Martin Luther King and the Back of the Church

I recall my elementary school playground as a sea of white faces and bodies, of which mine was the whitest, flying in the towering swings and slamming the tetherball until its cord wound tightly around the pole. By middle and high school things were different, integrated. We called ourselves blacks, whites and Mexicans in those days (for some reason other groups like Asians and Native Americans didn’t have their own category) and I thought we all got along pretty well.

The Civil Rights Act was history, after all.

So it didn’t occur to me that there might be a reason why the other girls in my Girl Scout troop, who all happened to be black, lived in one certain neighborhood right behind the school. Neither did I ponder why those ten blocks were so different from mine. And when my mom (who was our Scout leader) took our troop camping to Joshua Tree, the fact that not one of the other girls had ever been camping did nothing to prompt me to reflect on our very distinct lives.

Life seemed fine to me.

I didn’t think to inquire how life seemed to Cynthia or Pat or John or Eula. Or Eddie and Sheila and Becky. I wish I had, I wish I had been a little more aware. Instead I was completely blind to the unjust hiring and lending and policing practices of the time. A culture of favoritism continued to thrive, a culture that favored certain groups over others. It didn’t occur to me to look below the surface.

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)

James’s congregations were making some people sit in the back of the bus – I mean the back of the church. But I imagine they all thought what they were doing was totally cool, totally appropriate, at least until James wrote them that offensive letter. They probably thought, of course you have to show deference where deference is due; some classes of humans deserve more respect than others. How in the world can society be ordered without distinctions, without favoritism, without discrimination?

James didn’t buy into the thinking of his day. He didn’t go for the ranking and classing and humiliating of people based on some external distinguisher.

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (James 2:8-9)

Some people don’t buy into the thinking of our day either, the thinking that claims no one is forcing anyone to sit in the back of the bus or the back of the church anymore. And I’m listening. Listening to people like Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”[1]

Shallow understanding from people of good will.

Maybe that’s what Christian hip hop artist Lecrae was talking about when he wrote, “Some people still think we are just ‘whining about the past.’ But we’re not. We are trying to expose how the past has affected the present and threatens the future….You can’t wipe away a 500-year trauma in 50 years.”[2]

I’m not only listening to my brothers and sisters of color on issues of race and culture. I’m listening and learning from them on issues of faith as well. Like the day in chapel right after the 2008 market crash when so many of the middle-aged upper middle class whites were freaking out about their retirement savings, and it took a young African-American man to bring some perspective by calmly reading from the book of Matthew.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns…. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. (Matt. 6:25-34a)

I’m back at square one. I want to learn, to understand to whatever degree I can. So I’m reading. I’ve started with a few bestsellers on topics of race and income inequality and growing up misunderstood in America.

I plan to continue with the best books I can find to help me understand the economic and sociological and cultural factors that have impacted the ways other Americans experience our country, from African Americans to Latinos to Native Americans to Asian Americans to Arab Americans to those whites whose life in this land is vastly different from mine. And I’m engaging wherever I can to learn what I can learn and do what I can do.

I don’t want to push anyone to the back of the bus or the church by shutting them down and refusing to listen.

Why did I lose track of Pat and Becky and Cynthia? Especially Cynthia, who loved Jesus more than I did. I could really use her help now. I had no idea how hard it would be to stay aware once I left my integrated high school and landed in white suburbia. How impossible it would be to find a truly integrated church, where we are all one and relaxed and peacefully at home together like Jesus wants us to be.

Cynthia, if you’re out there and by chance happen to read this, please contact me. I want to hear about your life and your walk with Jesus and if you’re still playing the piano, worshiping the God we both learned to love at a such a young age.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963.

[2] Lecrae, “The Pains Of Humanity Have Been Draining Me,” the Huffington Post online, 10/20/2016, accessed 1/17/17.

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