Southland Episcopalians say the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy overcomes time, ethnic, racial, religious and geographic divides, trumpeting a perennial message of hope, faith, courage and inspiration.
Like 14-year-old Emily Fitton, who had “learned something about Dr. King vaguely in school where it was more talked about in my younger years, not so much in middle school or high school.”
Then she accepted an invitation from other St. Stephen’s, Santa Clarita, parishioners MaryJo and Ken Higginbotham Jr., to attend the Jan. 17 Martin Luther King Day commemoration at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul.
That’s where the meaning of King’s legacy became very real in an “amazing” way to Fitton.
“The choir was awesome; words cannot describe how amazingly they performed,” she said of the Episcopal Chorale, directed by Canon Chas Cheatham.
“The sermon was captivating. It had my full attention the whole time. It was called ‘Grown Up Love,’” she said of the Rt. Rev. Rob Wright, guest preacher and the first African American elected bishop of Atlanta.
“It was saying how as a child or teenager you feel emotions you think are love. But it’s not the kind of love that gives you power to do the things that need to be done,” said Fitton, a ninth grader at Saugus High School. “It makes you feel good at the time, but it doesn’t last, it doesn’t tell you what needs to happen and challenges you need to take on.”
What spoke most loudly was “the amount of love that was felt in that room,” Fitton recalled. “I knew maybe four or five people in the entire room, but there was still a connection with everybody in there. Complete strangers were offering me hugs during the peace and everybody came up to me and shook my hand, whether I knew them or not. It was awesome.”
As a teenager Ken Higginbotham Jr. stayed behind in Columbus, Ohio, while his father, the late Rev. Canon Kenneth Higginbotham Sr., a well-known Episcopal priest, boarded a bus bound for Selma, Alabama, to join King in the historic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.
It’s one reason he and spouse MaryJo invite young people to attend the annual diocesan gathering.
“What amazed me about Dr. King was his ability to appeal to all people,” Higginbotham told the Episcopal News. `”He was able to capture the attention of everybody, and to me, he was mesmerizing. It wasn’t just the issue of black and white; he took on issues of economic fairness, of racial and social fairness.
“He was very much into praying and pulling people together and sought change with nonviolence, showing inner strength versus physical strength.”
MaryJo Higginbotham said she learned about King after moving to Los Angeles and celebrating black history month with the school children at Christ the Good Shepherd Church in Los Angeles.
“It’s very tough for me to realize there was a person who would stand up so much, so long, as long as he was able, to lead people of color, of any race, for justice,” she said. That witness, she says, empowers her “every year, to try to bring somebody with me from Santa Clarita,” she said. “And everyone I bring is overwhelmed with the preaching and music.”
‘Love has the last word’
Wright told the gathering that King believed that unconditional love would have the last word.
“When the curtain comes down on the final act of human history, he believed that love was the only force that was capable of transforming an enemy into a friend,” Wright said. “And he said on many occasions that hate was just too terrible a burden to bear. That he was just going to stick with love.”
King manifested a “grown-up love,” as did Jesus, Wright said. The difference, he said, between puppy love and grown-up love is that “one makes you feel good. The other changes the world.”
Bishop Suffragan Diane Jardine Bruce said the Cathedral Center celebration is an opportunity to remember that King’s legacy is “for all people. The things that Dr. King fought and struggled for were for all people.”
The Rev. Zelda Kennedy, senior associate for pastoral care at All Saints Church in Pasadena, said that, even though she never met King, “the legacy he provided for people like me is such that I do know him. He’s part of my existence, in the way that I look at life, in the way I deal with people, in the way that I try to be nonviolent. He helped me to understand how powerful that act could be.”
The Rev. Esther Kim had a similar reaction; “At the Korea University in Seoul, I majored in political science and international relations, and one of the first classes I took on justice was about Dr. King.
“In general, for the Korean people, there was a lot of oppression,” added Kim, 35, who called “awesome” the Jan. 17 King Day commemoration, citing the performance of the Episcopal Chorale, and Wright’s sermon.
“A lot of people died, a lot worked for democracy and justice in Korea,” said Kim. “We were under Japanese occupation in the 19th century and then we were under military dictatorships. The list goes on and on.
“A lot of people sacrificed themselves for justice … and Dr. King has definitely resonated with the Korean people. I can still remember the words of his “I Have a Dream’ speech, that one day my children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Wright said that King’s reach also extended beyond creeds. “Having been a Christian who consulted with a rabbi, followed a Hindu and was in regular dialogue with a Muslim, Dr. King might lament Duke University’s decision this year to disallow Muslim students to call their faith in prayer from their storied tower,” he told the gathering.
He added, “God has many children and ultimately we will all be gathered into a religiously integrated prayer meeting called heaven.”
Similarly, Wright said, King would probably agree with Pope Francis “who realized that we must condemn violence like that which we’ve just seen in Paris and at the same time balance our commitment to free speech with our commitment to respecting the dignity of every human being,” he said.
Speaking up for all oppressed people
While the Rev. Butch Gamarra was growing up in Central America, King’s ministry influenced him because King “was not just speaking up for Black Americans but (he was) speaking up for all oppressed people everywhere.
“Coming from a region where there was a lot of oppression, I could relate to that,” he said. “It has emboldened me, inspired me; it gave me courage to stand up and speak and not care a word about what people are going to say.
“What kept coming through to me is that, in spite of the odds against him, in spite of all the venom spewed back at him, he was doing the right thing and this is what Jesus did,” Gamarra said. “If we’re going to be followers of Jesus we’ve got to do what Martin did and speak up against oppression and not make peace with oppression.”
King’s ministry “inspired me to embrace my values and inspired me to be a better human being and gave me pride in being a person of color.”
Yet Gamarra said he is disappointed, that although King “is a giant of history … it seems young people don’t know anything about him.” The United States may have elected a black president, he noted, but at the same time, there have still been numerous deaths of black men at the hands of police and “racism is in the veins of this nation.”
“I only wish that this generation, this nation would do more than just every year have a Martin Luther King Jr. Day and a celebration … even in the church. We have King Day celebrations but what do we do the rest of year around issues of race and sex and all the other bigotries that exist in our church? On King Day we’re all on the right side but the rest of the 11 months we’re doing something different.”
From the Birmingham Jail: taking on the church
The Rev. Canon Eric Law, executive director of the Kaleidoscope Institute recalled King’s letter from the Birmingham Jail because “it read like an epistle from the bible.”
That letter, in which King challenged criticism from his own colleagues within the church community, “saying to him he’s going at it the wrong way, that he needed to slow down” resonated with Law. “If you read the letter now, he’s saying what is going on now and it’s really quite amazing. He’s talking about young people disillusioned with the church and not coming.”
According to Wright, “Grown-up love tells the truth. The prophets all did this. Dr. King did this, he told us of the gap between our current reality and our democratic and Christian ideals.
“From the Birmingham jail he pointed out that our prodigious religious buildings seemed to dwarf our flesh-and-blood commitment to Christ and that sometimes our moderation in matters of justice for all is just cowardice and paternalism in disguise,” Wright told the gathering.
“He said from a jail cell if today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning the for 20th century — and, we might add, the 21st century.”
He added, “Grown-up love tells the truth not to destroy but to build up. What truth would Dr. King tell us today? I believe he would tell us the truth that back in his own state of Georgia, back in the place where I serve, he would tell us we’ve got to end capital punishment now, absolutely right now.
“He might say to all of us there you’re not actually pro-life unless you defend the unborn and the already-born with the same passion. He might call to our attention that capital punishment anywhere in the world is actually state-sanctioned mob violence and naked bloodlust and has no place in any civilized nation.”
King’s legacy continues to inspire the Rev. Lester Mackenzie, associate rector at St. Matthew’s, Pacific Palisades, because “he challenges us to consider our own calling. (He) offers the reminder that we are all called in one way or another to make a difference in our society for the better.
“King reminds us to always be listening for our call to be agents of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness,” said Mackenzie. “His life was grounded in scripture. Martin Luther King was deeply shaped by Jesus of Nazareth. What I hear from scripture, can anything good come out of the Episcopal Church? I think so indeed.”
Kennedy said King’s legacy still drives her to recognize that “we are all connected … and this is what killed him,” she said.
“What he got was we’re all connected and what happens to you ultimately impacts me and what happens to me ultimately impacts the white folks in this community I serve. And we are all connected, and until white people and other people of color get that, we’re going to continue to sit back and watch Ferguson and New York and say ‘isn’t that terrible.’
“My biggest hope is that we will all understand that we’re from the same family. I don’t care what our complexion is.”
Bruce agreed. Remembering King’s legacy “helps me remember that we’re not there yet,” she said. “There’s still so much that we need to overcome in this world, from a personal level to a corporate level, to a global level … racism, poverty, illness, violence. It just holds that mirror up and makes us look at it deeply again.”