I was fifteen-years old when the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday first became the law of the land. Having lived my entire childhood in Georgia, also Dr. King’s birthplace, I knew his story and heroics well. I also knew that he was often maligned – sometimes viciously so. When the first official King Day rolled around on the calendar, it produced some brisk conversations within my extended family, community, and yes, my church. Never can I forget standing outside the church building on a cold Sunday night, a nosey and curious teenager listening to the old men talk, just weeks before that first January observance.
One man asked the group, “Well, what y’all think about getting a day off for this King fella’?” With a big, fat, King James Bible under his arm, one of the other men answered, “Oh, I appreciate a day off. If we kill a few more of ‘em, we might get a whole week off next year!” This was met by uproarious laughter and backslapping from the rest of the group. Then they all marched inside to sing praises to Jesus with clear consciences.
I thought of that horrible event for the first time in a long time when I read the recent story about a Kentucky church banning an interracial couple from participating in their worship services. The Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church in Pikeville, Kentucky voted to ban interracial couples after life-long member Stella Harville came to services with her fiancé, Ticha Chikuni, a young man from Zimbabwe. The church’s resolution, later rescinded, stated: “Parties of such marriages will not be received as members, nor will they be used in worship services…This recommendation is not intended to judge the salvation of anyone, but is intended to promote greater unity among the church body and the community we serve.” Greater unity? That’s dreadfully ironic.
These two events, separated by decades, and both many years removed from the work for which MLK lived and died, show how racism continues to endure in this country. But more horrifying, it reveals how racism continues to endure within the Christian church, a collection of people who profess allegiance to Jesus, the same Jesus who produced true unity by welcoming all people regardless of their nationality, skin color, sexuality, gender, or any of the other factors that divide people.
If we who are Christians are genuinely part of the church Jesus initiated, then love for our neighbor must be our calling card. Grace must be the currency which we exchange, and when people who allege faith in Christ refuse those he readily accepts, we must declare the truth that such actions are unequivocally and explicitly wrong.
For me, this has become much more than theory or simple rhetoric. It is personal. I have a multi-racial son, a beautiful prepubescent boy with eyes as dark as the sea and skin that is rich, mocha-brown. Though I am his adoptive father, we are more accurately, to quote King, “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners,” from the red hills of Georgia. Yes, I want my son to grow up in a culture without the prejudice that has plagued these hundreds of years. I want him to be a part of a nation where “he will not be judged by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.” But even if such achievements are not brought to bear in the greater society in his lifetime, for God’s sake, I never want him subjected to the kind of conversation I heard as a teenager, all within the shadow of the church steeple.
Society may be slow in changing its attitudes. Governments may intentionally delay the changing of policies. Individuals may go to their graves clinging to hate and hard-heartedness for their fellow human beings. But in the church that carries the name of Christ, this should not be. We cannot simultaneously express our love for God, and by means of racism, refute the love that Jesus has for our neighbors.