Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the Intersection of Faith and Service

01-16-2017 by

Rev. Wayne Meisel
What I like best about Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is that it is a day on, not a day off.

Nearly every community around the country organizes service events that are well attended by people of all ages, faiths, cultures, classes and races. A quote from King is often used to define and capture the spirit of the day: “Everyone can be great,” he proclaimed, “because everyone can serve.” The day of service not only honors the life of Dr. King, but also recognizes the transformative power of people who work towards a common cause, sacrificing self to advance the causes of liberty, justice, and freedom for all people.

A defining moment in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and in Dr. King’s work, took place in Selma, Alabama, where John Lewis and others crossed the bridge and faced a hostile and militarized police. When the movie Selma came out several years ago it was (and continues to be widely) viewed and discussed.

Because I spend much of my time visiting high schools and colleges meeting with students and service corps volunteers, I have had the opportunity to be part of several conversions about the movie. While the movie has inspired interest in the history of the civil rights moment, conversations about the film have led me to three startling discoveries.

First: some (though not the majority) of people I encounter are surprised to learn that King was a minister. Instead, some have told me that they thought he was a medical doctor. At first I was baffled (and still am), but the more I have thought about it, I realized that King is frequently referred to as Dr. King and not his whole title of the The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Even his doctorate is a degree in ministry - his public identity was rooted in the church.

Another surprise: that the organizing and planning behind the march was done in churches. Many people have shared with me that churches, in their experience, have not been especially welcoming places for people like them, and do not seem especially interested or engaged in the social justice issues they care about.

And finally, people have expressed surprise that Martin Luther King Jr. needed support from people all around the country. It was clergy, pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams he called upon to walk with him and the people of Selma for justice.

For a student of history (or for anyone who lived through in the civil rights movement), these assumptions, questions, and responses might seem baffling. But rather than blame the student for what they don’t know, it is important for those who do to make sure we tell the whole story.

We have failed to share the whole story of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights Movement was, at its core, people of many faiths coming together to sit in, call out, march, challenge, boycott, educate, protest and persuade people in power to respond to and remediate the fundamental inequality in our country. These citizen-clergy put their lives and livelihoods on the line to insist that African Americans in the United States finally be seen and treated as full, equal participants in our national experiment in self-government. The leadership of the movement couldn’t separate their faith from their work for racial justice. It wasn’t just what they did. It was who they were.

That night before King was assassinated in April 1968, he preached from the text in the Gospel of Mathew that says, “The greatest among you will be your servant.”

In that deeply theologically speech, King said,

“Now brethren, I can’t give you greatness. And really, I can’t make you first.” This is what Jesus said to James and John. “You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared.”

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.”

King was lifting up a definition of greatness, inspired and instructed by his faith. Real action, in service to others, is the marker of greatness. The wisdom to understand this and the strength to live into this humility came from King’s reading of sacred text, leading worship in a congregation and relying on the brother and sisterhood of others to live into a radically different interpretation of greatness. Not to tell this part of the story is to withhold a defining characteristic of King and a foundational aspect of the movement. And when King walked across the bridge in Selma, and in so many other places, his service to the world was made manifest the vision of the world where “ those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So as we move forward, let’s honor Martin Luther King, Jr. by understanding how his faith inspired, sustained and deepened his commitment to social justice.

Let’s put the “the Reverend” in front of Dr. Martin Luther King, not just because it is historically correct, but because it recognizes and lifts up the foundation of the work of his life – the work of a minister.

Let us redouble our efforts to make our congregations, both in the buildings and worship communities, more inviting and welcoming to all people, working against the system of racism that keeps us apart. May we live so deeply into the call of hospitality and service that they might overwhelm any stereotypes.

Let those of us who are clergy walk prophetically. May we not be overcome by fear or self-doubt as we serve others, particularly in a social context which for too long has made servitude an enslavement. May we who are white work in service to end racism, so that all people are seen as humans.

Let clergy and all people of faith be enriched by their own traditions and strengthen by their own worship communities so that we can come together. Our spiritual traditions matter now as much as they did during the Civil Rights movement. Our faith means as much to us—in our work today—as it did to the young Baptist preacher whose life we celebrate today and every day.

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Today, in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and in an effort to recognize the important work of organizations that provide year-long service opportunities, The Center for Faith and Service announced its annual list of Service Programs that Change the World. Service Programs that Change the world is a collection of faith based young adult volunteer program that support individuals to work together and serve. The list was announced in a press release and can be found on a new website: www.serviceprograms.org.