went door to door getting to know people and finding out who would show up for actions and what people were worried about. When big actions were planned, actions like bus boycotts and the March from Selma to Montgomery, leaders and ordinary folk gathered to plan and to train. They role played about what would be said or done in certain situations. They trained people in how to take a beating. A younger version of U. S. Representative John Lewis was present for that training, and maybe that’s what allowed him to take the beating at the hands of the Alabama State Police that left him bleeding on the Edmund Pettis Bridge with a fractured skull. By the way, you can say many things about U. S. Representative John Lewis. But you cannot call him a man of all talk an no action. He is one of the living heroes of our democracy.
The leaders of the civil rights movement understood that when citizens want to get serious about becoming agents for the common good in their own communities it takes a lot of long, slow, persistent, consistent, and mostly unglamorous work. It requires sitting down one on one, talking to people. It requires painstaking research to discover what actions can be taken that will move us towards justice, righteousness, and that peaceable kingdom. It involves knowing the power structures in a community and institutions. It demands planning actions that will elicit a reaction. When the civil rights movement leaders planned marches and put school children in the front of those marches so that they would be the first ones to encounter Bull Connor’s police dogs, that was not an accident. It was planned to elicit a certain reaction. Those young people who went door to door building relationships and training leaders began to coalesce their power. They were organizers. It was long, slow work, but it was respectful work, work that was intentional and the kind of work that was absolutely essential to their success.
Weeks ago, when I was thinking about these remarks, and making some notes, I wrote this note to myself: “I don’t want to make this speech into a commercial for community organizing.” A few weeks later, I came back to that note and I wrote in the margin, “But maybe I do.”
What I have experienced in organizing is that we can turn our care for our communities and our neighborhoods and our neighbors into action that is more than symbolic. Symbolic action has its place. This gathering this evening is mostly symbolic. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important. It’s just to recognize the limitations of a symbolic gathering. Hopefully, it will be inspirational, and we will leave here with a sense of hope and a determination to go to work. At its best, this gathering will prod us to action. But this gathering makes no plan for action.
If we were to make a commitment to join together for the sake of working together, that would be something different. If we made a commitment to plan together and to work together and we began organizing ourselves to actually do that, we could expect that we would begin to enact the vision that we have for what our community should be. If we were to make specific determination about the challenges of our community and pull together the power of the people, we would discover that we can do things, we can make a difference. It doesn’t have to be all talk.
What I have experienced in community organizing is the best chance we have to enact God’s vision for what the world should be. I am a leader with DuPage United, an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national parent organization for organizing work that is being done across the country. We are doing real work. Here in our community, we have taken action to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters in the face of ramped up Islamophobia. We have pushed the DuPage County sheriff’s Department to provide Crisis Intervention Training for all of the sheriff’s deputies out on the beat. We are in the process of setting up community mental health crisis centers so we keep people who are having a mental health crisis out of the emergency room and out of jail, and most importantly, insure that they get the help they need. We can’t rely on the state to get this work done. The state of Illinois is broken. We’ve got to take things into our own hands, and we can do it. Yes, we can.
In the next four years we are going to need each other. We are going to need to be in relationship. We are going to need to be organized. We simply must do the hard, slow, painstaking work of meeting with one another, developing a web of relationship in our community, so that I stand with you when you need me, and you stand with me when I need you. It remains to be seen whether the hateful and divisive rhetoric of the campaign will turn into policy and action. In a sense, it doesn’t matter; we’re going to need each other. You need to know that when your health insurance stops covering pre-existing conditions, your neighbors will stand next to you and fight for what’s right. When you are required to register because you are a Muslim, you need to know that there will be Christians who will stand in that line and get registered right along with you. When the school to prison pipeline keeps growing and flourishing, you need to know that you will have neighbors who will take action with you to demand that fairness and equality and justice are blind to skin color. We will need each other more than ever. I believe that’s the work that Dr. King was involved in. I think that’s the work that preserves and continues his legacy. It doesn’t matter who is president of the United States or what the Congress does or doesn’t do. We will join hands and we will work and plans and organize and fight and demand together, until justice flows down like water.
Indulge me with just a few more minutes to speak to those of you here tonight who are members of the white Christian church. If this speech was a letter, this would be the P. S. The white church has a miserable record of silence, complacency, and complicity when it comes to matters of race in this country. Too often, the white church has worked to maintain the structures of racism that have oppressed our fellow citizens of African descent, systems that have denied them the same opportunities that we white people have taken for granted.
I confess that I am late to this work. I confess my own complicity. I confess that it took the shootings at Mother Emmanuel Church to wake me up. The shooter was a member of a church in my denomination. He grew up in a white Lutheran church and attended confirmation class, probably not all that different from the confirmation classes I teach. Yet somehow his connection to church, to my church, could not erase a deep hate based only on race.
Shortly after that shooting, I went to a colleague who pastors a church with a significant African American membership and asked if we could get members of our congregations together; I said I needed them to help us understand the problems and challenges of racism. He schooled me; he told me “That’s not our job.” He told me, “You white people need to do your work, begin to understand racism and white privilege and how racialized our society has become.” I was taken aback. I had never heard that before. So, I got on the Facebook page for the clergy of my denomination. And I asked the question there. And I got schooled again, this time not so gently. “You white people need to do your own work. When you have done your work, come back and then we can talk.” So, that’s what I’ve been trying to do. In my congregation, all of our staff have been through anti-racism training. We have sponsored anti-racism training for our members. We are reading; we are having conversations; we are learning. We are waking up.
In the past year, Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Drew G. I. Hart have both written compelling books on racism and the church. While they disagree on certain points, they both believe that we will not make substantial progress in dismantling racism in our country until the white church shows up and starts making it a priority. That is not to say that white liberals are going to bring racial equality to the people of color. That’s a colonial attitude that has been part of the problem. I mean to say that we have our own work to do in recognizing white privilege and doing our work to begin dismantling the structures of racism.
This is my challenge to you, white church. Show up. Do your work. Have the conversations. Read TaNehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, Nell Ervin Painter, The History of Whiteness, Debby Irving, Waking up White.
We are going to need each other. And if we in the white church are going to be our best selves and really be neighbors, then we simply must do our own work.
No matter the darkness, there is always light. No matter the fear, there is always hope. Together we can do this work.
This is a song that I learned as a child and I will never out grow it. Dr. King said that darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Together we will shine the light into the dark places.
(And we sang:)This little light of mine.I’m going to let it shine. . .
Ev’ry where I go, I’m going to let it shine. . .
I wish I had been in town to be there in person to hear this — a wonderful call to action.
Jim, Thank you so much for sending a copy of your Monday-night message. I was hoping you would do so. It is a marvelous piece, and several readings will be necessary to absorb all that you have put forth, especially in the area of being able as Christians to do something about the heartbreaking racial prejudices that divide us as human beings. I grew up in the town of Cicero, and I remember rioting that took place when black families were attempting to move into several neighborhoods. It hurts now to think about it. I’d like to share more about that time, what I remember of it, when you, Bill and I share lunch again. We’ve heard that Monday night was wonderful and so impressive, and that your message was amazing, as usual. We’re sorry we couldn’t “be in two places at once” – will tell you more about that, too. See you Sunday. Doris