Dear Dr. King,
We received your letter written from a Birmingham jail cell in August, 1963. It arrived a lifetime ago, more than 2 lifetimes of Michael Brown, more than 3 lifetimes of Tamir Rice and Emmett Till. Even though I was just an infant when you wrote, it seems you deserve a response, especially since you addressed the “white moderate” clergy.
Thanks to you and your partners in ministry and action, the United States has changed in some very big ways in terms of race since 1963. We rejoice that many laws and behaviors have changed – though some of the same issues remain. You marched with people carrying signs that said “Black is beautiful” and “I am a man.” Today we say “Black Lives Matter” and “Say their names.” Racism is still with us in small ways – micro-aggressions that sometimes only African Americans or other people of color notice. Racism is with us in big ways – in laws and systems of power that are stacked against people of color, in police violence, in church members murdered at a prayer meeting.
While much has changed since 1963, some things have stayed the same. It is still the African American churches and leaders who lead the way when it comes to calling society to account, as in the call for a Sunday of “Confession, Repentance and Commitment to end Racism” by the African Methodist Episcopal churches. You confess in your letter that you “have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.” In that spirit, I think it might be important for me to make a confession about my own congregation’s history.
In the early days of the congregation, when the growing gathering was not yet two years old, the church bought a building in which to worship, at 3200 22nd St in NE Washington DC. Built as a Presbyterian church, in December 1953 it became home to the Woodridge Mennonite Church.
It was a time of great change in Washington, DC and the Woodridge neighborhood was no exception. Gene Miller, our congregational historian, recounts that the area around the church went from 85% white in the 1940s to 18% white in 1960. The small, white, Mennonite congregation did not know what to do in this time of white flight. While the congregation wanted to reach out to the local community, the reality was that no one from the congregation lived in the neighborhood where the church building was located. The vacation bible school teachers were enthusiastic but overwhelmed by the number of African American children who attended each summer.
The young pastor, John Martin, consulted John Hess, a fellow Mennonite pastor in Toronto, for advice. Hess wrote to Martin with these thoughts: “When we move out of our Mennonite communities, we find it difficult to know what is cultural and mere tradition and what is basic. It is a good experience. Your problem of race (sic) is peculiar to south of the Mason-Dixon line. There may be two things to keep in mind. First, what is right. We know that integration is right and biblical. Second, what is expedient. Don’t push your people too fast. Let them be clear on your convictions… Be very clear in your convictions but don’t thrust them on others…”
Heeding this counsel, Pastor John Martin saw three options, all of which called for the white, Woodridge congregation to remain white and move on from the neighborhood, hopefully leaving the ministry in Woodridge to an African American pastor and congregation. The congregation wrestled with this decision and decided to follow the biblical model of Gideon in the book of Judges when he lays out a fleece. The congregation would see if anyone offered them $50,000 for the building. Within a month, the New Southern Rock Baptist Church offered $54,000 for the building. “The congregation interpreted both the timing and the amount of the offer as a signal that they were to turn the ministry in the Woodridge community over to an African American church.” (p. 26-27 in Taking Root in Strange Soil by Gene Miller.)
In 1958, the congregation bought land and built a new building in Prince George’s County, just 3 1/2 miles down the road in Hyattsville, Maryland. Today the congregation is still in Hyattsville though it is no longer the quiet countryside it once was. The highway roars by, just steps from our building. About a dozen families live in the neighborhood and our neighbors are African American and white as well as people from around the world. We are no longer an exclusively white congregation but neither are we fully integrated. The question that John Hess raised in 1956 about “what is culture and tradition and what is basic” is one that Mennonites still wrestle with, in the city, in the suburbs and elsewhere.
Quite a number of folks from my congregation are part of another organization that also has a history of segregation, the local swimming pool. You will not be surprised to hear that there were problems at the pool; perhaps swimming pools come just after churches in being the most segregated spaces in society.
Eleven years after you wrote your letter from jail, a lawsuit was brought against the Prince George’s Community Pool, of which I am now a member. Raymond Bowlding, the first African American to live in Mt Rainier where the pool is located, wanted to bring his five children to the pool but was rejected from pool membership. Along with the NAACP, he filed charges with the Department of Justice. In 1975, the pool changed its policy so that the Bowlding family could become members – but they didn’t because Mr. Bowlding feared for the safety of his children at the historically white pool.
Yesterday, forty years later, the Bowlding children came to the pool, from some distance, with their own children. This was the first time they ever entered the pool grounds and their father was not there to protect them; he died in 1994. The event was to thank and honor the Bowldings as a new pavilion was dedicated. The plaque on the pavilion reads “In honor of Raymond Bowlding whose courage and perseverance led to the integration of PG Pool in 1975.” It could have been another event with white people patting themselves on the back for being so good. To me, it seemed like a ceremony of confession, repentance and working to end racism, as the AME church calls for.
And still, we are trying to overcome our past policies and practices, at the pool and in the congregation. It takes a long time to work against the wrong, for people to know they are truly welcome, for “members to understand what is cultural and mere tradition and what is most basic,” treating our neighbors as ourselves.
As a white person, I could confess all day the ways that I am part of the problem of racism. My African American friends do not feel that their voices are heard in the larger Mennonite church, and yet I remain part of this institution that perpetuates racism. Sometimes I am silent or participate in micro aggressions myself. Too often I have been the “quiet in the land” and in the city. As it says in Psalm 51, For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Dr. King, I wonder what you would say, but I think that getting stuck in continual confession will not help us move into the ways we can be part of the solution that is needed today. You write in your letter that “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” Confession is a kind of “self-purification” but if it doesn’t lead to action it becomes one more excuse to wait. You write so poignantly about waiting in your letter:
“… when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; …when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
Just as you were told by white clergy to wait, not to disrupt and disturb, there are disputes about the disruptive tactics that the Black Lives Matter activists use today. It is an ancient struggle. The tension between waiting and disruption; it is even in a story we tell about Jesus.
Jesus was trying to get away, recharge and renew and here comes a woman, a gentile woman, whose daughter desperately needs help. This mother disrupts Jesus’ personal time as she kneels at his feet, begging him to heal her daughter. His first response is to tell her no; he sees his mission elsewhere, not with her or her people. But she will not take “wait for another prophet, wait for a more appropriate time” for an answer. She compresses the four steps of non-violent action; she sees the need, she doesn’t wait for negotiation, she kneels in humility and asks for what she needs – directly.
Unlike Bull Connor or some politicians today, Jesus is moved by the woman’s plea; Jesus is moved by her action. Jesus says that her daughter is healed and when she returns home, she finds that it is true.
How different things might be if white people responded like Jesus, allowing our thinking and understanding to be changed, even by those who disrupt and create a scene. What would the world look like if all those who claim to be followers of Jesus actually listened the way Jesus did – listened to the pain, understood our part in the pain and injustice and worked together, with those who experience the injustice, to end it.
We still have a long way to go, and no doubt it will take more disruption. Bengali attorney Chaumtoli Huq reflects on your letter after her unlawful arrest in New York during Ramadan last year.
Sitting in jail last summer, tired from the day’s fasting, I thought about Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he expresses frustration with white moderates because they are devoted to order, rather than justice. This remains true today… When you find yourself repeatedly ignored, disruption becomes the way to get heard. Shutting your mouth is not an option, because it is akin to remaining the officer’s prisoner and allowing the political establishment to comfortably do whatever it wants. Disruption is the only sound we can make that perhaps inches us closer to any semblance of a democracy. (Chaumtoli Huq is a human rights attorney and editor of www.lawatthemargins.com)
In church, we don’t often talk about democracy. In my congregation we talk about the priesthood of all believers, we say every voice needs to be heard. We say the sermon has not been preached until there is a response. Do we need to listen even more carefully, to the polite expressions and the disruptions? inside and outside the church? All the while knowing we will not all agree even on how to do confession, repentance and work to end racism.
In the text from Mark, the next person Jesus encounters, after the distraught mother, is a man who is deaf, probably also a gentile. It seems that Jesus has been changed by his interaction with the mother. This time he does not make any excuses about the particularity of his ministry. He simply takes the man aside and, as he turns toward heaven, heaves a sigh and speaks a word, “Ephphatha,” which means “be opened.” And the man’s ears and tongue are opened; he can hear and speak.
Jesus still speaks this word today. “Ephphatha!” Be opened. Open – our eyes, open our ears, open our arms, open our hearts.
Dr. King, you opened yourself to those who loved you and those who despised you. You opened yourself to those who followed your non-violent plan of action and those who heaped violence upon you.
Thank you for modeling your life after Jesus, for showing the world that love and non-violence are greater than hate and racsim. Thank you for showing ways that we can work together, we must work together – white and black and all races, across orientation and identity, across class and education, across mobility and ability, all people working for justice together.
I close with these words which you used to close your own letter. I hope you don’t mind that I have adapted the language slightly.
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and family unity (brotherhood – sic) will shine over our great nation (and our world) with all their scintillating beauty. (from http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html)
With respect, gratitude, and appreciation,
Cynthia Lapp, a white pastor at Hyattsville Mennonite Church