As we near the end of another Black History Month, it is worthwhile to consider the life and message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a champion of social justice with his call for racial equality and harmony. His willingness to engage in peaceful public protest against the injustices of his day still inspires. His messages and speeches sounded a clarion call to peace and brotherhood, and remain an undeniable part of the civil rights movement.
The greatest legacy of Dr. King, in my opinion, is the faith that inspired, informed and ignited his pursuit of equality and brotherhood. What else could explain his unwavering message and mission? What else could cause him to be so passionate and determined that only an assassin’s bullet could stop him?
All that Dr. King attempted and accomplished in the struggle for civil rights was framed in the context of his religious faith. He was first and foremost a preacher of the gospel, and his beliefs were the lenses through which he viewed life and humanity.
In a sermon delivered at a Chicago church in 1967, he confessed “before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher.”
It is quite clear that his religious training, his belief system, his faith was the thing that gave rise to his philosophy, his action, and his dream. His undeniable connection with God inspired him to be an instrument of moral conviction and social transformation.
Dr. King’s faith also informed his dream of social justice. He once preached a sermon, Guidelines For A Constructive Church, from Isaiah 61:1. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”
As he rightly saw it, God had established the mission of the church and set clear guidelines for real ministry to the world. Such ministry would address the conditions of life here on earth along with the hope of life in heaven. It was his conviction that “any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that cripple the souls – the economic conditions that stagnate the soul and the city governments that may damn the soul – is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion in need of new blood.”
The faith of Dr. King also provided him with courage in the face of great challenges. Early on, his leadership of the boycott against the city of Montgomery, Alabama made him a target of scorn and hatred. He noted years later that during the time he had received many nasty, threatening phone calls, sometimes over 40 in one day. He did his best to withstand the storm of backlash. A midnight phone call ordering him to clear out of town in three days or else, got the better of him one night, and he was unsettled by fear.
Overwhelmed by a sense of uncertainty he almost gave up. In desperation, he confessed his fear and weakness to God in prayer. And he says, “it seemed in that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” He was encouraged that night to continue the fight despite the threats.
As his faith inspired, informed and encouraged his pursuits, may our faith guide us as well. Let’s leave a strong spiritual legacy for those who follow.
Bishop Patrick L. Kelly is the pastor of Cathedral Church of God, 365 S. Dixie Hwy., Deerfield Beach, FL 33441. 954-427-0302.