Saturday, January 15, 2011
Lessons from behind the scenes by Megan Rohrer
The words and the life of Martin Luther King Jr have inspired millions. I imagine that tales, sounds and video of his life and ministry will be passed from generation to generation for centuries to come.
However, sometimes when we tell the stories of great leaders, prophets and priests, we remember all the qualities that are rare or vitally needed in contemporary society, but we forget all the bits that make that individual truly human.
In the days following the assassination attempt in Tucson, in our 10th year at war in Afghanistan, with racial disparity, racism and violence still an issue, King’s work to bring an end to the Vietnam war, his impassioned cries for racial justice and his example of how to live life to the fullest knowing that death is around the corner, are certainly things worth remembering today.
Yet, it is a little known story of King’s humanity that may have the most to say to our beloved ELCA.
When most people think of King, they think of nonviolence. Yet in his early days, armed guards protected him.
He, like all of us, had to learn the principles of nonviolence.
One of his teachers was a man named Bayard Rustin. Rustin organized the logistics of many of King’s most remembered marches and bus boycotts.
While he was planning the logistics for the famed March on Washington, where his “I Have a Dream” speech would capture the heart of the nation, King asked Rustin to step down from his position after he learned that the press was going to “out” Rustin as a gay man.
While King had long known that Rustin was gay, it was believed the papers would use the information in order to discredit King and the civil rights movement.
In this human moment, King, a man known for teaching tolerance to so many others, was unable to follow the strength of his own convictions.
Later, when it was clear that the march could not happen without Rustin, King invited him back.
Someone needed to schedule the buses so they would arrive on time. Someone needed to make sure there would be sandwiches and water for the individuals who were so excited to be there that they no doubt would forget to bring food.
Someone had to clean up the litter after the crowds dispersed. Though he was humiliated by his exile, Rustin came back and the buses came as scheduled, everyone had food and the litter was picked up at the end of the rally.
Rustin, like so many minorities before and after him, was tolerated because of his usefulness.
Rustin’s work did not go unnoticed, for it was Rustin and A.J. Muste (one of the other leaders who taught nonviolence to King) not King, who were featured on the cover of Time magazine after the march.
This Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, I pray that we continue to pursue the dream that was inspired by Jesus’ trip to the mountaintop.
In the same way that King had to learn nonviolence, we (a mostly White church) need to unlearn racism, reject privilege that keeps others down, listen to diverse voices, support struggling inner-city Black congregations, address the inequality in wages for minority pastors and follow through with our promises to become a more diverse church.
Also, if only for this holiday, let’s remember the names and faces long forgotten who did the behind the scenes logistics work so that King could inspire the nation.
We remember Rustin and the women in the front of the March on Washington who told King that he should tell the crowd about his dream, after he pulled out a different speech.
And while we’re at it, let’s give thanks for the people who work behind the scenes in our congregations, like the faithful people who make coffee, clean toilets and set up the altar.
I hope you’ll also remember that King was a human, he made mistakes and he learned from them.
His humanity is important to remember, because it means that we, too, despite our failures, missteps and contradictions, can share the gospel, inspire others, cause change beyond our lifetime and find hope in the darkest of times.