From the Mountaintop to the Valley: Reflections on #MLK50

Seeing the Memphis forecast on a stormy April night in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nearly didn't bother to attend a church speaking engagement. He didn't feel well, and given the rain and severe weather he assumed low attendance. Yet a phone call convinced him to go, and King gave his now famous Mountaintop Speech that evening to an over packed house.

"I’ve been to the mountaintop... I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

Fifty years later to the day, April 3, 2018, the warm Memphis air grew similarly thick outside, with severe weather forecast yet again. But this didn't stop a crowd of about 4,000 gathered in the Memphis Convention Center. Only this time, rather than anticipating King's arrival, we mourned his passing and joined together to consider his dream of unity, still looking for a greater fulfillment of that proverbial Promised Land.

The MLK50 Conference was a 2-day gathering of Christian leaders to reflect on Dr. King's life and work, the Gospel implications of that dream, where we've come and where we need to go from here. I first heard of the event at last year's Gospel Coalition Conference, and knew then I needed to be there. I did not, however, know at that time all the events happening in the city or the sheer number of people who would arrive on April 4, exactly 50 years from the day MLK was shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel—the very day after that great speech.

Conference Highlights
I won't try to restate the entire conference here. You can watch or listen to keynotes and workshops at this link:
MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop

Instead, I'll hit some of the highlights and themes throughout:
• The Gospel directly impacts every area discussed in racial unity, justice, equity and more. These aren't political issues, they're Gospel issues. Jesus died to bring restoration and make His people one.
• It's easy to honor people who've died and can no longer speak directly to us. Thankfully, Jesus is alive. We must truly honor Him.
• We need to learn from previous generations. Don't ignore the impact of the past on the present. Predominantly white churches need to speak openly and frankly about historic and ongoing systematic issues.
• Don't idolize or demonize historical Christian leaders, downplay moral failings of some or intentionally seek to discredit others. We all sin. Jesus deals with His people not according to their behavior but His grace. We never excuse sin, but must see it in context.
• We must all repent of any areas in which we claim superiority. Watch out for spiritual blind spots, such as Peter had, and resist cultural individualism. Repentance is necessary for reconciliation.
• Take social suffering seriously enough to get involved, and hope seriously enough to stay involved. Don't dismiss, deny or downplay anyone's suffering, especially that of other Christians.
• We need to share and sacrifice. If your church has resources another church can use, share with them to increase Kingdom impact. When you can, share resources with area schools.
• We need more real relationships. We need to work together. We need to really listen. We need to be able to push each other in uncomfortable ways.
• We must love one another. If you don't know where to start, start by simply being nice, in person AND online.
• Pray for unity as Jesus did. We don't do unity/diversity for the sake of it, but because of the Gospel. It's also not something we manufacture. We have unity and diversity in Christ.

It was no surprise that much of this was so familiar. It's exactly the kind of Gospel understanding the Lord's been developing in me through all the trips and events of recent years, the entire thread of which I continue to share under "Reconciliation & Development."

One thing I hadn't processed before this week was that private schools, including those calling themselves "Christian" at the time, largely developed in response to desegregation. If white people couldn't have their own schools, they just created them. Often, this created additional educational disparity and classism in many ways, and among both ethnicities, including white students whose parents couldn't afford private school. A similar story continues to this day in many places.

A speaker with a slightly different angle was Trip Lee, sharing the pros and cons of art and music in racial reconciliation. It can be helpful in some ways, such as pushing the conversation forward, but diversity at a concert certainly won't solve the problem, as some have strangely believed. I recommend his talk for more.

I was also glad to say a quick hello to "Grandpa" John Perkins, who himself expressed some recognition from our week with him in 2012. I remain grateful for his teaching on forgiveness even for those who preach and practice racism, as this mindset even subtly expressed can invoke great anger in me. Hearing from one who suffered physically at the hands of such men, yet with a clear Gospel response, has been invaluable. I grabbed his new book "One Blood" on its day of release along with some other recent writings.

Walking in Memphis
We took a conference break on April 4 allowing time to visit the Lorraine Hotel. Lots of speaking and singing was happening throughout the day, and that afternoon we made our way through the crowd of thousands attending this and other events in the city.
Crowds make their way to and from the Lorraine Hotel.
A wreath presentation ceremony.
Crowd and media beneath the hotel sign.
A choir performance.
An "I AM A MAN" sign similar to those used during the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike following the deaths of two workers.

My goal was especially to join the city for a bell ringing ceremony at 6:01 p.m., the precise moment the shot rang out 50 years before. The bell tolled 39 times, indicating King's age at the time of his passing. With all the previous noise and fanfare, the crowd turned respectfully quiet during this time.

The 120-year-old historic bell rung at 6:01 p.m. It originally hung at Clayborn Temple in Memphis, which served as Sanitation Strike headquarters. (Source: USA Today)
The red and white wreath was shrouded until the bell tolled.
The bell ringing was followed almost immediately by a joyfully jazzy rendition of "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," a gospel song Dr. King requested just moments before the shooting.

Al Green performs "Precious Lord, Take My Hand."
Before heading back to finish the conference, and as the crowd began to move again, I wanted to grab a photo in front of the hotel. As I was expressing I was not the most important object in the shot, a new friend stepped alongside and said, "We're gonna get a picture together." In all the excitement I never learned her name, but we all felt the significance of that little act.

A small picture of the dream continuing to grow.
MLK50 banner above an "I AM A MAN" street mural on the walk back.

We also took the opportunity to visit the National Civil Rights Museum inside the renovated hotel on April 5. After the massive crowds the day before, the streets felt strangely empty, but the museum had a fair number of visitors also taking advantage of their time here before returning home.

This was my second visit to the museum, which underwent significant renovations since our time here in 2012, but it really helped to revisit and give more clarity to all I'd processed in the days, and years, before.

The day after. Crews began picking up and tearing down.
Still hoping this becomes the true "American Dream."

We took a lunch break on Beale (Silky O'Sullivan's, for those keeping score at home) and headed back to finish up on the legacy side of the museum. An announcement soon requested we move to a lower floor, and we were briefly detained due to concerns of some threat. Thankfully, nothing eventful occurred at any time on our trip, but this moment and heavy security all around were constant reminders of the continued vigilance needed in our day. 

Personal Reflections
With more unsettling headlines and rampant "opinions" in recent weeks, it seems we remain in the valley, still trying to trudge through, hoping to reach and realize that "Promised Land." But even with all the frustrations and apparent backward steps, many of which have actually prompted the dialogue needed to help move us forward, it's my continued desire to challenge and encourage you as God is teaching me on the way.

On this stretch of my journey, I'm starting to process areas where I may have benefited from historical events which shaped the St. Louis area and continue to have effects today. This includes my family following the city to county pattern of white migration that left particular regions increasingly impoverished while blocking families from living in others, or how the church where I now find employment moved further into the county from an area which was racially shifting in the 1960s.

Those are just a couple examples, but past events affect the present in ways we often don't see, many times because we don't really want to. I'm happy to say the areas of the county where I live and work are now far more diverse, but there's no denying those kinds of movements and motivations continue to create different outcomes for future generations, and this is the reality we're up against today.

The week's events are also helping me think through ways we as a church are now hoping to address issues of racial unity, economic and educational equity, and more. I'm excited we're having these conversations and trying new approaches, and I pray we stay Gospel focused while pursuing these concerns as best we can. We will stumble, and there must be no savior mentality here. But how can we be servants in these areas, providing real and effective assistance to meet needs? What will it cost us? These are important and prayerful questions we must ask as we move forward.

I'll close with an encouragement, similar to one given at the conference. If you are also in this fight, don't give up. I consider there was a time when it would have been dangerous to even snap a photo with our friend above. But change has happened, and changes are happening, slow though they may be. The Lord will continue to work in His Church, and through us into our respective communities. Pray for that, and for those resisting the goal of Gospel unity in various ways. We continue to fight the good fight on all fronts with the glory of God in mind.

Even in the valley, in this brokenness, it's still worth dreaming. MLK died looking down in hope from that mountaintop. But Jesus died on Mount Calvary, entered the valley of the shadow of death, and rose again to make a unified people a reality. Through Him, that Promised Land is already ours. Let's show the world His Kingdom here on earth.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. You have had many opportunities to see in person where the violence of 50 years ago and more occurred. You look into issues not just read about them. I appreciate your unbiased opinions and willingness to share with others. Keep up the hard work and help to inspire others to take a deeper look at racial injustice.


Thanks for reading, and for sharing your thoughts. Have a great day!