On April, 4, 1968, I turned 10. Double digits! Birthdays were always special in our family, and this one did not disappoint. My dad came over for dinner. We had my favorite meal. My mom made an ice cream cake, complete with “surprises” inside—pennies, dimes, and nickels, folded in wax paper, that were placed in the batter before it was baked. We played some games, and then I sat down to watch Sally Field play Sister Bertrille in The Flying Nun.
Except it wasn’t on…there was breaking news about an assassination. A man named Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot in Memphis Tennessee.
I didn’t know who he was. I watched the broadcast and learned about this remarkable man of faith. As I listened, the scales of innocence that I wore as a child fell off. I realized that my experience of the world was not everyone else’s experience. I didn’t know what “racism” meant when I was nine, but at 10, this word entered my vocabulary through the murder of Rev. Dr. King.
Ever since that date, my birthday has been tempered by this act of violence that took the life of this pastor/prophet who was seeking to help a nation regain its soul by living into its cherished values of liberty and justice for all. Every year since 1968, I have read more of his speeches and sermons, learned more about his life, and have come to a better understanding of the impact of both his life and death.
My vocation as a pastor has been informed by Rev. Dr. King. His words and witness have challenged me to understand racism and the privilege that is granted me by my whiteness, the overt and subtle ways racism limits lives and the generational trauma that slavery has inflicted on African Americans. I have had to speak out when some have sought to diminish, disregard, or dishonor the dignity of another because of their race. We all, every one of us, are made in the image of God. To deny the sacred worth of someone because of skin color mocks our Maker.
It has been 50 years since King’s death. Fifty years of birthdays. As I turn 60, I knew I had to be in Washington, D.C. for the ACT to End Racism Rally. Racism continues to fracture and harm the human family. I am here to recommit myself to the hard work King called us to engage in: to challenge and confront anything that creates tombs of death and stands in the way of justice and fairness, anything that seeks to create second class citizenship, anything that attempts to deny the dignity and self-worth of any of God’s beloved children.
Fifty years ago, a gunman sought not to defer a dream, but to put it to death. But his bullet simply shattered it, so its pieces live on in those of us who seek to bring healing to the human family, so that every person is seen as precious, as we create Beloved Community together: that place whose hallmark is love, justice, compassion and kindness.