Today’s guest post comes from Kate Davelaar. Kate is a minister of Word and Sacrament in the RCA and currently serves as a Chaplain at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. She is also on the steering committee of Christian Churches Together, which held a gathering in Birmingham, Alabama last week to respond to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. You can read more about the event here.
I confess: as the woman in front of me kept stopping to take pictures of the various statues and historical markers throughout Kelly Ingram Park, I found myself increasingly annoyed. While I understood her impulse to “capture the moment,” I found it distracting—we were in the middle of a prayer walk for crying out loud!
Now, lest you think that I am a perfectly pious prayer walker, I am the first to admit: prayer walks can be weird, particularly prayer walks that involve Official News Media. As much as one might try, it is challenging to equate the hovering boom microphones with the presence of the Holy Spirit. The woman in front of me, however, was not a part of the news media. She was simply doing what many of us do these days: capturing a moment, immediately reviewing said moment on a tiny screen, and with a couple more quick clicks, sending out the image and, in theory, inviting others to be virtually a part of the moment.
This particular moment was a Christian Churches Together (CCT) gathering to offer a response to Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Fifty years have passed since Dr. King’s letter, which was written in response to a letter eight White Clergymen had written to Dr. King, which had implored him to stop taking “extreme measures,” and to “observe the principles of law and order and common sense.” Dr. King wrote his response in the margins of newspapers that were smuggled out of his jail cell. King’s words were later pieced together to from his iconic letter, which includes the famous phrase, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Given that CCT’s response is the first official institutional response to Dr. King’s letter, it was indeed an historical moment. (CCT’s response can be read online in its entirety here.
At this gathering, we had the opportunity to hear from Civil Rights activists Dr. Virgil Wood, Dr. Dorothy Cotton, and Representative John Lewis. CCT’s response was signed by the heads of Church Communions and then presented to Dr. Bernice King, Dr. King’s daughter, who was a mere 19 days old when he was locked up in Birmingham. Dr. Bernice King, a powerful speaker in her own right, prayed that the words penned in CCT’s response would not simply remain words on a page but that they would be “given flesh.”
At worst, CCT’s Response to Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail will simply be remembered some words shared at an event—an event that gathered a bit of media buzz, a flurry of tweets, and numerous digital pictures collecting virtual dust. At best, the response will be seen as an invitation to participate in a movement—a movement that propels the Church to continue to work for justice, to speak truth to power, and confess its continued, complicated relationship with systemic racism.
Pictures can spark movements. It was, after all, the iconic pictures from the Children’s Crusade (organized by Dr. Dorothy Cotton) that grabbed the nation’s attention and helped push the Civil Rights Acts into law. As Jim Wallis reminded us the first night we were together, however, the difference between an event and a movement is one of sacrifice. Movements require sacrifice, while events simply require you show up.
We all long to be a part of something, to show and tell that “we were there when… .” I left Birmingham, however, with a renewed sense that at times the tools and technology we have to prove that we “were there” can distract us from truly “being there.” More than this, they can trick us into believing that being present at an event is the same thing as being part of a movement.
As Christians, we believe that the Word becoming flesh was not merely an event, but the continuation of a movement: God’s redemption of this world. God’s movement of redemption does not depend on our ability to “capture the moment,” but rather our attentiveness to the work of Spirit in each moment, of every single day.