All Will Rise and Enter Free

Two weeks ago, I stood under room #306 at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King breathed his last. I heard the sound of his booming, prophetic voice, that poetic cadence that won’t let you loose. His voice holds me still. This past summer, as our city was engulfed in evil, it was Dr. King’s words, from his next to last book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?  that challenged me, sustained me, emboldened me. He spoke into our time, into my uncertainties.

Such conviction – the man knew his core, and he would not move. Not when the economic and political arsenal of white America turned against him. Not when some of his own friends and supporters turned against him.

Of course, Dr. King stands in a long line of women and men, courageous souls, who serve as our conscience, who love boldly, who refuse the ways we degrade ourselves and one another with our greed and selfishness and violence. These prophets of creative love do not leave destruction in their path. They dismantle evil, but their hands recreate rather than destroy. They envision what we will be, even as they call out what must be undone. They believe that goodness is not for the few but the many. They believe that wherever we must go, we must all arrive there together. They know that all will one day rise and enter free.

Rise up, my soul and let us go
Up to the gospel feast;
Gird on the garment white as snow
To join and be a guest.

Dost thou not hear the trumpet call
For thee, my soul, for thee?
Not only thee, my soul, but all,
May rise and enter free.

This poem was penned by George Mason Horton, enslaved poet and author of the first published book by a black man in the South, The Hope of Liberty, in 1829.

 

+photography is by the iconic Gordon Parks

He Really is a Prophet

There’s a fair bit of talk these days about being a prophet, about speaking truth to power. We need these bold, arresting voices. We always have. However, the true prophets are not chest-thumpers; they do not merely play one side against the other. True prophets are nearly impossible to label, at least once the labels become a brand, a marker, the way of expressing who’s in and who’s out. True prophets seem to upset everybody, even the ones who claim them as their own. True prophets insist on the dignity of everybody, even the ones least deserving of such protection. The true prophets I’ve encountered exhibit steely courage mixed with an unnerving gentleness. It’s a rare thing indeed.

The Methodist preacher Will Willimon remembers a Sunday evening sitting in his dorm room at Wofford College when a friend burst through his door. “Hey, give me a cigarette,” his friend said, breathless. “I’ve got to tell you about an unbelievable experience.” These two white boys had marched alongside one another during civil rights actions in South Carolina, and that weekend, this fellow in need of a smoke had flown to DC for a rally.

He recounted how when he boarded the plane for the flight back to Greenville, he buckled into his seat and looked across the aisle and his stomach turned a slight somersault when he realized he was seated next to Martin Luther King, Jr. King looked dog-tired, and while the young man tried to muster his courage and wrest some words out of his mouth, King fell asleep. But Willimon’s friend kept watching King, hoping he would wake so he could speak to him.

Finally, after the pilot indicated they’d be landing soon, King stirred. The fellow pounced, immediately leaned over and introduced himself. “Dr. King, what an honor it is to be on this plane with you, and I so admire your work. I’ve tried to be active in the Civil Right movement in South Carolina.” King thanked the man, but Willimon’s friend was not finished. He had a confession to make. “But Dr. King, my family in South Carolina is so racist and segregationist. I’ve tried to talk with them, tried to reason with them. My father and I are not even speaking. I didn’t even go home over Christmas because I didn’t want to have another angry encounter with my father. He is so backward, so racist…”

Dr. King didn’t let the fellow finish. He lunged over the aisle, grabbed his arm with a fierceness and looked him in the eye. “You gotta love your daddy,” King insisted. Then, King sunk back into his seat and closed his eyes until the wheels hit the tarmac.

Willimon’s friend finished the story, and the two of them sat quietly, a smoky haze hanging over them. Then one of them broke the silence: “You know, he really is a prophet.”

King: One Who Would Dream

Dr. King’s dream was for all of us, even for those of us who did not want his dream, even for those of us who reproached him and persecuted him and said all manner of evil against him – even for those who fueled the anger that ultimately gunned him down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. It takes a brazen man to hold the dream of a future that, by all logical accounts, is pure insanity. It take a tender man to hold this dream for those who love you and for those who hate you, knowing that healing must arrive for all of us – or it will arrive for none.

We desperately need women and men who see a future the rest of us are unable (or unwilling) to see. We need dreams that pierce through the tinny noise, blow past our parochial concerns and unhinge our narrow agendas. The time is now (the time has always been now) for dreamers whose imagination burns bold and bright, unfettered by the assumptions the rest of us have accepted as gospel. And we will know our dreams are the noble and explosive sort when they unnerve us with their daring and shock us with their unflinching generosity.

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant. ~ MLK

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