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.”