When Dr. King graduated from Boston University, he had opportunities to pastor churches or even teach up North. He and Coretta prayed on it fervently, and concluded that they were called to return to their native Southland. History would have been much different had they not gone first to Montgomery, and then Atlanta.
Lewis V. Baldwin, in his seminal work There is a Balm in Gilead, traces the intellectual and cultural influences of Dr. King’s life, from the South to the Black Church. King’s father and mother were both educated and deeply rooted in the church, so he knew no other life than one centered in Christianity, community, solidarity, and suffering. He knew the language and the rhythms, the traditions and the concerns. He was invested in the larger community because he understood the connection between secular systems and the ability to follow God; if laws or culture keeps you oppressed, your religion of justice cannot be practiced. King was a disciple of Jesus Christ first, a civil rights activist second. The two just happened to overlap quite a bit. We often forget that in our watering-down of King’s radical work.
It is always dangerous whenever a minister, especially a White one, starts talking about Dr. King. I’m not comparing my own path to his; that would be asinine. But I do understand what it means to be so closely attached to the place where you serve. Yellow Springs has been my home for nearly all my life. There were years in which I lived elsewhere, but my family home has been here for 30 years. I grew up playing in Glen Helen. I am a product of the schools. A big part of my sense of self is wrapped up in this place.
But the center of my life is my identity as a Christian. As a Jesus follower. As a servant. As a person committed to being in relationship with anyone who seeks me. A person who is not that concerned with rules regarding who gets Communion and I don’t believe I have the ability to save a soul. Frankly, that doesn’t even make my list of top 500 things I think being a pastor is about.
This village, historically, has been intimately concerned about justice. I think that is still there, but it is being pushed to the periphery. Our demographics have changed and our median income has risen, pushing out some of the weird, creative, passionate people that once found refuge here. I look around and I think that there is a need for a spiritual place that provides sanctuary and freedom simultaneously; a place that is safe but encouraging of questions. Of skepticism. Of a desire to push deeper to bring our words in line with our actions. A place that is hospitable and invitational, but is also radical and on fire. A place where art, theater, music, and spirituality find expression inside and outside of worship. A community that comes together in commitment and trust, exploration and sharing; a community that dares to believe that God is too big for labels, but that traditions can give us purpose, direction, power, and peace.
But people have to want it. They have to see the need and feel that this place is worth the risk. The time. The vulnerability. The messiness of relationships and community. I will do everything I can to continue the invitation; the congregation will continue to be welcoming; we will try to show our love in the things we do and the words we say. We hold on to the prayer, If you love them, they will come.
I love this village, and I love the Church. I fear for both. I fear that if we do not pay attention to the needs and concerns of people we will fail in our charge to pass on the legacies to a new generation. If we do not commit ourselves to taking risks, to allowing for the possibility that change can bring about new life, to caring enough to reach out to our neighbors and invite them along on the journey, we may see something beautiful slip away. If we do not remember who and what we have been in the past, but strive toward the future, we will see our opportunity slip away. If we don’t talk seriously about our declining non-White population and our growing economic divide, we could see the chance for authentic diversity die. If we don’t listen to the concerns that people have about the practice of Christianity, if we don’t affirm the hurt of those who have been pushed away by organized religion, if we don’t stop to think that maybe God is calling us to a new form of ministry we’ll be staring at a corpse that cannot be raised.
Luckily for us, we have a resurrection hope.