By Jack Kintner
I met King in 1961 when he spoke at a church event. I’d ended up in a small group that got to meet with him briefly. “How many of you men (most of us were 15 to 18-year-old boys, and this was some years before my denomination finally began ordaining women),” he asked, “are headed for the ministry?” He stretched out that word, like an orator, “minnesss-tree?” I sheepishly raised my hand as did a few others.
This was six years after the Montgomery bus boycott, and two years before the fire hoses and police dogs of Birmingham tested King’s devotion to non-violence. Three years later he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and four years after that he was killed. His early death gave those words I’d heard directly from him amazing power.
Thirty-eight years later I retired from the Lutheran Church, having mostly served in situations where I had a string of secular jobs to support myself and my family, including social work, teaching in college and a number of flying jobs. I saw the institution and the world around it dramatically change. I saw the value churches can have when taken seriously, and when denominations cooperate in a spirit of mutual respect for each other. It can be helpful when cultures have regular egalitarian gatherings, where status is abandoned and humility and service are cardinal values. It was a great profession in those days.
But as time wore on, I also saw the rise of extreme fundamentalism, how fear began to infest the lives of so many. Easy solutions requiring enemies became popular enough to be monetized in a cultural drift led by what we now call mega-churches. Their goal appearing to be profit rather than the care of souls. My own church’s response to this was ineffective as it slid down the far side of a bell curve of a membership boom that began in the 50s, peaked in the 70s and was still fading when I left. The Golden Calf (Exodus 32) seemed to be winning.
King operated in the face of this cultural drift, which made his contributions all the more meaningful. Is there any religious figure these days who commands such wide respect and who can generate such effective responses to bigotry and war? Hope seems sometimes to hang by a thread.
At least we still have poets commenting on our age. Such as in the fifth verse of Don McLean’s American Pie, where he says what I’m trying to, but so much more eloquently in a phrase that always leaves me dewy-eyed:
I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play
And in the streets, the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.