Opening the door on MLK day...

Today members of my congregation - First Church of Christ in Pittsfield - joined with Second Congregational Church of Pittsfield and a variety of other local officials and clergy to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It was a day of special significance - for me personally - and for both congregations.

First the personal:  when I was 11 years old, I watched the first March on Washington. My grandmother's friend and pastor was attending and I was drawn to both the music and the message. Long before anyone else in my house was stirring, I was up and glued to the tv screen. My young children and I participated in the 25th Anniversary March on Washington and just last summer I listened to the 50th Anniversary on NPR as we returned home from vacation.  
This isn't so special, right? I suspect LOTS of liberal white kids could tell the same story. What takes it deeper for me, is that while my church youth group was practicing for our 225th anniversary celebration - learning "O Happy Day" of all songs - the news of the assassination of Dr. King hit the airwaves. It was a Thursday @ 6:01 pm. We were in the balcony at First Congregational Church of Darien, CT in rehearsal for a celebration that would take place later that summer. I still remember one of my class mates - a girl I went through confirmation with - turning and saying to me with a cruel sneer, "How do you feel now that your nigger got what he deserved?" No shit - that's what she said to me - in the balcony of the church.

I know I was stunned - and probably too sick with grief to speak. What takes this deeper for me, of course, is that later that summer our youth group made a "mission caravan" trip throughout the US and wound up in Washington, DC just a few weeks before the Poor People's Convention that Dr. King had been working on before his death. It was during this trip that I sensed my call to ministry - and articulated it out loud after listening to Aretha's liberation song: THINK!
Cut ahead 50 years and I am sitting in Second Congregational Church in Pittsfield. Now 168 years ago, the Black members of First Church came to the realization that they could no longer tolerate being treated as second class citizens in the Body of Christ.  The wife of Pastor John Todd apparently would not take Holy Communion from the same cup as African American members. So, in 1846 seven Black members left their segregated seats in the First Church balcony to form what later became Second Congregational Church. The first African American minister in the Berkshires, Samuel Harrison, was called and ordained in 1850.

I was asked to bring a brief reflection to today's gathering based upon Dr. King's final book:  Where Do We Go from Here? My undergraduate thesis was based upon Dr. King's work - and most of my public ministry has been shaped by his wisdom and challenge. So, it was clear to me that today we had to publicly ask the people of Second Congregational Church for forgiveness. We had to own our sin, ask for forgiveness and pledge to explore a way of rebuilding trust and love. It was a humbling and sacred time.

Afterwards, their pastor and I talked about ways we might begin to get to know one another again - personally as well as in our congregations. We'll be a part of our respective anniversaries this year. We'll bring music to one another's festivities and set up a way to start meeting more regularly with one another, too. We have much work to do re: justice and poverty. And, given our 168 years of separation there is a whole lot of prayer to share as we find new ways of being in solidarity. In so many ways, it was a holy and powerful time for us all and I give thanks to MLK that the door was opened.


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