Friends in Christ, I greet you on this celebration of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This day brings with it some wonderful memories for me. When I was pastor of First United Methodist Church in Duluth, Minnesota, I joined other area clergy for a Sunday evening inter-religious worship service at one of the historically Black churches in our community. The morning of MLK Day, the church I pastored or a Catholic Church in town hosted a communitywide breakfast. There was always a mid-morning march of about a mile and a half. Now that may not sound like much, but remember, this was January in Duluth!
More than memories, I carry within me the distinct voice of Dr. King. I was only 9 when he died, but his voice echoes in my soul as I’ve listened to it again and again over the years. While I was in college, I purchased two records: They’re on the Gordy label—that’s Barry Gordy of Motown Records. One is a recording of a speech Dr. King gave in Detroit in June of 1963. It has many of the same themes and phrases as found in his later “I Have a Dream” speech. And the other is a recording of his sermon “The Drum Major Instinct” and his final remarks the night before he was assassinated, where he had a vision of the mountaintop. I carry that voice within my soul.
This year, I also carry the voice of Black author James Baldwin in my soul. This summer, I watched the recent award-winning documentary about Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro.” This holiday season, I read Baldwin’s book of essays, “The Fire Next Time,” and as I was reading, I could hear his voice.
I am grateful to listen to those voices today. I am grateful for Dr. King’s words: “God has a way of wringing good out of evil…. At times, life is hard, as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and painful moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of a river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of the summers and the piercing chill of its winters. But through it all, God walks with us. Never forget that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope.” Lest we think words like that are too sanguine for the moment we’re in, I remind you that these words were spoken in a eulogy for four Black girls murdered in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
I am grateful for James Baldwin’s words: “We, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation—if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women” (“The Fire Next Time,” page 111).
On this MLK birthday celebration today, I ask you to listen to these voices and to other Black and Brown voices that are also calling us forward by asking difficult but necessary questions, like why Black and Brown bodies continue to die at the hands of law enforcement in disproportionate numbers—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and recently, on December 22, Andre Hill. Why was the law enforcement response seemingly so different when a predominantly white group stormed the Capitol Building in comparison to protestors calling attention to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor? Why do we White people struggle so mightily to acknowledge the impact of racialized thinking in our history, in how we have treated Black, Brown and indigenous persons?
As we listen and hear those voices of pain, anguish, longing, and hope, we must join in the work so well articulated by Dr. King: “to transform the dangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” (1963) and “to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and goodwill toward all” (Christmas sermon, 1967).
Bishop David Bard is interim bishop for the Minnesota Conference. He also serves as resident bishop for the Michigan Conference.