Guest Commentary: Rev. Jay D. Cooper
History reminds us that unless we learn from the past we are likely to repeat it. No other appropriate words could apply to the way Montgomery has witnessed strides toward racial reconciliation than these. Although we should all acknowledge that more may be done to bridge the divide between all boundaries we create for ourselves, we should also celebrate the sacrifices and efforts of those who have paved the road toward justice and peace. This reality could not have landed any more closely to home than it did on February 6th.
Student/Pastors from our conference who attend Candler School of Theology at Emory University are afforded the opportunity to participate in The Teaching Parish Program. This twenty-hour per semester program allows students to study leadership models for ministry. Some of the requirements include secular and congregational analyses, system theory models, ministry acts, homiletical praxis, and theological reflection papers. Under the leadership of Dr. Karl K. Stegall, the Teaching Parish group meets five times each semester to fulfill these requirements in keeping with the Contextual Education requirements of Candler.
On February 6th, however, Dr. Stegall heightened the program to a new level by inviting the group to attend a field trip. Much to our surprise we were offered the chance to engage in a private tour of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and its parsonage. These historical sites launched the ministry of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. After being greeted with radical hospitality our group viewed a video which explained the history of Dexter Avenue Baptist. We were also privileged to experience the events of the Civil Rights Movement through mural artwork painted on the wall of the fellowship hall. Our assignment for the day, however, was to divide Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech into seven parts so that each student would be able to preach a segment of the August 28, 1963 speech, which has been heralded as the greatest speech of the 20th century. It is fair to say that none of us who embarked on this journey were ready to encounter the exhilaration and humility of preaching Dr. King’s speech from Dr. King’s pulpit. Imagine a group of seven white seminary students preaching from Dr. King’s pulpit. To think that we could preach from Dr. King’s pulpit in a city that was once ravaged by racism and intolerance was indeed a profound experience. Thus, we do well to learn (and remember) the mistakes and events of the past lest we repeat them. Praise be to God who is the author and sustainer of reconciliation and peace!
As each student read her or his assigned portion of the speech our imaginations raced with the indelible truth that we were living into a dream cast so long ago. For twelve minutes or so we glimpsed the possibility of a dream that foretells of a humanity who is “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Brought to life was the notion that, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” In that moment we were all reminded as church leaders that we must no longer be the tail lights in the community, but that the church must now be the head lights, illuminating the dark places of injustice and intolerance wherever these may exist. We caught a glimpse of the dream which calls for “justice to roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Mostly, though, we longed for the day when all God’s children may experience the freedom of equality and the hope of renewal.
As we celebrate Black History Month I would encourage our churches to consider making the trek to Montgomery to visit Dr. King’s church on Dexter Avenue and the parsonage on Jackson Street. Not only does history come alive in these hallowed places but as Christians we recognize that we are called to proclaim with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength that: “one day all God’s children, black men and white men, Jew and gentile, protestant and Catholic will join hands and sing together that familiar old spiritual…‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last.” Until the day this dream is fully realized may we love one another as we have been loved by our God.
World Without End…