|Team Western Mass at St. Mark's Church, Birmingham|
It has indeed been a long day as pilgrims have gathered here from north and south and east and west. My own journey took me from Worcester to Logan Airport, to Atlanta and then back in time on a 30-minute flight from Atlanta to Birmingham across a time zone, which meant arriving about a half hour before I left!
We were served a delicious meal tonight at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, followed by orientation and worship. Shortly after my arrival today at the hotel, I re-read Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail - it just seemed like the right thing to do and if you have not ever read it or not read it recently, I commend it to you. It just still (sadly) feels as if it's been ripped from the day's headlines and fifty-two years after these words were written I find myself ashamed to read these words expressing Dr. King's deep sadness at the response from white churches.
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows. In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.I was glad to find another portion of this letter read aloud as part of our common worship tonight and want to also share these words, which I still find so relevant to this time and place:
The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are...One of my passions for ministry these days, even more so in diocesan work than as a parish priest, is to try to help the church find it's voice again - a voice of prophetic hope, a voice for the healing of the nations. I have always cared about this work, but I think that at the parish level there are many other tasks and too often this work gets pushed to the sidelines or to next week's agenda.
Amazingly, King goes on to say that even if the church doesn't figure out how to really be the church, he did not despair about the future - because God will still be God. But I think our work as the church is to work toward the dream of God, and among other things this means that we need to sometimes be disturbers of the peace before there is true shalom. We need courage, and wisdom, and love.
Anyway, in the midst of our prayers and this portion from King's Letter, forty or so of us then sang James Weldon Johnson's Lift Every Voice and Sing, unaccompanied. It was quite powerful to me and since it is indeed night after a long day and what has been done has been done I'll conclude with these words - words of hope for the church and for the world:
Lift every voice and sing / Till earth and heaven ring, / Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; / Let our rejoicing rise / High as the list'ning skies, / Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. / Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, / Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; / Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, / Let us march on till victory is won.Amen. May it be so.