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What does a guy like me, who’s lived a very white life, and who’s not a historian have to offer to Black History Month?
Not much, in point of fact.
My primary role is learner—to hear and to learn and to discover both heroes I never knew and atrocities I was never taught.
Still, I will share my memories of Martin Luther King Jr. Or really, how now in hindsight I see how much King influenced, changed, and inspired my father—and to some degree, saved him in ministry. And then, that in turn, formed me.
So this is more a story about my dad than Dr. King—which again displays how white my history is. Ultimately, it is really about me and my ongoing work to understand my parents as a key to understanding myself—a project to which, these days, I find myself devoting a lot of energy.
During most of this time I was a happy little kid, pretty oblivious to everything. Much of it my dad shared with me decades later as we mused about life in the ministry.
New York in the 1950s
In the late 1950s and early 60’s, I see my parents as somewhat casting about, uncertain, drained. This may be pretty typical for people in their late 20s and early 30s—young children, far enough into a career to have second-guesses and misgivings, the tank of youthful idealism filled only with fumes.
My dad was serving a Reformed Church congregation in the New York City borough of Queens—wanting to be free and far from his Iowa church upbringing, yet simultaneously struggling and unfamiliar with such very different understandings of church and faith, not to mention everyday life. Could he survive in ministry?
In looking for something to grab on to, my father found four pillars—an odd assortment of four very different people. People who blessed him, pushed him, and changed him.
• James Muilenburg, revered Old Testament professor at Union Theological Seminary, also a product of northwest Iowa, who rumor has it, flirted with my grandmother back in the day.
• Billy Graham, who held an epic sixteen week crusade at Madison Square Garden in 1957, and whose openness to participation by non-Baptist, non-Arminian, non-fundamentalist churches and pastors drew my dad in.
• Harald Bredesen, a Lutheran serving as pastor of First Reformed Church of Mount Vernon, New York in the late 50s, who would go on to pal around with David Wilkerson, Pat Boone, and Anwar Sadat, who introduced my parents to the “charismatic renewal.”
• Martin Luther King, Jr., whose primary role at the time was pastor in Montgomery, Alabama and leader of the Montgomery bus boycott.
It was always very important in our family that Dr. King was a Christian, especially a pastor. To my dad, King was less a social activist or stirring orator. He was a minister. He pastored a congregation, like my dad. They were almost the same age.
My dad’s own ministry did not resemble King’s even in the slightest manner. But I think King imparted to my dad that ministry and ministers make a difference. King gave my dad a role model, an idea of what a minister could be. When my dad’s own sense of call was tenuous, when his energy was waning, King filled my dad with hope and courage.
Chicago in the 1960s
Skip ahead a few years, our family is now living on the far south side of the Chicago suburbs. Racial tensions are very high in the community and in the church my father served. Anger and bigotry were in the air. The white suburbanites, many of whom had already moved farther south once, feared African-Americans moving into their communities.
I’m still young and for the most part, blithely unaware. I do recall that when Dr. King would appear on TV, probably the evening news, my parents would watch intently and a reverent hush came over the room. Strange, the unspoken, unintentional things that young children sense.
My “clearest” memory—although memories like this are notoriously inaccurate and embellished—is seeing King at O’Hare Airport. My dad and I were picking up or dropping off someone. Edging our way through the crowded concourse, my dad stopped and pointed. “Look, there’s Dr. King in the phone booth!”
Hidden in an out-of-the-way corner, with the phone booth door shut, was Martin Luther King Jr. Several of his entourage milled around the area, guaranteeing his privacy and quiet. Apparently he just needed a place to rest and gather himself. We didn’t approach. But if this next part of the story isn’t true, it should be. I waved and Dr. King smiled back at me! I do remember eagerly reporting our encounter when we returned home.
Another near brush with greatness came when my family traveled to the Presbyterian retreat center in Montreat, North Carolina in August, 1965 for a “Christian Action Conference.” King was the keynote speaker, “The Church on the Frontier of Racial Tension.” Here I’m certain my memories are accurate because I have none. Every day, my sisters and I would gladly go off to day-camp while our parents went to the conference. That they didn’t think to bring us in even briefly to hear Dr. King still sort of rankles me.
But it was back home where King was inspiring my father. One example, told to me years later, happened during a church fellowship hour. A leader in the congregation declared in a voice loud enough to be heard by most everyone, “Reverend, if a n****r ever steps foot in this church, I’m going to stand right up and walk out.” It was said with the tone of a joke, but everyone knew it was serious. My dad, not a particularly bellicose person replied, “And I’ll say ‘Tony, you sit right down and worship God with the rest of us.’” A nervous chuckle and then awkward silence filled the hall.
Then the first African-American family moved into our neighborhood. At the monthly Consistory meeting, someone made a motion to forbid the pastor from going to welcome them. As my dad told it, he was silent during the following discussion. But in his head he knew that if the motion passed, the next action would be his resignation. He started playing out those undesirable scenarios—how to support a family, where to live, moving back with parents, and more. The voted failed, 8-4.
Yes, these stories are much more about my father than Martin Luther King, Jr. But I think King was in the background of them all, informing, stretching, reassuring my father, giving him courage and resolve he might not otherwise have had.
And over the years, these stories have become very important to me. Not simply in my hagiography of my dad. But as a pastor and person facing my own challenges, I draw wisdom and courage from my dad, the same way I believe he drew it from Dr. King.