Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and the Luxury of Hindsight Hope

Yesterday in worship, during our time for children, I talked about Dr. Martin Luther King. The children and youth at my congregation, from pre-K on up to high school seniors, are exceptional in so many respects. Yesterday was no exception. When I asked our elementary-aged students what they knew about Dr. King they told me stories about discrimination, choosing non-violence, working for justice, and about Dr. King’s life in general. The parents of our church have taught them well, and taught them that opposing injustice is a part of what it means to be a Christian. They give me hope.

As I was sitting there, though, I was aware of how easy it is for me, and for all of us who didn’t grow up in the Civil Rights Movement, to know just how wrong the Jim Crow era was, and just how right Dr. King was. Though I am from the South, I was born years after Dr. King’s assassination. Unlike my parents, I went to integrated schools and was taught by them that all people were equal for as long as I can remember. There was certainly racism all around me, but I knew it was wrong.

Dr. King and John Lewis, marching with other Civil Rights leaders.

Dr. King and John Lewis, marching with other Civil Rights leaders.

When I went to college in Atlanta I began to learn more about the specifics of Dr. King’s legacy. I learned the ways that even the street names in Atlanta were shaped by race and who lived where. I read Dr. King’s speeches. And sometimes, when the injustice of the world seemed unsurmountable, I visited Dr. King’s tomb.

But I also began to wonder: what would I have done as a white person if I had been alive during the Civil Rights movement?

I’d like to think I know the answer. I hope I would have done the right thing. I hope I would have marched, and been arrested, and stood in solidarity, no matter what the personal cost. I hope I would have been a true ally who stepped aside and gave the mic to people of color. And I hope I would have done all of these things because my faith compelled me to do so.

But the reality is that most white folks in Atlanta, even those who knew what was happening was wrong, did nothing. In Atlanta I learned that when Dr. King returned to the city with his Nobel Peace Prize no one wanted to acknowledge it. (It was finally the Jewish community, shaken by the recent bombing of The Temple on Peachtree Street, that stepped up and threw a dinner for him.) Moments of white solidarity were few and far between. And, decades later, I came to find out that sometimes they were misremembered a bit too favorably.

In Atlanta I went to a fabulous Presbyterian church downtown. It was committed to justice and inclusion for all people, and their social justice work was remarkable. I was proud to be a part of this congregation, and I often pointed to a particular story related to the Civil Rights movement to show exactly why. As the story went, when Dr. King was assassinated, this church, just blocks away from Dr. King’s neighborhood, had opened up its building to students and others who were coming to Atlanta for the funeral and who needed a place to stay. The fact a white church in Atlanta would do that so willingly in 1968 was held as truly remarkable. When I heard the story repeated it was with assurances that the church would have done nothing else except be hospitable

And then one day, a man who had been a part of the congregation for decades told me the real story. “Do you think they were happy about it?”, he asked me. “No one wanted to do it…the pastor had to finally force them to do it by telling them how bad they would look if they didn’t!” It turns out the church, while certainly one of the more progressive of the white mainline downtown establishment churches, had wanted little to nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t until the movement literally came to their neighborhood, in a time of national mourning, that they were forced to take a side.

I don’t tell that story to shame that church. The church learned from that experience, grew, and became more prophetic. But the happier, sanitized version of that story is what usually gets told, with more than a little self-congratulation. The reality is a lot more humbling and, in my mind, a lot more powerful.

I think about that story because I wonder what I’m doing now that I’ll look back on years from now and want to remember with a sort of revisionist history. How am I well-intentioned, but not actually willing to act? What struggles for justice am I remaining neutral about, and how to I get myself engaged? What don’t I want to look back on forty years from now with regret and shame over my lack of courage? These are the questions I’m asking myself on this Martin Luther King day.

And on this day, I’m also thinking about the ones who have gotten it right, and who have kept moving forward from one struggle for justice to another. And I’m remembering something I saw in Atlanta when I was about twenty years old. I was marching in the Atlanta Pride Parade down Peachtree street and towards Piedmont Park. As we turned onto 10th Street I saw a man standing near the end of the route, waving at us and cheering us on.

As we got closer I could see it was Congressman John Lewis, Dr. King’s trusted advisor and a man who had braved the worst of the brutality that racism had to offer. Here was a man who had beaten at Selma. Here was a man who had watched his friend die for justice. Here was a man who had nothing to prove, and who didn’t have to be there. And yet he was.

When I think about wanting to be a good ally, I think about John Lewis. He showed me that day how, as Dr. King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. And he taught me that I can’t stay home just because the fight isn’t mine.

I hope I would have done the right thing fifty years ago. But I can choose to prayerfully do the right thing now.

john

How Not to Be an Ally: 5 Reminders for Christian Clergy Working for Equality

  1. You don’t understand.

This is not meant in a hostile way. It’s just a reminder. If you are not LGBTQ, you have not lived the reality of being LGBTQ. You may empathize, but that’s different than being LGBTQ. Here’s a parallel. I’m not African-American. I may work tirelessly against racism, and do my best to understand the African-American experience, but I will never fully understand what it is to grow up as anything other than white in this country.

You may be the best ally in the world, with all the LGBTQ friends you could hope for, but until you are the 13 year old kid who gets beat up for being gay, or the 22 year old who has to leave their church, or the 40 year old who is denied a marriage license, or the 50 year old who can’t afford top surgery, or the 65 year old who can’t collect a partner’s Social Security, you will never understand exactly what it is to be LGBTQ.

2. You will sometimes pay a price for doing the right thing. We pay a price everyday.

Yes, it’s true. Your support of us will sometimes cost you. You might not get the big steeple church. You might not be able to serve as a church official. You might even end up in jail from time to time. The blessing is that these will be occasional situations for you. They are daily realities for us. When something like this happens, it will feel tragic. But for perspective, put it in the context of the greater, even more tragic, reality of the inequalities in our country.

There’s a story about this. John Lewis once was working with a group of white clergy who were going to be arrested for civil disobedience in the Civil Rights movement. His job was to bail them out immediately upon arrest. The ministers would then be heroically received. Except he didn’t bail them out. He decided to wait a while. He wanted them to truly understand their privilege and the fact that their jail cell was temporary. The jail cell of racism never opened. Remember that what you are doing is right. Maybe even brave. But it’s not heroic. Virtue is its own reward.

3. Let us define ourselves.

Please don’t put your labels on our reality. Two women who are together are not necessarily a “lesbian couple”. A man who has sex with another man may not identify as gay. Someone who is gender non-conforming might identify as trans. Or they might not. We might proudly claim words you don’t feel comfortable using: queer, butch, femme, etc. Those words come from our struggle and our reality. When you say, “oh, don’t call yourself that” we hear it as “I am not comfortable with you”. When you call our marriage a “union” we hear “separate but equal”. Words matter, and letting those who are not as privileged as you choose their own words matters more.

Here’s another example: When you lead worship, do you ever divide the voices up into the “men” and the “women”? Recently I attended a church with an active outreach to the LGBT community, and a few trans members, some of whom were still not out about the fact they were considering transitioning. When we were asked to sing along gender binary lines, some of them were put on the spot in a highly uncomfortable way. Try not to box us in using your understanding of sex and gender. Talk to us. We’ll tell you what works.

4. Whenever possible, listen…don’t talk.

Which leads me to my next point: listen. We have spent much of our life not being able to speak our truth. Now that we can, please let us do it. That’s not to say that we don’t want to dialogue with you or listen to your journey about how you became an ally. It’s just saying that we are often the best ones to speak to our realities.

Recently I was sitting at a table with clergy members, all of whom were allies. One ally was talking about what LGBTQ’s wanted around gay marriage (mainly just civil benefits). Not only did I not agree with him, but most LGBTQ people would not. Another ally graciously interrupted and pointed out that since there was a LGBTQ person at the table, perhaps that person could speak to what marriage meant to us better than an ally. It was a great moment of grace that doesn’t happen nearly enough.

5. Remember we are not a monolithic group

There are so many different identities in the LGBTQ alphabet. There’s a beauty in that diversity that doesn’t come out when one person is chosen to represent us all. A gay man does not understand what it means to be a lesbian. A lesbian does not understand what it is to be trans (unless they are trans themselves). A trans person doesn’t understand what it is to be bi (again, unless they are themselves). Each group has specific concerns and realities. Resist the urge to lump us together as one.

Likewise, remember that we don’t always have the same ideas on how the LGBT community should achieve our goals. Many clergy allies proudly show me their HRC t-shirts and equal stickers, for instance. I really appreciate the fact they are trying to visibly show their support, but I wonder if they realize that many LGBT people, particularly trans folks, would rather gnaw off their right arms than give to HRC? Other LGBTQ folks love them. But ask us who, and what, we would support, and why. It will tell you more about our community.

Finally, remember we love you. Every civil rights movement needs allies, and we are grateful for you. I only mention these things because there are times when well-meaning allies can become roadblocks on the path to the full equality of LGBTQ people. They’re principles I try to put in practice when I advocate for groups that I am not a member of, and they’ve served me well. I hope they might serve you as well. Until all children of God are equal, peace be with you.