April 4, 1968 and April 4, 2018 are two dates separated by exactly 50 years, but both of them are indelibly etched together on my mind. On that Spring day in 1968, as a 12-year-old boy, I recall watching flicker on the screen of our black and white television set the scenes of grief and rage across the nation in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. At that time I knew very little about Dr. King, and honestly, what I had heard about him, as interpreted by the completely white and southern culture in which my young life was formed, was not very good. He was a “trouble maker,” a “communist” and maybe even worse, “a liberal democrat.” Yes, I did hear many Christian people say they were sad for his wife and children, but some of them also expressed that they really believed the nation was better off without him.
After several years of growing up and growing into young manhood, I was converted to faith in Jesus in a church that faithfully preached the gospel and yet also firmly held to the racial view of “separate but equal.” After that, for 6 years I was provided an amazing education and preparation for ministry from godly faculty and staff in a university deeply rooted and stubbornly holding to a long history of racism and bigotry. Then, following graduation, my wife and I still in our early-20’s, moved to a beautiful, small Midwestern city, “Flag City USA” as it was called. There we served on the church staff of a congregation of the most loving, devout, lily-white and racially clueless people you could imagine…and I was right at home.
Of course, I could very confidently affirm that I was not a racist, but I was also most definitely, and quite contentedly, ignorant of the suffering, discrimination and injustice being experienced by fellow human beings, image-bearers of my God, whose skin happened to be a few shades darker than mine. Millions of these people were also clearly, according to the Bible that I firmly believed and preached, my brothers and sisters in the family of God. Yes, I knew that… but I didn’t know them…know their history, know their stories, know their experiences, and know their trials as my fellow disciples following Jesus. But, eventually, all that changed, and how I thank the Lord today for that change!
Early in my pastorate, faith-filled and love-motivated men of color, overcoming great discomfort to themselves, invaded my comfortable life. They were relentlessly intentional, relational and missional in seeking community with me. I was a pastor, their pastor, but they were my shepherds. They lovingly led me to a bigger, greener pasture of greater awareness and also the joyful enlightenment that God’s flock is massive, multi-ethnic and multi-colored. They opened my mind to recognize that the needless dividing of God’s flock over color is, in reality, the work of the enemy. And these beloved, brave, brother-shepherds walked with me to the mountaintop to help me see a vision of a church which is more ravishingly beautiful and radically powerful, when it is racially diverse.
On the afternoon of April 4, 2018, it was truly a mountaintop view that I shared with two of these beloved brothers in Memphis, Tennessee. We joined that day with thousands of brothers and sisters of every color, uniting in praise and worship of our one Lord, and one Master, Jesus Christ. For a moment we caught a glimpse and shared a brief experience of the dream of Dr. King, the dream which will one day be our eternal reality before the King of Kings. That is the dream which is His will…here, now, in us and on earth. May this dream of Dr. King, the will of the King of Kings, be our constant prayer and relentless pursuit.
“O, Lord, this is your Kingdom and your will done in heaven, help us to devote ourselves to seeing it come and done on earth. Amen.”