“But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. from “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” 1956
The bridge across the Mississippi River, where it divides Arkansas from Tennessee and welcomes eastbound travelers into the city of Memphis, was more magnificent than I expected. The perspective from the height of the bridge generated an emotion deep within me that could not be explained by mere physical beauty. Memphis was the first stop on my solo journey across the South through Oxford, MS, Selma, AL, and Jackson, MS, where I’d hoped to learn more about my nation’s history by visiting places like the Civil Rights Museum and the National Voting Rights Museum. Beyond that, I couldn’t fully explain what motivated me to take this trip, but my expectations were high as I drove into the city of Memphis. I sensed that something significant awaited me on the other side of the bridge.
Over the last few years, my church has pushed and prodded its members to recognize the homogeneity of our congregation and to be intentional about changing that reality by forming new relationships. Generally speaking, in order to form friendships with people of color unlike myself, I need to venture outside of my neighborhood, which is almost entirely comprised of white people. In the process of determining if my experience is unique, I have looked at the racial demographic map of my city (Oklahoma City) and also the nation as a whole. What I have found is a disturbing racial demarcation of cities in the United States formed primarily by interstates. My naivety in thinking I lived in a “post-racial era” has been brusquely exposed each time I travel across the highway bridge, listening to my new friends and observing the disparity firsthand. These experiences have impelled me to learn more, gradually leading to a paradigm shifting interpretation of Scripture that highly values the diversity and unity of the church described in Revelation 7:9-10:
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Even in the infancy stages of relationships with people unlike me, I have recognized a deeper ache in my soul, yearning for mercy, justice, reconciliation, and the beloved community as articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr. Over the past few years, I have been praying that my heart would break where God’s heart breaks. As I drove across the Mississippi River to begin my trip with plans to stop at the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the Edmund Pettus Bridge where courageous individuals were viciously attacked for respectfully protesting their right to vote, and the home of murdered Civil Rights hero, Medgar Evers), I felt an intimacy with my Creator as I sensed that He had heard my prayer and was eager to show me how much He hates injustice and uses truth to bring healing and restoration.
The significance of what I anticipated driving into Memphis largely materialized over the next few days in my greater comprehension of the layer upon layer of injustice suffered by black Americans at the hands of white Americans in United States history. Starting with the transatlantic slave trade, I was immersed in the details of the evolving forms of oppression and racism all the way up to the present day. From the Black Codes imposed following the Civil War to the Jim Crow laws enacted after the Reconstruction period, the majority white culture has repeatedly used its power and resources to gouge the minority cultures. The truth of my history was gripping me in a way it never had before. I not only read facts from museum placards, but also heard personal stories of racism including incident after incident of unequal opportunities, indifference, and outright hatred. At times, I felt overwhelmed in a haze of sadness and grief from all that I was learning.
Through the heroic stories of men and women like Martin Luther King, Jr. Rosa Parks, the Freedom Riders, and the Selma “Foot Soldiers,” however, God gently reminded me that He will continue to bring justice, healing, and restoration. He has always been in the business of transforming hearts and His love in our hearts has and will effect real change in the world. He has had a plan from the beginning of time to unite all things to Him (Ephesians 1:10) and He always makes good on His promises. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed this promise to his dying day even in the face of terrible hardships and mistreatments at the hands of his white brothers and sisters. Below is the closing paragraph of his final speech entitled, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, given in Memphis, TN, less than 24 hours before he was assassinated:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!