KEITH’S REFLECTIONS FROM THE MLK50 CONFERENCE – April 3-4, 2018
As an African American man who was seven years old at the time of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., my heart was filled with a myriad of emotions during the MLK50 conference. I could not have been more excited to see in my lifetime such a conference come to fruition, where over 4,000 primarily white and black brothers and sisters in Christ could worship, speak, listen, connect, reflect, and engage in the most candid, open, and honest fashion I think I had ever had the opportunity to witness.
Yet amidst my excitement to be present at the conference, I was reminded of the very reasons that such an event was even necessary. The fact that we needed to have this concentrated time of challenge and confrontation was indicative of just how far we have not yet come. I was filled with joy as we sang praises to our God, worshiping as one unified body of believers but simultaneously filled with frustration while hearing soul-stirring messages that quickened my heart to the realities that we had still not fulfilled the dream of Dr. King that “we shall overcome.”
My dilemma was that as a believer who loves Christ, I found myself in a very paradoxical place in my mind.
For sure as a black man who was a boy growing up in the 60’s (the prime of the Civil Rights era), I was raised to revere those who were on the forefront of the movement, most notably Dr. King. And in that regard, I was taught to love and be proud of the fact that God made me black. This was reinforced at home by my parents, siblings, and extended family, at school by teachers (at least before desegregation), and in my black Baptist Church upbringing by preachers, Sunday School teachers, and fellow congregants.
But as an evangelical Christian, over the last 30+ years, I had come to a place of understanding—loving my identity as a follower of Christ more than loving my identity as a black man. And that is how it should be. I had embraced the hope that in Christ, all of us, as brothers and sisters, could live out the “dream” that Dr. King had so eloquently orated some 50 years ago—not for the sake of civil rights, but for the sake of the gospel.
But I was now in Memphis, TN at an amazing event commemorating the death of one of our country’s great leaders amidst my multiethnic evangelical brothers and sisters. I realized that I had, to some extent, allowed my identity as a Christian to overshadow the reality that I am still a black man, still maintain the ethnic identity I was born into, and all the realities that come with being who God created me to be. So here I am sitting at this conference and it hits me that while I know the dream of racial unity espoused by Dr. King is far from being realized, the greatest contributing impediment to the “dream” is that it has never fully been embraced or fervently pursued by God’s people—the church!
Like Pastor Rickey, the MLK50 Conference exposed a number of blind spots of my own. It exposed my passivity and tendency to stick my head in the sand and failure to take a stand—not take a stand as a black man per se, but more importantly to take a stand as a gospel man. To be clear, it was not as if I was unaware that many issues of racism and racial injustice still exist, but more an indifference or choosing to avoid the subject at times. (By the way, let me be quick to say that racism and injustice come in many forms and are committed by all people—whites, blacks, and every other ethnic group. But there is also the reality of systemic racism in our country that stems from slavery, the Jim Crow era, etc.)
My greatest conviction and confession was my “going along to get along” in the confines of my comfortable black middle-class life. Having been a product of the Civil Rights movement, I have reaped many benefits and attained a great many achievements because of the sacrifices of a generation of men and women of all races that embraced the “dream” and pursued the notion of an equality of life for all people. And yes, my accomplishments were in part a result of affirmative action programs that allowed me to attain higher levels of education and career opportunities that would not have otherwise been afforded to me. But if we are all honest with ourselves, we have all been afforded such opportunities because of someone sacrificing for us. Everyone is a recipient of some affirmative action—it’s called the grace of God, and the most notable of all affirmative action programs is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As a result of my benefits, comforts, and achievements I had to confess that I had drifted into a state of indifference and complacency—merely enjoying my nice “Christian bubble life”, worshiping Jesus inside my church, but failing to fully take my belief in Jesus to the next level in particular on the issues of racism and social injustice. Oh sure, I try to share the gospel as opportunities arise, but quite frankly I have failed to employ that same gospel to speak and act in ways that pursue the dream voiced by Dr. King, the pursuit of racial unity and social justice that is rooted in that very gospel.
Now I know that sparks the age-old questions of some on the topic of whether Dr. King was himself a genuine believer or the concerns about the inconsistencies of his moral character. Neither of those issues will I attempt to deny or defend, but leave that to the Lord for He is the one that knows and will reveal all of our hearts. What I do know though, is that throughout history, God has used men and women saved and unsaved alike to accomplish His purposes. And to that end, I firmly believe that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—sinful warts and all—was used in the sovereign will and providence of God to speak to the conscience of a nation. As a result, we as a nation are further than we would have been without his life and leadership.
Nevertheless, we are still not where we should be, and much of that is due to the failure of the church to be the Church as revealed in scripture. I am often reminded of one of Dr. King’s most notable quotes taken from his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” I am less concerned about the record of history from man’s perspective but more concerned about God’s judgment of His church for our appalling silence as a gospel people.
The indictment of my own heart is that I must repent of my passivity and intentionally engage. To use another quote by Dr. King, “The measure of a man is not where he stands in times of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in time of challenge and controversy.” If I am going to be a “gospel man” I have to take steps to stand where my Savior stands on these critical, poignant issues of the day. That starts with me intentionally getting my head out of the sand and choosing to engage the culture for the cause of Christ and His gospel.
Not only was the MLK50 conference convicting and inspiring, it was also God’s provision for stirring/awakening my conscience that rekindled and revived my awareness. Furthermore, the conference was a call to action and my attendance with Pastor Rickey allowed for some immediate application of the truths learned.
Though our backgrounds—and thus our takeaways from MLK50—were different because of how God created us as different individuals, the issues and concerns for Pastor Rickey and me were in many ways very similar. Most notably, our questions were exactly the same: Where do we go from here? What can I do differently? What do we as a church need to be doing and where do we start? Ironically, the answer to all of those questions was right there in front of me.
Yes, we enjoyed worshiping together with a multiethnic group of believers from many different churches across the nation. Yes, we enjoyed fellowshipping together with those like-minded brothers and sisters who were there because they had a passion to learn and further address these issues. And yes, we heard the same challenges from some very dynamic and gifted men and women of God. But for me, the greatest gift of the conference was the opportunity to engage in relationship and dialogue with Pastor Rickey on a more intimate level than ever before—discussing not only the topics/issues raised at the conference, but our own backgrounds, perspectives, challenges, and convictions with one another.
I’m sure many would assume that because we are both directional pastors that we already have a good relationship and spend a fair amount of time together. That would be true. However, our one-on-one time together—traveling by car six hours each way to Memphis and back, as well as shared time at the conference and over meals—was a great privilege that took our relationship to another level. The message Pastor Rickey preached this past Sunday, “Intentionally Diverse”, was in many ways a direct derivative of our time together, where we were able to share our thoughts, our life experiences, our hearts, our concerns, and our passions. Yes, we knew one another prior to our trip, but we now know one another on a deeper level as a result of the genuine fellowship we shared on this trip.
I share this because it is the exact point that Rickey made in his sermon that “multiethnic gospel unity requires us pursuing relationships with folks that are different than us”. You see on paper, Rickey and I couldn’t be more different. Most obviously, he is a white man and I am a black man. In addition to that, I am a full generation (25 years) older than him. He’s a small town guy from rural Oklahoma; I’m a big city guy from Dallas. He’s in full-time vocational ministry, while I’m a corporate guy, turned small business owner. He’s married with small kids, elementary and preschool age; I’m married with a grown daughter and soon to be high school senior. I could go on and on, but you get the point.
Please understand that we both know and embrace our differences. As we spent time together, we learned more about each other, which means that those differences were even further highlighted. But neither of us needs to apologize for those differences, they make us who we are. To do so would be to deny who we are, which is, in essence, saying that God didn’t know what He was doing when He made us. But the Bible declares that we were created in His image and he uniquely designed each of us to fulfill his purposes with the lives he has blessed us to live, including our ethnicity. Rickey and I also know that though we are different, we share a common bond as brothers in Christ, which doesn’t eradicate our differences but supersedes them.
As our relationship is strengthened through more time together, we will further learn how to appreciate, affirm, and encourage one another in who God has made us to be. This ultimately results in the greater glory of God being on display for a lost humanity to see a clear picture of the Gospel. We are the epitome of blood brothers, which is what enables real (authentic) relationship, and subsequently enables us to be sensitively aware of issues that affect us and everyone we encounter differently. This awareness and sensitivity is what requires us to speak out on issues of racism and injustice that affect us all. That, my brothers and sisters, is what our Savior has done for us and requires us to do for one another. That is embodied in the hope and message of the gospel, and what it means for us to be a gospel, people!
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8
- Read Racial Unity: Living in View of the Gospel – Part 1
- Listen to Rickey’s sermon, “Intentionally Diverse”
- Visit one of our Sunday services, we would be glad to have you! Plan Your Visit.