MLK50: Church and Race, Past and Future
Recently I had the opportunity to attend the MLK50 Conference in Memphis, TN. The conference was co-sponsored by the ERLC (Ethics and Religious Lliberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention) and by The Gospel Coalition. It was held on April 3rd and 4th so that it would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, in the city were it happened. The conference was to address where the church had come in the last 50 years on issues of race.
I had registered for the conference when I first heard about it months ago. Issues of race have always been of interest to me, even before I became a Christian. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I admit I had things to deal with when it came to race. I was not a blatant racist, but I fed in to many of the stereotypes and was always willing to laugh at or tell a “good” joke. Growing up in the suburbs, in the age of busing, my direct exposure to people who were different that me racially was limited. Not that I did not have any black friends, I did. But they were few, and I interacted with them in my own environment, not in environments that were different from mine.
Coming to faith in the early 90s, I knew I had to come to terms with my past when it came to race. I came to faith in a church in Bloomfield, CT that, at the time, was somewhat racially diverse. It was there that I met Jim. Jim became not just a good friend, but a brother in the true sense of the word.
Years ago, we went to a conference in Philadelphia along with our Senior Pastor and Associate Pastor. It was aimed at church leaders, which I was far from being at that time. During a break, Jim and I hit the bookstore. There we found a curriculum for a course on Racial Reconciliation. We immediately looked at one another with a smile. We sought out our Associate Pastor and told him that we found something that we thought would be a great resource for our church. We showed it to him and he agreed. He said he would purchase it for the church on one condition.
Puzzled we both looked back at him and inquired what that would be. He answered, “that the two of you teach the course together during our Adult Sunday School time.” I think we answered “Deal” at the same time. You see, Jim was African American. And our pastor wanted both of us up there together. Jim and I loved teaching that course. We spent a lot of time together and as much as we felt we knew each other and ourselves, we learned a lot more over that semester. There was confession and forgiveness.
So when this conference was announced, I was intrigued. I have felt that the “church” has not really done a good job in this area. And I wanted to see how they would admit to that and what were there plans moving forward. I also felt pretty comfortable about where I stood when it came to race. As I sat through the conference and listened, I was pleased with the openness of what I was hearing. There was confession and there was a willingness to address what needs to change. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary.
On the second day we took a break so we could all attend a ceremony at what is now the National Civil Rights Museum. In 1968 it was the Lorraine Motel. My son Daniel and I were standing in the courtyard with thousands others when the bell tolled at 6:01 pm. Fifty years after the single bullet felled King, standing on the balcony outside his room.
It was a moving remembrance. We all walked the mile plus back to the convention center, stoping for a quick bite to eat. We crossed Beale Street and we walked down Main Street, where, 50 years earlier, African American men marched to protest the poor treatment of the sanitation workers of Memphis. They carried signs in 1968 that proclaimed “I Am a Man”. What I now understand so much better as a 60-year-old than I did then as an 11-year-old in 1968, is that those signs were making the simple statement that they were men. Plain and simple, men, made in God’s image. It rocked me to the core that those sanitation workers were not being treated as men, at least not equal men. I thought long and hard on that walk back.
What was my main takeaway as I came home from Memphis? That there is still a lot of work to do. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary. And it starts in my heart. I may have worked on this over the years, but there is still a lot more I need to learn and act on. I know I need God’s help to do it right.