One way to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King is to do what he did: “to leverage the cross so everyone’s included,” Los Angeles Bishop Coadjutor-elect John Taylor told a gathering after the annual diocesan King Day celebration, held jointly this year with the Evangelical Lutheran Curch in America.
Taylor joined Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church and Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of ELCA and several others for the panel discussion after the historic multi-religious celebration at the Westchester Lutheran Church in Los Angeles.
The panel discussion, moderated by the Rev. Esther Yein Kim, parish associate at the Cathedral Congregation of St. Athanasius, sparked conversation about the political climate, gun violence, protecting the innocent, police and community relationships, the sanctuary movement and how churches can continue Dr. King’s legacy today.
Taylor recalled that King focused early in his public ministry on changing unjust laws. But in the later years of the Civil Rights involvement, he also spoke out against the Vietnam War.
“He felt it was a risk he had to run because he’d come to the conclusion that the resources and society were just not apportioned fairly and it wasn’t going to be good enough to change laws,” Taylor told several hundred who attended the gathering.
“He called for a true revolution of values, to try to think of a way for society to overcome structural and economic inequities and move forward together,” Taylor said. “As I think about his discouragement about national politics in 1968 and 1967 as he expressed it, I can’t help but think of the year 2016 where … whatever one may think about the outcome (of the election) we weren’t seeing politics at its best.
“It seemed as though politicians had forgotten what their job was, [which is] not only to get re-elected, but to do their best to maximize access to opportunity for everyone and to do their best to create conditions in which the most people can thrive, and that means having good work at decent pay and decent benefits.
“That’s what we hire politicians to do. Instead, we’re seeing politics at its worst, leveraging us against one another, which is what politics at its worst does. If the question is ‘What do we do in light of Dr. King’s legacy?’ the answer is, we recognize what he did, to use the cross to leverage everybody in … and if we can’t go forward together, we shouldn’t be going forward at all and that’s what Dr. King was calling us to in the last months of his life.”
A historic ecumenical multicultural multilingual celebration
Earlier in the day, Bishop Guy Erwin of the Southwest Synod of ELCA called the joint gathering “historic” and welcomed worshippers, including Curry and other Episcopalians, Eaton, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and representatives of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Erwin also thanked Bishop Suffragan Diane Jardine Bruce of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles for the “great joy” of the close working relationship that allowed the two churches to collaborate on the King celebration. Later, at the panel discussion, he also heralded a joint collaborative anti-gun violence task force.
Bruce conveyed greetings from Bishop Diocesan Jon Bruno, who was unable to attend after a slip and fall on ice during a recent Oregon visit. “This is our first real joint multicultural Martin Luther King service between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church, and I hope it’s not the last,” said Bruce. “We can top anything.”
Worshippers packed the multi-lingual celebration, held at Westchester Lutheran Church near Los Angeles International Airport. The service featured the rousing music of the Episcopal Chorale Society, directed by Canon Chas Cheatham, and Lutheran choirs. The service, at times both poignant and humorous, may be viewed here.
Amongst applause, Curry told Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who also addressed the gathering, “We need political leaders like you. We need you.”
Garcetti told worshippers that the diversity and purpose of the gathering “reminds us of what is possible. I feel at home here, the product of a Catholic father and Jewish mother who compromised and sent me to an Episcopal school,” he said amid laughter.
Acknowledging the current tense political climate, Garcetti echoed King’s edict to “stand in someone else’s shoes … and let their stories open our hearts and souls.” Especially, he said, those who are vulnerable, such as “students (who) will go to school this week in our city wondering if their parents will be home when they get home as the administration changes. Students who will be making decisions whether to drop out of school because they won’t have hope or a job. When we see people returning from prison wondering ‘Will I have another pathway when I get back?’”
Now is the time for both prophets and pastors, Garcetti said. “We must chart, as Dr. King did, where we need to go, but we also need to put out our hand to our neighbor and make sure we take them with us.”
Paraphrasing former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, he said human rights “begin in places so small they’re not found on any human map: the places we work, the places we live, the places we worship.”
Noting that King’s dream encompassed both racial and economic equality, Garcetti challenged worshippers to use “the power that we have” by standing together. That power, he said, enabled Los Angelenos recently to increase the minimum hourly wage to $10.50, compared to a $7.25 federal minimum wage, and also to pass a homeless housing initiative.
“Know that what we feel in our hearts, what we think in our heads and what we must move forward with in our guts in these coming days, is Dr. King would expect us not just to sit here and complain but to go out there and do something.”
‘Us together’ — churches as community bridge-builders
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who served as guest preacher, said that churches can serve as community bridge-builders, “to really encourage relationship, crossing bridges and relationships with people who are other than we are and that we might not be in relationship with. That, in itself, is part of the knitting together of the fabric of the social compact that we need in this country, and that is the basis for any democracy to be able to work.”
ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton recalled serving both law enforcement officers and people of color who had had negative experiences with the police who were members of congregations she led.
“Instead of sorting ourselves out the way I think we’re being torn or pushed now in this country, it’s important for the church to be one place where we can see each other as human beings, first of all, and as brothers and sisters,” she said.
She cited as an example a Lutheran pastor who formed a relationship with local police in the wake of the 1999 Bronx, New York, killing of Amadou Diallo. Diallo was a 22-year-old West African man shot more than 40 times by police who mistakenly thought he was carrying a gun.
Rather than adapting an “us versus them” mentality, that pastor adhered to King’s vision of “us together,” she said. His determination to reach out to the police ultimately helped to transform the local community.
Commander Phil Tingirides of the Los Angeles Police Department’s South Bureau, said the police partner with churches regularly because “there is an expectation you are leaders within the community, a place where people come to hear how to be good people, to hear how to reach out to people in need.
“The vast majority of people involved in crime are people in need,” who have issues with love, anger management, and issues economically and mentally, he said.
“This service we went to today to me was amazing,” he said of the King Day celebration. “You had people from so many diverse backgrounds, different religions, differing beliefs and that’s how we are going to solve a lot of the race issues,” he said, “by getting to know each other, by reaching out and understanding each other. Churches are a place for that. You have a huge role. It’s not one that ends on Sunday when the doors close.”
As the beloved community, churches are uniquely positioned to become bridge-builders, Taylor said.
“Our politics are different. Our perspectives are different, but we agree on the baptismal covenant and we agree on love being the only thing that works and we provide communities of mutual accountability and mutual support,” he said.
“We listen to each other. When people are missing we call up and ask them why they weren’t in church. When we’re at our best, we do that. We notice when people are in stress and under pressure and we take care of each other. We model that for society. When we are at our best we reduce the kind of isolation, hopelessness and desolation that leads to acts of violence. We’re really going to live into our potential in the 21st century as a community of faith.”
He noted also that L.A. Episcopalians voted to become a sanctuary diocese in December 2016 “as part of “a profound responsibility to protect folks who are part of our community and part of our churches.”
The shape that assistance takes will depend, in part, on upcoming governmental policies.
Bishop Curry: seek ‘the tried and true and tested’
As preacher at the event, Curry charmed and challenged a packed church to move forward in tough times by seeking “ancient wisdom … tried and true and tested.”
Sparking frequent laughter, applause, cheers and a standing ovation, Curry echoed Isaiah’s (51:1-2) theme “look to the rock” with his characteristic energetic, extemporaneous, whooping preaching style, which he attributed to the influence of his grandmother, “a dyed-in-the-wool, rock-rib Baptist.”
He recalled the dispersal of Israelites during the Babylonian exile: “This is what the prophet said: ‘Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and you who seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham, your father and to Sarah, who bore you.’ Look to the rock.”
While acknowledging current political uncertainty and ambiguity, Curry emphasized themes of unity, love, and building relationship: “It is fitting that we should be observing the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King at this moment and this time. We need him seriously now.”
Curry evoked the image of the “Sankofa” bird, a Ghanaian symbol “that reminded people that the way into an uncertain future is by knowing how to look back and to glean wisdom from the past and strength from the ancestors so that you can go forward in uncertain and ambiguous times.”
He recalled the 1991 discovery of a colonial-era slave and free African burial ground in lower Manhattan, now a national monument. Etched into one of the surviving wooden caskets, workers discovered the symbol of the Sankofa, which translated to English means roughly “go back and get it.”
“The Hebrew prophet understood this,” Curry said, referring to Isaiah, who preached during the Jewish dispersion. “The prophet (Isaiah) knew it … he was doing Sankofa. Look back to the wisdom of the past. Bring it into the present to go into future. This was at a time when Jewish people found their world disrupted. Their world had been one way one day, and the next, a nightmare.
“These were days when as James Weldon Johnson (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”) says, these were the days when hope unborn had died … and it is in this context that the Hebrew prophet spoke to his people. Listen to me, you who seek God’s dream in the midst of a nightmare … you who believe in love.
“Look to the rock whence you were hewn and the quarry whence you were dug. Look to Abraham. Look to Sarah. Look to Martin. Or, better yet, look to Jesus. The truth is … we ignore the wisdom of the past at our peril.”
Citing Robert Fulghum’s “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” he noted early life lessons, such as sharing your things and playing fair. “Can you imagine Congress with this?” he asked, as the congregation laughed.
And other Fulghumisms: “Don’t hit people; put things back where you found them; clean up your own mess; don’t take things that aren’t yours; say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody; wash your hands before you eat, and flush. The best one, the last one says — I love this one — ‘When you go out into the world watch out for the traffic, hold hands and stick together.’”
Returning to the “deep roots of who we are” by honoring the nation’s foundational principles of inalienable rights, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, “there, we will find our way forward as a nation.
“But,” he added, “for us who are Christian, who follow in the way of Jesus, these are going to be some tough times. Because there will be times when we will feel like we must react to hatred and bigotry and wrong with more hatred and bigotry and wrong. There will be times when we are so hurt and angry that we want to respond in anger.”
He cited “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” a turning point in the civil rights movement, in which King instructed activists to meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus as they prepared to march. “Remember the nonviolent movement seeks justice and ultimately reconciliation; never victory,” King wrote.
In a message echoing the tenets of Jesus they also were instructed to live in love “so that all God’s children may one day be free.”
Not, said Curry, “because it’s easy, but because love is the only way.
He said to fashion a world “that treats everybody like a child of God … then America will truly be America and then when we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, what a great day it will be. We’ll be able to say ‘Free at Last, Happy Birthday Martin King.’”
To an 18-year-old who pondered how young people might help make a difference, Curry said: “You have to be wise, be smart. Pay attention to yourself. Don’t be afraid to stand for what’s right and to help somebody who doesn’t have anybody to help them. The truth is, there are more good people out there, there are far more good people out there … but a lot of times they get scared off by the loudest people around. And if somebody stands up and brings the good together, the truth is you can win the day.
“You can, but it’s tough. But don’t give up.”