As a child, I believed that there were only three people in the world who had never sinned. My daddy, Jesus, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Well, there was a 4th person – our pastor at the time, Reverend Johnson. But one day he yelled really loud during a Sunday sermon and I had to take him off my sin-less list).
Her name was Heather. She was in my kindergarten class. I was absolutely enthralled with her long red hair and the smattering of freckles across her nose. I wanted her to be my friend very badly.
Our teacher would always pick two children to lead the line to the bathroom and to recess. One day, Miss Martha picked Heather to lead the line. And then, to my delight, she picked me as well. I figured Miss Martha just knew Heather and I would make very good friends. I rushed to the front of the line and eagerly reached for Heather’s hand.
But she protested and quickly hid her hand behind her back. Miss Martha waited a moment as I held out my hand to Heather again. “Heather,” she said. “Take your partner’s hand.”
“No,” said Heather. “I will not hold a colored girl’s hand.” (It was 1980, but she still used the word “colored”).
Miss Martha tried talking with Heather a little bit, but she refused to hold my hand, and eventually a new partner was found for Heather. I need not detail the shame and humiliation I felt as I slid to a new spot in line.
That was the day I realized that I was Black.
I remember crying to my mother that evening as I recounted the story. I remember her wise, comforting words. She taught my sisters and I about sense of self, about our identities as “young ladies” of color, but most importantly, about our identity as children of the Most High God.
At that age, I learned to be proud because I was my Mommy’s girl, God’s daughter, and the same color as Martin Luther King, Jr.
During my junior high and high school years, I would recite the entire “I Have A Dream” speech at the annual MLK program in my parent’s church. I had it memorized word for word (and it’s not short), and I would perform the speech with dramatic passion. I was moved by his eloquence; his words sank into my soul.
One year in college, my mother sent me a tape that contained recordings of some of King’s lesser-known speeches and sermons. It was eye-opening for me to hear him preach a “regular” sermon in a regular church. This week I suspect that “King” and “Obama” are going to show up in the same sentence quite often. I don’t necessarily see the two men as similar. Although many regard King as a secular, political figure, he was first a preacher. In listening to the old recordings that my mother sent, I discovered that behind the image of this great historical figure, there was a man who simply had a heart for the things of God. He was a man who doubted, who got tired and discouraged in the face of indescribable adversity (- jailed over 18 times, nearly stabbed to death, his house bombed 3 times). But he always came back to trusting in His Lord and standing in courage on his faith. And God used Him mightily.
There are portions of his sermons that continue to speak to me in the midst of my own journey.
There was his unforgettable Funtown sermon (I was unable to find the text online), where he, the great orator, struggles to find the words to explain to his 6 year-old little girl that she cannot go to the amusement park because she is Black. There is his illustration of Psalm 30:5 and demonstration of God moving on their behalf during the Montgomery bus boycott in “A Knock At Midnight.” (You really should read the last several paragraphs of this sermon). There is his final exhortation in the sermon “Unfulfilled Dreams“:
Oh this morning, if I can leave anything with you, let me urge you to be sure that you have a strong boat of faith. The winds are going to blow. (Yes) The storms of disappointment are coming. (Yes) The agonies and the anguishes of life are coming. (Yes, sir) And be sure that your boat is strong, and also be very sure that you have an anchor. (Amen) In times like these, you need an anchor. And be very sure that your anchor holds. (Yes, Glory to God)
It will be dark sometimes, and it will be dismal and trying, and tribulations will come. But if you have faith in the God that I’m talking about this morning, it doesn’t matter. (Yes) For you can stand up amid the storms. And I say it to you out of experience this morning, yes, I’ve seen the lightning flash. (Yes, sir) I’ve heard the thunder roll. (Yes) I’ve felt sin-breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus, saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, (Yes, sir) never to leave me alone. (Thank you, Jesus) No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me. Never to leave me alone. (Glory to God)
And when you get this faith, you can walk with your feet solid to the ground and your head to the air, and you fear no man. (Go ahead) And you fear nothing that comes before you. (Yes, sir) Because you know that God is even in Crete. (Amen) If you ascend to the heavens, God is there. If you descend to hell, God is even there. If you take the wings of the morning and fly out to the uttermost parts of the sea, even God is there. Everywhere we turn we find him. We can never escape him.