This week we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Seeing this statement in and of itself might be enough to cause some of you to stop reading, while others of you will say, “I want more.” Some in the black community call this “keeping it real,” which is just another way of speaking the truth regardless of how difficult it may be to say or hear. And the truth is that there are still people who think making Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday is a joke. As sick as it may seem, I once had an individual in my congregation when I pastored in Cuyahoga Falls who called this holiday, “James Earl Ray Day.” For those who are not familiar with this name, James Earl Ray was the man convicted of assassinating Dr. King. Yes, racism runs very deep in the DNA of our country and too many would like to ignore the pain of an American history that includes the agony of slavery and other unspeakable sins against people of color simply because the pigment of their skin was of a darker hue.
Not many years ago when I served as a Vice-President at a Christian Bible College, I preached a message to the student body entitled, “Wiping the Tears of God.” It was a message that addressed the subject of racism and how our sinful bigotry causes God to weep because of the division that exists among His children. I had a faculty member share with me after chapel that they considered my message as “just stirring the tension between the races because of the past.” This individual’s family roots were in the South, and in my opinion, I had hit a nerve. On the other hand, it was the African-American students who privately thanked me for sharing the message that some did not want to hear.
But enough bad news! The rest of this weekly epistle will be more positive because I have great hope that with each passing generation God is giving His children the grace to reconcile and unify together. I had a small glimpse of that this past week. One week ago today, Love Akron hosted the first of four quarterly concerts of prayer with Christian leaders from around the Greater Akron Area. The majority of the gathering was pastors and para-church ministry leaders who came to pray for and with one another. The theme of the prayer service was unity and our need to tear down the walls between the colors, cultures, congregations, and classes of people in order to build bridges of understanding. I asked Pastor Dennis Butts Sr., a senior associate pastor at The House of the Lord and the honorary co-director of The Love Akron Network, to lead our time of prayer. For those who do not know Pastor Butts, he is a brother of color, and I felt God had placed it in my heart that he was to lead this prayer time rather than me.
In preparing our hearts for prayer, Pastor Butts shared a story that deeply moved my heart, and I am sure others in the room felt the same emotion. He shared that just a few days before the prayer gathering, he was traveling down one of Akron’s busiest highways. He was on his way home because he was very sick. He was so sick, in fact, that he had to pull off the side of the road. He got out of the car and laid his head on the trunk, seeking to recover his equilibrium so he could continue his drive home. He looked up to see that a man of a lighter hue had stopped to see if he could help. Pastor Butts shared that he was very sick and just needed to get home. When to Pastor Butt’s surprise, a second Caucasian man and then a third stopped to see if they could be of any assistance. Concerned that perhaps he was having a heart attack, they offered to call an ambulance, but Pastor Butts had met the flu bug before and knew what he was experiencing. Finally, one of the men said, “Pastor, I can’t let you drive home on your own. You are too sick. Let me take you.” This man then asked another man, whom he did not know, to follow him to Pastor Butt’s residence and then bring him back to his car that he was leaving on the side of the road. And he did just that. This white man reached out to help a black man who desperately needed someone to care. Some of you are asking, “What’s the big deal? Isn’t it just the humane thing to do, to help someone?” The answer is yes, it is the humane thing to do, but there were many cars that just kept driving by and did not do the “good Samaritan thing” like these three white men.
We have a long way to go to fully heal the wounds of our American past, both distant and recent, that have been inflicted upon African-Americans, American Indians, and others. But, I truly believe we are moving forward. I applaud the work of the Rev. Dr. Carl Wallace, the Senior Pastor of Akron’s Trinity United Church of Christ, who for more than two years has convened an interfaith group of leaders that he brought together under the name Akron Faith Community. This group of leaders has been meeting with Akron Chief of Police James Nice and the Assistant Chief of Police Charles Brown to address community concerns related to law enforcement. I also appreciate the leadership of AVIMA, which stands for the Akron Vicinity Interdenominational Ministers Association, led by respected African-American pastors who are working with Love Akron and others to make diversity and civility more than just stated values. Together we can and we will “reach the promised land” which was the dream of Dr. King. Let us thank God for giving our nation this gift of a preacher and a prophet, who though he has passed on, still speaks.