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A Celebration of MLK with New Covenant Fellowship

Kathy Escandell

January 18, 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Celebration
UPC and New Covenant Fellowship, 3:00 p.m.

Good afternoon.

I am honored to be here for this celebration of Dr. King, and quite unable to speak to something as important and as necessary to our current cultural conversation as his legacy impact. Instead, I hope you will allow me to share some personal reflections on the gift of discomfort which Dr. King has given me through the power and truth of his words and the witness of his life.

My older brother and I were born in the “colored” hospital in Chicago because that’s where our mother’s doctor had privileges. I spent my early childhood in a racially and culturally diverse context. My father had colleagues from many countries and many cultures who were frequently at our home for meals. Our family friend, Mrs. Miller, was exotic to me not because her skin was darker than mine, but because she lived in an apartment, which, to my suburban subdivision experience, seemed beyond wonderful.

When I was 6, we moved from Chicago to a small town on the gulf coast of Texas, and if I had known the term “culture shock,” it would have been my constant refrain for – years.

LaMarque was a completely segregated town. The schools, churches, neighborhoods were utterly divided along racial lines. In the early 60s, in a small Texas town, there simply were not opportunities for the sorts of friendships and connections my family had enjoyed in Chicago. If I had known the term “white privilege,” I could have accurately labeled this new context of separation, exclusion and inequality.

In preparation for today’s program, I reread several of Dr. King’s speeches and other writings. Each time I read his words I am first struck with an English major’s deep appreciation for his eloquence. And then I begin to realize the depth and breadth of his wisdom, the scope of his prophetic voice and the power of his commitment to the Gospel. Here, if I will receive it, is the gift of discomfort. Dr. King calls me into discomfort with a world at odds with God’s will, with systems in opposition to Christ’s peace, with habits that perpetuate sin.

In the speech Dr. King delivered in Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers the night before he was assassinated, he called upon his listeners to develop what he called “a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” He illustrated his point with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A dangerous unselfishness does not ask the question, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Instead, the question becomes, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” Such an attitude is dangerous because it does not protect our own comfort; it does not seek to preserve the status quo; it does not put propriety above people. What it does is embody the Gospel.

In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King writes of his disappointment with the failure of white clergymen to offer any real support to the efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve led too easy and comfortable a life, occupied my advantage too thoughtlessly to be able to read his words without being convicted by them: I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice. … Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

20th century theologian Karl Barth describes Christians as “disturbed sinners.” Dr. King’s words disturb me, not to sink me into guilt and shame, but to call me to action, to remind me that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

When I was working on these comments, I thought the bit about my birth would be an interesting way to begin, might establish me as someone from an enlightened background; credit by association, as it were. But as I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized that the circumstances of my birth perfectly highlight the inequality which Dr. King worked so ardently to correct. My white mother considered her options and chose the doctor and hospital she preferred from among the wide range of doctors and hospitals available to her. Every other woman in every bed around hers had been denied the same opportunity; had been constrained to stay within boundaries imposed by others. And the fact of excellent medical care at that facility does not negate or excuse the injustice of a segregated system which allowed cross-over in only one direction. As the “white” baby in the “colored” nursery, I was introduced very early to the reality that the world was broadly mine to occupy as I chose, while my nursery mates were informed equally early that the world was not broadly theirs.

Habits of racism and practices of segregation have changed in the intervening years, but not enough, not completely. Injustice remains. Inequality continues. And far, far too often we are reminded that black lives are not honored and protected as they should – as they must – be. It remains high time for all of us, but especially those of us who occupy positions of privilege, to receive Dr. King’s holy gift of discomfort. It is time, this day and each day, for us to allow that discomfort to impel us to work, speak and live toward a world house of peace and justice. A world house in which every person is welcome and respected and cherished. Dr. King articulated such a vision. As we honor him, may we remember with gratitude, live with hope, and work with an ardor worthy of his legacy.

Thank you.