Every January communities throughout our nation, especially communities in Mississippi, customarily host prayer breakfasts to kick-off the federal King holiday. Over the last few years I’ve participated in programs to pray or offer encouraging words about how best to embody King’s vision today. Some time ago, maybe about five years ago, I was blessed to keynote a MLK celebration in my hometown of Hazlehurst. This year I was blessed to keynote a prayer breakfast in the town of Monticello. I was invited to join in celebration with the Lawrence County branch of the NAACP by its branch president the Rev. Dr. Eugene Bryant. Bryant, who also serves as the NAACP’s state director for Religious Affairs, graciously requested my participation because he felt that as a young man I would remind the great people of Lawrence County that an emerging generation of convictional leaders will continue the good fight.
Throughout the King holiday weekend I remembered how I came to have such an affinity for King’s life, leadership and legacy. One of the things that stands out the most to me about the civil rights leader is that he was more than that. In fact, he saw himself primarily as a preacher and it was that sense of calling that compelled him to apply a theological vision to a nation in need of social salvation. I lament that too many have tried to whitewash King’s religious convictions, making him into a religionless Everyman suitable for a secular, post-religion audience. To be sure, King was always gracious to those who were of other religions and even those of no religion. But until his death King sustained a belief in God, a personal God of power and hope. A God who makes ways out of no ways. A God who created a moral universe whose arc bends toward justice.
I spoke from that sense of King’s legacy while on stage in Monticello, connecting the dots between spirituality and social justice, evangelism and activism, religion and revolution. King, just 25 years old when he began his pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and only 39 when he died in Memphis, stood before the giants of racism, classism, and militarism with a radical belief that God was on his side. The animated audience was thrilled by hearing that connection and, I pray, felt God nudging them to greater works.
After the prayer breakfast, I was honored to have a cup of coffee with Rev. Dr. Bryant and another local pastor at Ward’s, a local burger joint. There Bryant shared his heart. As a much older man, he reflected on his years in the justice struggle, his call to—and run from—ministry, and what it means to be a socially conscious pastor in rural Mississippi. He was glad to see a new generation emerging, for he is looking to us for the next leg of the race. How refreshing and humbling it was to hear an elder talk about younger leadership with such enthusiasm and criticize his own generation of Christians for not being visionary enough to make room for us. We all lamented the struggles of being pastors with transformative visions while serving people who could care less about the future. Be we also remained hopeful that God was doing miraculous things throughout churches in our state. Though some churches are dying (and should die), there are many others that are either being revitalized or being planted. I believe that they will provide the balanced mission we need. Committed to the Gospel and both its personal and social implications, churches can truly set Mississippi on fire for the Lord’s glory.
In this way, as a pastor-theologian, I look forward to living out the kind of theological vision King offered the Church and nation in his day. What our churches, churches here in Mississippi, need today are pastor-theologians who think critically and convictionally about our faith in relation to soul salvation and social liberation. We need to see the multiplication of such servant leaders who are traditional enough to learn from the past and innovative enough to be missional in a 21st century world. Moreover, we need churches yearning for this kind of leadership, filled with people who will support and work toward the fulfillment of fresh ecclesial vision. Sadly, too many churches have been mastered by mediocrity and have settled for a day that has long died. But, as King once said, “I believe in the future because I believe in God.”