Tuesday January 29, 2013

I began writing this Speaking of Religion piece on the day after Jan. 21, which was Martin Luther King's birthday observance -- now a National Holiday.

The Banner's front page on Jan. 22 featured a photo of Tom Gorman honoring ML King's birthday by taking part in a candlelight vigil at the Four Corner's in Bennington. I was also there once again holding my candle and joining in the singing of appropriate songs such as Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land" and "Study War No More" and "We Shall Overcome" and listening to appropriate readings. It did not seem possible that another year had passed.

I remembered being a part of the Civil Rights movement back in the 1950's and meeting M King, Jr. when he spoke at my theological school at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey and also being with him in a peace march in the south.

I also remember, sadly, sitting in the same row in Constitution Hall along with Coretta Scott King after the Poor People's March in Washington, D.C. which took place after her husband's tragic death.

An excellent book entitled "Martin Luther King, Jr. for Armchair Theologians" by Rufus Barrow, Jr. published by the Westminster John Knox Press in 2009, will be the text for a study group this coming week. (See brief this page).

Chapter three of Burrow's book is entitled "Ideas from the Academy." He says that while in high school King rejected the ministry. He had grown up with fundamentalist teachings and what he perceived as too much emotionalism in worship services. He wondered whether religion could be intellectually respectable as well as emotionally satisfying. When he came under the influence of President Mays and Professor Kelsey at Morehouse College, he saw ministry and the minister in a much favorable light. Kelsey challenged King to look behind the myths in the bible stories to get at the deep abiding truths that many of them contained. He was inspired by Kelsey's belief that modern times called for ministers who were well educated and committed to social Christianity. King was grateful to Kelsey for removing the shackles of fundamentalism from him -- Martin Luther King "accepted the call to ministry during his last year in college." In previous Speaking of Religion pieces I have written for the Banner, I have referred to the important influence that George Kelsey had on King. Eventually, Kelsey left Morehouse to teach at Yale Divinity School and, from there he came to my Theological School at Drew University.

It was there that I also studied under George Kelsey and, as Managing Editor of the Theological School Journal, The Drew Gateway, came to know him personally and appreciate his important influence on King. In the two versions of his intellectual autobiography called "Pilgrimage to Non-violence" (1958 and 1963), Burrows reminds us how King discusses "aspect of his formal intellectual journey through seminary and graduate studies."

One of Martin Luther King's most famous speeches was his "I Have a Dream" speech. Some ask, "Did the system finally beat King? Did the attacks kill the dreamer and deferment kill the dream? The answer to that question is an emphatic and resounding No. King goes on to state: "Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today saying I still have a dream, because you know you can't give up on life. If you lose hope, some how you lose that vitality that keeps life moving you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you to go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream. And so, may we also be able to keep the spirit and goals of Martin Luther King in our hearts and let them guide our decisions.

The Rev. Robert Bort is pastor emeritus of the United Methodist Church of Sandgate and a member of the Greater Bennington Interfaith Council.