Have you ever had a destination in mind, but were waylaid, and ended up where you were really meant to be?
We left for a family Christmas in Louisiana, intending to visit the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama on the way. My husband had confirmed it would be open on December 23rd, so we were there at 10 a.m., waiting for the doors to open.
When we were told by an employee that the Memorial Center would not be open that day, we were of course disappointed. But another, greater opportunity opened up when he suggested we visit Dr. Martin Luther King’s Church, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, one block away.
The church door was locked, so I gave it a short rap. A lovely woman opened the door, and when we told her why we were there, she drew me into her arms for a righteous hug, giving me one of the warmest welcomes I’ve ever received anywhere. She invited us to take in the mural painted on the wall to our left. We were drawn into the mural, studying the images, slowly taking a walk through the tumultuous life of MLK. It was beautiful and painful and unforgettable.
Would we like to see Dr. King’s office, she asked? I wasn’t sure I understood—did she mean the office in which Dr. King wrote some of the most moving speeches ever voiced? Where he wrote sermons that lifted hope and shifted generational thinking? Surely we couldn’t just walk into that office, could we?
When she ushered us in, I burst into tears. I have no idea what came over me, what powerful, poignant force rushed into my heart so that I was unexpectedly and uncharacteristically crying in the middle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s office.
She left and came back with tissues, and that’s when she said I could go around his desk and sit in his chair. But I couldn’t, I just couldn’t, because I wasn’t worthy. In one sense, I wanted to, thinking I could absorb the molecules that shimmered in the air around us, the particles that held this man’s essence fifty years later. I wanted to hold onto what I was feeling forever. My husband pointed to a Bible on a shelf, and though I wanted to reach out and touch that lovingly-worn book, I couldn’t. Again, I didn’t feel worthy of touching the Bible MLK used to divine his purpose, and to reckon his spiritual and scholarly understanding with the true meanings within the teachings of Jesus.
My husband and I were raised Christian, but we are not religious people. We don’t attend church. We don’t read the Bible. We simply live by the Golden Rule, and figure that covers most of how Jesus would want us to live. We believe, as Dr. King did, that we are all children of God, and brothers to each other.
But my spirit has been sorely tested this past year, and has become weakened and wearied as I’ve witnessed this administration’s assault on “all God’s children” who aren’t white, or straight, or male, or Christian. I have never been able to reconcile how 80% of Christian Evangelicals voted for a man who not only lies, but spouts racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and divisive rhetoric as readily as he draws a breath. Even more perplexing to me is how, after a year of his bludgeoning the world with bombastic bigotry, they still support him.
So my Christian soul, formed in childhood and not well-nourished of late, was flagging.
But then, we walked upstairs and stood in the sanctuary where a true Christian, a true man of God, a shepherd, a leader, a teacher and a dreamer sought to make his dream, which was our founding fathers’ dream, "That all men are created equal," come true.
King challenged black Americans to believe in this dream, and to fight for it. He advocated peaceful means, though he understood many black bodies would be given up in the fight, as they had been throughout their history in our “land of the free.”
He challenged white Americans to believe in his dream also, and to fight for it to become a reality through legislation and its enforcement, as well as by living it in word and deed.
The docent—a different woman than the one who greeted us and led us into Dr. King’s office—spoke to us and another couple whom we’d briefly met downstairs. They were black, from Savannah, and on their way to New Orleans. When we met, we shook hands; when we parted, we embraced. And what happened in between was what we needed to revive our belief in the goodness, the kindness, and the true message of Christianity.
The docent asked us to join hands and sing, “We Shall Overcome.” The man said he wasn’t sure he knew all the words. I said my husband and I had terrible voices. She overrode our protests. We would join hands and sway side to side as we sang, she said, starting on our left foot. Her beautiful voice carried us through our inadequacies. Immediately after, she said, “Someone say a prayer.” Now, I’m the last person who wants to be called upon to lead a prayer. I’m the one who quickly points to someone else at the holiday table and says, “Jim, will you say grace?”
But it was as if a lightning bolt shot through me, from the top of my head to the soles of my feet, and so without hesitation, I uttered the words, “Our dear heavenly Father...” I don’t remember what else I said, but for the first time in my life, I knew what it felt like to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
When I finished, the others exclaimed about the beauty and power of the prayer. The docent called for hugs, even though she didn’t have to, because we were all needing and wanting to embrace each other and relish the feelings of pure love and brotherhood that abided within that sanctuary, and within ourselves.
So yes, on that day, when the door we sought was closed to us, the one we really needed to go through was opened unto us...and what we beheld was glorious.