I was in Jr. High School I think, (back when they had Jr. High Schools). I was at a party (back when I went to parties) and my parents came to pick me up about 8pm and we were headed home. We lived in Georgetown, SC. My father was listening to the radio and the “regularly scheduled programming” was interrupted with the news flash that Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, TN. Just as the bulletin came over the radio waves, my father turned the corner and ran directly into the middle of a “riot” of very distraught, very angry, mostly young, African-American people. I remember my mother screaming. My father quickly putting the car in reverse and retracing our path as the car was being pelted with rocks and bricks. The back passenger window where I was sitting was smashed out and the warm, spring, SC breeze carried in the curses and threats of the violent mob.
But that’s not the story. The story is that in the days that followed, my father, who pastored a small church in Georgetown, was inundated with phone calls, notes, and personal visits from African-American friends, fellow pastors (mostly young, African-American), and leaders of the black community in our small town. They were all apologizing, checking on our welfare, and pledging their affection for my dad and his family. One black business owner, who ran a garage in town, offered to fix the dents and windows in dad’s car for free. As frightening as the April 4 event was, the memory of the outpouring of love and reconciliation that followed made an even more indelible impact on my young mind and heart.
Today, the banks are closed, school is out, most government offices are shut down, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the unbelievably powerful change he orchestrated in our world. I imagine that if Dr. King had not come along, someone else would have risen to challenge our way of thinking and our prejudiced hearts, to help effect the necessary change in our society. But it is hard to think that anyone would have had a more amazing message, a more anointed presentation that the pastor from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, and then the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He was unequivocally a world changer, by both his message and his method, so it is right that we honor him today.
I wonder though, how much has changed since Dr. King preached his famous, “I Had a Dream” message, or walked down the streets of Birmingham? How much of the injustice and racial inequity has gone away? Some I hope. I think we are better. It seems that my children and my children’s children think in different terms and the thoughts of racial prejudice are more foreign to them. We certainly would not have imagined back then, a black president of the United States, or even a culture so open and accessible to young, black people. It feels from where I am sitting that we have come a long ways.
But there is still a distance to go. There is still hurt and mistrust. We still read about racial profiling and there are still far too many young, black men gunned down in the streets, even if it is often by other young, black men. We still have much work to do, and the message and method of MLK is just as necessary today. There is still justification for anger. Hurts and brick throwing still happens.
Maybe one thing that hasn’t changed is that, almost as important, if not more important, than what happens in the moment is what goes on in the days that follow. We are still going to make mistakes. People are still going to be treated unfairly. Horrible atrocities will still take place, committed by both sides of the divide. We will lose our cool and we will throw rocks. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. What comes next can change everything. We make the move toward reconciliation. We express regret and remorse. We pick up the phone or go in person to demonstrate our love and desire for good. As long as we live in a fallen world, bad stuff will continue to take place. It is how we respond to it that makes all of the difference in the world. Paul says, “Not that I have already attained it or been made perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ has made me His own.”
My friend, Jonas Beiler says, “Your response is your responsibility.” Today, while the banks are closed and the schools are out, i am going to pray that the world becomes a better place, a place more like the dream that Martin Luther King, Jr. had. But I am going to purpose to be a better responder, to answer more quickly and more decisively when cruelty comes about and when hurts happen. Today I am going to offer to fix the dents in someone’s life, in person, on FaceBook, however, I can. Who knows, it might get us closer to the better world we all dream of?