It has been more than 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But the impact of a life devoted to non-violence and inclusion echoes as loudly today as it did during his battle for basic human dignity and rights.
And as the nation prepares to observe the day set aside to honor Dr. King’s legacy and dream of a united society, it does so against the backdrop of a frightening increase of violence and prejudice that has metastasized into multiple parts of society.
“It is more worrisome because hate directed toward people that are considered the ‘others’ have become almost normalized by the rhetoric coming from many leaders of countries,” Rev. Simon Osunlana of St. John United Methodist Church in Ft. Lauderdale said.
“It is astounding to see the constant belittling, verbal abuse, blaming of immigrants for crimes they are not committing, the divisive rhetoric on social media.”
African-Americans, Jews, members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and even those with differing political views have been targeted for ridicule, or worse.
Osunlana, originally from Nigeria, noted that the country’s new wave of nationalism is motivating some to assume the worst of others who may not look or talk like them.
“These issues have become more difficult to deal with because they have become politicized and, of course, monetized,” he said.
“It is difficult to talk about some of these issues because a lot of people in the majority culture cannot relate to the pain of the minority. They are often very dismissive of such conversations, and the ones who wants to talk about them are wrongfully labeled as complainers or ungrateful people.”
That’s why Dr. King’s words remain as relevant today as ever.
“The one (King quote) that always stick with me is ‘A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act,” Osunlana said.
Dr. King put it best in a speech called “A Time To Break Silence” at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967 – exactly one year before he was assassinated.
“One day, we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway,” he said,
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
That change comes through the gospel of Jesus Christ. It happens when Christians forcefully reject hate, prejudice, and discrimination – in whatever forms they appear.
“Just as the only way to quench fire is by pouring water on it, to kill hunger, we need food. The same way to kill hate, Christians must show love,” Osunlana said.
“To end injustice and discrimination, those who have been benefiting from such a system must be willing to sacrifice and speak out more forcefully against injustice and discrimination.”
First Church Lakeland is heeding the call.
“Here at First Church of Lakeland UMC, we have just started a justice and peace ministry committee because we’ve been getting into some things,” Rev. Melissa Stump said.
That push included a class on race relations, and to acknowledge the pain and fear that exists in communities different from the ones where we live.
Stump used materials from F. Willis Johnson, who lived and pastored in Ferguson, Missouri, when a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown.
“He talked about his experience and pastoring through that for people that were angry and working with police officers,” Stump said. “He shared about that process and what he learned working with different people. He went through a process where you acknowledge, you affirm, and then act.
“At First Church Lakeland, we are a pretty white church. Part of it was to acknowledge and learn the reality, what people have to deal with and continue to deal with. In communities of color, there is still segregation and still is unjust treatment. We don’t cross those barriers often.”
Some First Church members have joined the NAACP, and the church will host their fundraiser in April at the church.
“We have a pre-school, and we don’t accept any state funding, and everyone pays, but we have started giving some scholarships to some people who can’t afford to pay and allow them to find a job or go to school,” Stump said.
That helps alleviate any fear from parents about the care their children are receiving.
First Church carries a banner in the MLK Day parade that states, “Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere.”
“It is powerful because there is injustice going on, whether with race or economic equality,” Stump said. “The systems are still in place that are allowing it to continue. It, therefore, affects justice for everyone. That is part of what we need to acknowledge. We think it is not our issue, but injustice to anyone affects justice for everyone.”
The Committee on Social Justice focuses on a wide range of issues for the Annual Conference. For Rev. Sarah Miller, the committee chairperson, it’s about turning faith into action for positive change.
That includes, she said, “… everything from poverty and affordable housing to ensuring advocacy for children, welfare, which includes healthcare and moneys for free and reduced lunch. We have worked on farmworkers rights, particularly in Immokalee, human trafficking, and race reconciliation.
“We advocate, educate, and make people aware how these concerns connect to their faith and how responding to them is a way of keeping discipleship.”
In other words, they build on the words, deeds, legacy, and, yes, the dream of Dr. King. The mission remains as vital today as ever.
--Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer from Valrico