MLK, peace and kinship: Reflections on a visit to Ebenezer Baptist Church
Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his sermons at the Ebenezer Baptist Church through this microphone (photo: Ian White)
“You’re with us,” she said, looking directly at me.
Atlanta’s streetcar had broken down and we would walk the last couple of blocks to the Martin Luther King Jr. historic district.
My new friends were a girl scout troop and their adult leaders – four African-American women. The girl scouts would have my back.
When I was young, I remember two multi-part biographies in my parents’ bookcase – Martin Luther King Jr. and Lester B. Pearson. Both men had been Nobel Peace Prize winners.
We took peace and non-violence seriously in our home, and my recent trip to where King had begun broadcasting his message in Atlanta was a trip to hallowed ground.
As we walked in the rain along Auburn Avenue, my new acquaintance explained how the girl scouts were based at the new Ebenezer Baptist Church, built in 1999. It’s across the street from the church where King had been a pastor and now part of a National Historical Park.
We arrived at the front doors of the old church and we said goodbye. I regret not giving her hug, even though both of us were soaked by the rain.
I was one of the few visitors in the church.As I sat in a pew, over the loudspeakers I could hear King’s Christmas Sermon on Peace, recorded on Christmas Eve, 1967. It was his final Christmas before he was killed in Memphis in 1968.
He talked about the futility of weapons, how violent means can never justify a peaceful end. “Ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.” He also embraced the tried and true Christmas sentiment of peace on earth.
“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”
As I sat in the church, I thought how little had changed since King’s sermon in 1967. Peace, tolerance, and the elimination of poverty remain elusive goals.
The Vietnam War, which King opposed, was replaced by other deadly conflicts. Year after year, we hope for peace and express good will, but each Christmas the wider, global picture seems as bleak as the year before.Martin Luther King Jr. would have wanted people of all races and nationalities to embrace one another, to reach out and find common ground.
At Christmas a half century later, simple gestures of kindness are still in vogue, moments of understanding that begin with something as simple as “you’re with us”.