Monday, January 19, 2015

The Drum Major Instinct

It was a cold and windy mid-November morning when I walked from a hotel in downtown Atlanta through the Sweet Auburn neighborhood. I kept my pace brisk as I crossed street after street, even walking under a major interstate. I passed by many a closed business, and bars advertising prizes for twerking. This was definitely out of my element. But I was on a mission: I wanted to go to Ebenezar Baptist Church, the church that launched the career of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

I was not disappointed. The docent at the desk informed me that, in the church basement, there was a video playing of one of Dr. King's siblings telling the story of her brother and her family's involvement in the life of Ebenezer Baptist. King's father was the pastor and his mother was the organist and choir director. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was a child, he used to love to sing. He would grow up to be the co-pastor of the church with his father from 1960 to his death in 1968. The video also told the story of how violence rocked their church about six years after Rev. Dr. King's assisination. It was a Sunday morning. Dr. King's mother had just finished playing and they were starting prayers in the church when a man stood up on one of the pews, announced he was taking over, and began shooting. King's mother was killed in the melee along with a deacon. The 23-year-old who did the shooting said he did it because he was opposed to Christianity.

With that in my head, I ascended the steps to the sanctuary. There was only me, and one other couple. They left fairly soon after I got there, which gave me the entire space to myself. Me, an empty sanctuary with flowers and an old-fashioned microphone on the pulpit and the recording of the Rev. Dr. King's sermon, "The Drum Major Instict." 

I was deeply moved as I sat and listened to his voice filling the air. I knew the Scripture passage well, the moment in which the brothers are arguing and asking Jesus to give them the seats of honor on his left side and the right side. It is a moment in Jesus' ministry where I often wonder, "Did these guys who were following him here, there and everywhere have a clue as to what he was doing?" The presumption of these two guys, John and James, that they could ask Jesus to make them first ahead of the other disciples is pretty amazing, and yet, pretty typical of so many of us. That's what Rev. Dr. King referred to as "the Drum Major instinct."  I sat at times with eyes closed as I took in how Dr. King put this tale into his modern day situation in 1968. People putting themselves into financial crises by attempting to live beyond their means. Nations putting themselves and their people at-risk by asserting that their way is superior to the way of other nations. Racism, and how poor whites had deluded themselves into believing they are superior to blacks while suffering under the same oppression and injustice plaguing communities of color. And he turned his own sights back to Jesus for the role model of what real leadership looks like. I wept as I heard Dr. King say of himself that at his funeral he didn't want anyone to go on and on about him. He didn't want to be known for the many accolades he had accumulated. He didn't want them to talk about his Nobel Peace Prize. 

"Tell them I tried to love and serve humanity." 

Little did he know, he was preaching his own eulogy. His wife requested that this sermon be played at his funeral.

Little did I know this mission to find and visit his church would leave such an impression on me. I heard in his sermon many things I have felt for myself as one who has kept plugging away at the struggle for equality particularly for LGBTQI people. I don't work for justice so that I can get awards. I work for justice because I can't feel comfortable knowing that others are struggling. Yes, we have finally achieved marriage equality in Florida. But people are still able to be fired from their jobs if they get married to their same-gender partner. The Roman Catholic diocese in South Florida has made it clear to all its employees to "beware" of making public comments on social media about the marriage issue that might "contradict" traditional Roman Catholic doctrine. The Episcopal diocese of Florida has not even acknowledged that there has been this sea change in the civil marriage laws. We have made progress. But this march is far from over. And so I'm lacing up my shoes, ready to walk the path that is laid before me.  

No comments: