Leader: As people across the United States remember and honor the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his struggle for justice and the dangers it entailed, it provides us with a reminder that the work of the church has always required courage. With Doctor King's historic struggle for civil rights in mind, let us reflect on the strength it takes to move from thought and belief to action.
Reader: On Sunday, Sept. 16, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed by violent white racists. It was a protest against a settlement made between the African-American community and the city of Birmingham that would end segregation.
Reader: Many of the stained glass windows of the church were destroyed by the blast. A familiar one, depicting Jesus knocking on a door, was left with the face of Jesus missing. Other faces were lost that day. Four young children were killed by the blast as they walked into Sunday school to hear a sermon entitled, "The Love That Forgives."
Reader: Not long before this, Rev. Martin Luther King had been jailed in Birmingham for failing to procure a "parade permit" for a protest against segregation. He received a letter while he was in jail from eight clergy, among whom was a Catholic bishop, asking for moderation. The letter stated, "We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely."
Reader: Dr. King addressed the concern that his work was "untimely" in the following way: "I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: ‘All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.'"
Reader: Dr. King continued, "Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people."
Reader: Dr. King concluded that, "Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of people willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood and sisterhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity."
Reader: There was never a response to Dr. King's letter from that group of clergy. However, on Jan. 17, 2011, on the observance of Dr. King's birthday, a group representing Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals did finally respond. They committed to do three things.
- Remember with profound gratitude the courage and sacrifice of those who had come before them in the struggle for racial justice.
- Repent of the fact that faith communities, while outwardly committed to justice, had not followed through to root out the vestiges of racism that remain, choosing to be comfortable rather than prophetic.
- Renew their commitment to the struggle for racial equality.
Reader: The group referenced the window damaged in the blast where the face of Jesus was missing and its replacement, a figure of Jesus, arms raised, resisting injustice and at the same time offering forgiveness. The window was a gift to the church from the people of Wales in the United Kingdom.
Leader: Please take a moment to reflect on the need for remembrance, repentance and renewal.
- Who do we remember now who has advocated for us and who helped us to get to this place in our lives?
- In what ways do we need to continue the process of change for ourselves, re-shaping ourselves from people of comfort to people of prophecy?
- Where in my life or work might I renew a commitment to be a prophetic voice?
Leader: Let us pray together … Lord God, we stand on the shoulders of giants who have sacrificed for the sake of the Gospel message. We stand here, responsible for the governance of your healing ministry, aware of much good work that is done, and much more yet to do.
Give us a share of the spirit that guided Dr. King and others like him to be voices for the voiceless. Do not let us settle into "appalling silence," but instead, have the courage to do what is necessary for those most in need — those whom your son Jesus loved the most. By our words and actions, may we become the face of Jesus in our time and place. We pray in his name. Amen.