Preaching — and honestly just being there — at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, is always a great honor and blessing for me. As pastor Raphael Warnock said in his opening introduction, “When you want to take faith into justice, as Jim Wallis always has, Ebenezer is the right place.” Ebenezer is the right place indeed.
I remember my first time preaching at Ebenezer many years ago for their first “Peace and Justice Service” in honor of the inaugural year that the nation officially celebrated the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was 1986 and I was a young man feeling honored to speak — but overwhelmed to be in such a historic pulpit that had literally changed the world and where a host of movement leaders had preached.
Being so intimidated by the place and the pulpit, I was quite tepid at first, saying something like, “Well, ah … Martin Luther King Jr., well …. he was for peace and justice, and ppppprobably … ah … we should be too.” It was powerful!
All of a sudden, a big booming voice down on the left side of the congregation spoke directly back at me, “Oh come on son, you’re supposed to preach!”
Startled, I started to preach — a little bit.
“You’re not there yet,” he shouted again.
I continued as he directed me with some “wells,” some “Amens” and some “keep going nows.” The “Amen Corner” of Ebenezer Baptist Church kept me going, stronger and stronger, lifting my voice and taking my passion to higher and higher levels. I was sweating as I pranced around on the stage and finally just preached my heart out. After a wonderful and amazing response from the congregation on their feet with claps and shouts, I ran down to the man who had taken me upward and onward and breathlessly said, “You just pulled that sermon out of me!” Standing up tall, he put his hands on my shoulders, looked at me in the eyes, and said, “Son, I’ve raised up many a preacher in my time.” And he had just raised up another.
I believe pulpits are supposed to change communities and nations — and history. They are supposed to raise up preachers and their congregations to stand and speak and act for biblical justice. I have been very blessed on this tour for my new book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, by preaching and being in many of those pulpits that are changing things yet again.
Trinity United Church of Christ on the south side of Chicago and their pastor Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III have taken the prophetic message of justice into the streets where young African-American men have been killed and where some of those young activists now come to Trinity on Sunday mornings. I was in St. John’s Church the Beloved Community and Christ the King Church from where Revs Starsky Wilson and Traci Blackmon were among the first to put the gospel and their bodies in the streets of Ferguson, Mo. Pleasant Hope Baptist Church and their pastor Rev. Heber M. Brown III did the same in Baltimore. New Song Church in Santa Ana, Calif., is a multicultural congregation founded by Dave Gibbons that has an average age of 28. I got to preach at Glide Memorial Church pastored by Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto in San Francisco, which welcomes marginalized people, and I got to sit next to a woman with no hands but who wouldn’t stop worshiping, smiling, and celebrating by clapping with her two stumps. All along the way, many others pastors told stories of breaking silence on racism at our town meeting conversations and organized clergy gatherings for action in city after city.
What they all have in common is what we remembered on Monday: April 4 was the 48th anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Pastors get in trouble when they break the silence of their times.
MLK spoke at Riverside Church on Sunday April 4, 1967 — a year to the day before he was killed — breaking his own silence about the war in Vietnam, much to the chagrin of many of his supporters, and called out the three “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” He said, “I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and speak from the burnings of my own heart.” King once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
On Monday, the anniversary day of King’s assassination, we had a conference call with several faith leaders. On that call, the leader of a nationwide network of black clergy, said even more painful to many black pastors than America’s continuing racism is “the silence of white Christians.” Black pastors still don’t hear very many of their white clergy brothers and sisters in Christ speaking with prophetic clarity about the stark differences in the ways that white and black young men, even in their respective congregations, continue to be treated by police officers. And why the silence, when almost none of the officers involved in the shootings of young African Americans have yet to be held accountable?
This continuing silence was on my mind during the extraordinary dialogue we had at Ebenezer on Monday night. Trey Lyon, a young white Baptist pastor on the panel said, “The drug of white privilege has millions of addicts. It’s time for a recovery movement.” My old friend, soul and jail mate, Rev. Tim McDonald, offered a very provocative phrase, “Our non-profits have made us non-prophets.” He said free labor was the beginning of white supremacy and privilege, that racism is always about economics — and we need to say that.
We now see the rise of a presidential candidate openly promoting racial, religious, and gender bigotry with little clergy commentary so far. I wonder if Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who stood up against such political leadership rising up in Germany in the early 1930s, was worried about having a 501(c)3 tax problem with his faith-based organization if he spoke up politically.
Robert Franklin, scholar and educator, taught the audience — as he always does — that courage is not the absence of fear but the willingness to speak and act through it. The first African-American Episcopal Bishop of Georgia, Robert Wright, was also there and said, “Leadership is the capacity to mobilize people to address tough problems — especially the problems they would like to avoid. Race is our country’s family dance. They don’t kill nice preachers.”
MLK greatly admired Bonhoeffer and I wonder if he read these lines the German pastor said: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
In my closing remarks, I recalled what Dr. King said about the kind of people we will need going forward.
This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists … The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority… Human salvation lies in the hands of the creative maladjusted. —Strength to Love (1963)