Tomorrow is a special day in the life of the nation. We
celebrate the man who said, when civil rights marchers were facing the dogs and
clubs and fire hoses of Birmingham, “We must face the forces of hate
with the power of love.” He said, “All people are caught in an inescapable
network of mutuality.” He said, “I have a dream.”
Monday, we celebrate this
great man, Martin Luther King, Jr. And then comes Tuesday. On
Tuesday--not far from the steps of the Lincoln
Memorial, site of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—Barack Obama will be
inaugurated as the 44th President of the United
“If there is anyone out there who still
doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,” he said back in
November, on the night of his historic election, “If there is anyone out there
who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still
questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer. […] It's the
answer that led those who've been told for so long by so many to be cynical and
fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of
history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”
What celebrations are before us. What high points in our
nation’s history. The dream of racial and social justice unfolding. Though much
more remains to happen, still—how wonderful to be alive in this time, to witness
the parts coming true!
But the journey has in no way been easy, or straight. Messy
all the way, in America’s larger social life, but
also in the personal lives of the leaders we are celebrating. The man who now
says “Yes we can” once, as a sophomore in college, ridiculed such idealism,
disbelieving that he or anyone else could make a true difference. Long before
his political opponents charged him as all flash and no substance, he said,
“Pretty words don’t make it so.” “That’s the last time you will ever hear
another speech out of me.”
Can you personally relate to this irony? See in your own
leadership story a time when you believed something couldn’t be done—or it could
be done but by anybody but you—but then it WAS done, and the person who had done
it was YOU?
“We are made for community,” says liberal Quaker and activist
Parker Palmer, and so “leadership is everyone’s vocation.” That’s our focus
today—exploring what this means, and doing it with the spirit of Martin Luther
King Jr. in the room, drawing on a messy moment in his leadership story to help
us understand our own.
Here’s the story. Has to do with the time he was invited to
become a part of the Montgomery bus boycott. As you may know, first
there was Rosa Parks—her refusal to obey the bus driver’s demand that she give
up her seat. What followed, as King’s biographer Marshall Frady describes it,
was this: “That ‘No,” and Mrs. Parks’ arrest, quickly set off a spontaneous
combustion among Montgomery’s black citizenry to boycott the city’s segregated
bus system. Almost immediately, mimeographed leaflets calling for the boycott
were coursing through the city’s black neighborhoods. But when, the night of
Mrs. Parks’ arrest, [a local social activist by the name of E. D. Nixon] phoned
[the young Martin Luther King Jr.] to ask him to join in the boycott movement,
King, out of some uneasiness beyond just his absorption in his multiple other
duties, seemed curiously reluctant: ‘Brother Nixon, let me think on it awhile,
and call me back.’” Marshall Frady goes on to say that, “Concerned at King’s
hesitation, Nixon called Ralph Abernathy…. Abernathy then called King to exhort
him about the elemental importance of cooperating in this boycott effort. King
finally agreed to lend it his support if it would not entail his having to aid
in any of the organizing.” And that’s the story, with three things of note to
lift up: the initial call to leadership, King’s hesitation to accept, and Ralph
Starting with the call. What might it look like? As it did
for King, sometimes the call takes the form of widespread social crisis, like
the spontaneous combustion of the Montgomery bus boycott, against the larger
backdrop of the burgeoning civil rights movement. This crisis gripped our
congregation as well; we too were swept up in the civil rights movement, and in
1954 we affirmed desegregation, becoming the very first multiracial religious
community in all of Atlanta. It represents one of the high points
in our collective leadership story, here at UUCA.
And may more highs ever be before us. Tomorrow, megachurch
pastor Rick Warren will be the keynote speaker at Ebenezer Baptist
Church as part of the MLK Day festivities. No doubt this is
connected to his being invited to deliver the invocation at Tuesday’s
inauguration, and both decisions, frankly, have been enormously controversial.
just oppose gay marriage, he's compared it to incest and pedophilia. He doesn't
just want to ban abortion, he's compared women who terminate pregnancies to
Nazis and the pro-choice position to Holocaust denial. Now Obama strongly disagrees with Warren here—he’s clearly
said so. He’s invited him to deliver the invocation as a way of symbolizing his
commitment to building bridges to parts of America he may strongly disagree with
on some things but yet, on other things, there’s plenty of common ground—and
right now, emphasizing common ground is the way forward. This is classic
community organization strategy. Yet I would hate to see, because of this
high-level emphasis on common ground, a tendency at the grassroots level towards
apathy. You and I to stop disagreeing with Warren’s point of view because we’re afraid of
being disagreeable. You and I to stop speaking out and letting people know who
we are, what kind of place this is. People,
our commitment to civil rights here at UUCA cannot merely be historical. It must
be ongoing, and I believe that protecting abortion rights, as well as working
for full social rights of GLBTQ people, constitute a key part of the civil
rights movement that is here and now. Consider yourself called. Monday at 12:30
in the afternoon, the official MLK march will begin. Join us as we demonstrate
our commitment to civil rights for ALL.
It’s the call. We can hear it in the various crises and
issues that trouble the larger world; but we can also hear it closer to home,
when there is a crisis is our congregation, or a crisis in our family. A crisis
of personal health. Even a crisis of spirit. You can feel two wolves inside you,
in your heart, circling round and round, snapping at each other; one represents
hatred, the other represents healing, and the one that you feed is the one that
prevails. Something happens or does not happen in our congregation, for example,
and you have an instant negative reaction—right here is a call to leadership. So
what do you do next? Do you indulge your suspicions, cultivate your
disgruntlements, insist on “my way or the highway,” believe that the rules don’t
apply to you, perhaps even divide people into US vs. THEM, spread a spirit of
war around rather than of peace? If you do this, you did NOT answer the call.
You fed the wolf that destroys, not the wolf that heals. The leadership moment
We’ve got to be there when the moment comes. So much is at
stake in how we use our influence. And it’s not always a matter of responding to
crisis. Parker Palmer puts it this way: “I lead by word and deed simply because
I am here doing what I do. If you are here, doing what you do, then you also
exercise leadership of some sort.” Even just to smile across the room at someone
you know—just to acknowledge their existence—can be a kind of leadership, an
exercise of influence that is truly important. Just by smiling across the room,
you are living into a larger vision of a community that strengthens and
encourages. Someone was talking about this just the other day—how horrible and
withering it feels to notice someone looking at you but they don’t smile, they
don’t acknowledge your existence…. Leadership is about making the vision real,
in acts both big and small. You see a piece of trash on the floor, and you pick
it up even if you aren’t the sexton, even if you aren’t part of the paid staff,
even if you hear a voice in your head that says, “Ahh, this is a BIG
congregation—surely someone else will do it.” No. YOU do it, and as you do it,
your simple act of leadership is helping to create the Beloved Community vision
that says, We are all in this together.
It’s up to all of us. Pull together and not apart. Everyone chip in. The
ministry here involves every friend, every member, because that’s what it takes
to live out our mission of changing lives. That’s what it takes.
Leadership is everyone’s vocation, expressed through acts
both big and small. It’s about how we use our influence, towards the direction
of some larger vision. It’s about how we respond to the call, when it comes.
Which takes us to the second thing of note in Martin Luther
King’s story: his hesitation to accept. It represented a momentous crossroads in
his life, although he could not have known it at the time. Ultimately he did
accept the call, and in this way achieved great visibility and respect as leader
of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which in turn led to his role in founding (with
others) the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and then to his leadership
in civil rights campaigns in Albany, then Birmingham, then Augustine and Selma,
and then the March on Washington and his soaring “I have a dream” speech. It all
got started with Montgomery, and King’s ultimate answer of yes.
But what if he had said, instead, NO? What then? Without Montgomery, would there
ever have been “I have a dream”?
Hindsight is 20-20. “We live forwards,” said philosopher
Arthur Schopenhaur, “but we understand backwards.” With only the knowledge that
is given us in the moment—already full of the pressures of existing
responsibilities and anticipations of future work we already know of—it is truly
understandable and fully human to hesitate when a call to something new comes
King was only human, and this is something we need to be
reminded of, so that we can be confident leaders in our own right. Here’s why I
say this. We take a hero figure like Martin Luther King Jr. and we lose touch
with his story. Soon enough, someone who had just as many flaws and complexities
as the rest of us becomes transformed into a superperson, untouchable. A change
agent who leapt from the womb holding a protest sign. He was fearless, but we
feel fear. The work came naturally to him, without any effort or awkwardness,
but as for us, we endure setbacks, mistakes, trial-and-error. He was bottled
lightning, but we have to pinch ourselves to stay awake. The perfect snappy
comeback was always on his lips, but as for us, it’s usually only 12-24 hours
later when it pops into our minds.
We lose touch with our heroes’ stories, and in this way we
lose touch with our own powers and potentialities. We hear a call to leadership,
but our response can be, Who, me? Yet
the message of the life of every hero who has ever gone before us, or who may be
in our midst right now, is that you don’t need to be perfect to have a dream.
You don’t need to be perfect to make the world a better place. You don’t have to
already know how to preach if it is your dream to preach. You don’t have to
already have the right credentials or know everything there is to know to step
up. And if you are feeling the need to do something in your life to make the
dream real, you don’t have to wait to start until the circumstances are
absolutely ideal, as in: I am the right age (not too young, not too old), the
kids are grown, the job is secure, I have enough money, my relationships are all
better, I even have all the big questions of life figured out, related to God,
immortality, the meaning of life, the existence of extraterrestrial beings. Just
do it. I am so grateful for a hero like Martin Luther King Jr., a man who, at a
critical juncture in his life, hesitated. The world did not need a perfect
person to do what he did. The world did not need that. The world needed him. And
the world needs you and me.
Leadership is everyone’s destiny, in some form, big or small.
And now we turn to the third and last part of King’s story: Ralph Abernathy,
talking King into accepting the call. His intervention.
This represents another aspect of the hero story that is
easily passed over. Often the message put out there (or the one received) is
about rugged individualism. One person acting alone. Nothing or not much about
family, the larger supportive community, the worship services, the committee
work, the coalition building, the flurry of letters and emails and phone calls,
and, in the midst all of it, above all, key sustaining friendships. People whose
judgment you trust, so that even if all the world is criticizing you, if THEY
believe in you, you believe. People who will lift you up when you need it;
people who will bring you back down to earth, when you need that. Nothing about
any of this. Just one person acting alone. Rugged individualism.
It’s just not true. You can’t get to Martin Luther King Jr.
without his parents and family and teachers, the black church community, liberal
communities like this one, all the committee meetings, all the worship and
prayer and hymn singing, all his friends and colleagues. You just can’t get to
him without Ralph Abernathy—the man who reconnected him to his sense of call and
purpose when he hesitated. The man who was with him throughout, until the very
end and beyond.
I’m asking you this morning: Who is your Ralph Abernathy? Who
believes in you, so you can believe?
This place—this community—can itself be a support to you. But
you’ll get out of it only as much as you put in. So, how much are you putting
We need our communities of support. We need our Ralph
Abernathys, to grow into the leadership that is naturally ours.
On Tuesday, when Barack Obama is up there with the Chief
Justice of the Supreme Court, being sworn in as the 44th President of
the United States, using Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Bible, I want you to think
of a person named Regina, whom Obama knew in college. He had just delivered his
very first political speech, about apartheid in South Africa and the need to
stand up for social justice. He felt swept up in this; he was feeling the call.
Yet at the same time, he was full of self-doubt, and cynicism. At a party that
evening, Regina congratulated him, calling his speech wonderful, but he cut her
off, said, “Listen, you are a very sweet lady. And I’m happy you enjoyed my
little performance today. But I don’t believe we made any difference in what we
did today. I don’t believe that what happens to a kid in Soweto makes much
difference to the people we were talking to. Pretty words don’t make it so.
That’s the last time you will ever hear another speech out of me.”
Barack Obama, hesitating…. But what happened next was this.
He shares the story in his book Dreams
from My Father: “Regina stuck a finger in my chest. ‘You wanna know what
your real problem is? You always think everything’s about you. The rally is
about you. The speech is about you. The hurt is always your hurt. Well, let me
tell you something, Mr. Obama. It’s not just about you. It’s never just about
you. It’s about people who need your help. Children who are depending on you.
They’re not interested in your irony or your sophistication or your ego getting
bruised. And neither am I.” That’s what Regina said. Right words at the right
“Strange,” says Obama, “how a single conversation can change
you.” ‘What was she asking of me, then? Determination, mostly. The determination
to push against whatever power kept [a person] stooped instead of standing
straight. The determination to resist the easy and the expedient. You might be
locked in a world not of your own making … but you still have a claim on how it
is shaped. You still have responsibilities.”
Godspeed, Barack Obama. Keep on pushing. We too, in our own
lives, whatever our situations happen to be, as we realize the leadership story
that is uniquely ours, and our destiny to fulfill. Undaunted by obstacles both
within and without. Determined. Always before us … the Dream.
Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association
member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship.
Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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