Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Happy 85th Birthday, MLK!

One winter, after June and I had visited my “snowbird” parents in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, we set out from there to make the long road trip to the Washington, D.C., area by way of Atlanta.
On our second day of travel, soon after heading east on I-85 in Montgomery, Alabama, we decided to turn off the Interstate and to visit what is now called Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.
Martin Luther King, Jr., who was born 85 years ago today, on Jan. 15, 1929, became pastor at Dexter Avenue in 1954 when he was only 25 years old. And it was there that he became a nationally known leader of the Civil Rights movement.
Founded in 1877 as Second Colored Baptist Church, it was long called Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. But in 1978, on the tenth anniversary of King’s assassination, its name was changed again to what it is now.

A bookstore in the basement of the church sells King’s books and various souvenir-type merchandise. There we purchased the print of a painting of the Lord’s Supper by African American artist Cornell Barnes.
That remarkable painting is a version of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples—but Jesus is sitting at a table surrounded by black leaders from over the years.

I have also been moved by a similarly provocative painting of the Lord’s Supper by Fritz Eichenberg. In that 1953 painting, Jesus is surrounded at the table by homeless men off the street.
As I wrote previously, I have seen a print of that captivating piece of art on the wall at the Catholic Worker house in Kansas City—and have read that it hangs on the wall of almost every Catholic Worker house in the country.
One of the most impressive contemporary portrayals of the Lord’s Supper is the closing scene of the 1984 movie “Places in the Heart.” That dramatic film tells the story of a Texas widow (Sally Field, who won an Oscar for the part) who struggles valiantly to keep her farm with the help of a blind white man (John Malkovick, who was nominated for an Oscar) and a black man (Danny Glover) during the Great Depression.
Iconic movie critic Roger Ebert wrote about the film’s powerful ending: “The movie's last scene has caused a lot of comment. It is a dreamy, idealistic fantasy in which all the characters in the film—friends and enemies, wives and mistresses, living and dead, black and white—take communion together at a church service.”
In a joint review, a couple of other film critics wrote how in that final Lord’s Supper scene, “the wronged and the wrongdoers, the betrayers and the betrayed, are all together as one. It is an unforgettable cinematic statement about hope.”
I don’t know if King ever saw the Eichenberg painting, but I think he would have liked it, and he surely would have been moved also by Barnes’s work.
But it is a shame that King didn’t live to see “Places in the Heart,” for I think he would have been most favorably impressed with that powerful closing depiction of reconciliation between people of different races and classes.
It is a crying shame, though, that King wasn’t able to continue his valuable work for peace, justice, and reconciliation after 1968 and isn’t here to celebrate his 85th birthday today.


  1. Interesting comments. Thinking about "worship": I am wondering how works of art can be a part of the service we call "worship. Could the "light" and "shadows" of an Eichenberg painting, or Cornell Barnes painting enrich our communion experience? How could that be accomplished without being gimmicky?Just "thinking out loud"off your inspiration.

  2. Esteemed Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson wrote, "Yes! Yes! His early death was one of our nation's greatest losses. We could use his conciliatory approach today more than ever."

  3. Leroy. Paul Harvey, not the Nixon era radio commentator, has great book Moses Jesus and the Trickster. A Must read for you. Comes with full and hearty endorsement of Mercer President Underwood.

  4. Localization is nearly universal in religion. The universal becomes particular. People put their own faces into paintings, their own locations in stories, their own lives into the narratives. As they say in computer programming, this a feature, not a bug. This is how people find our place in the universe.

    For a wealthy patron this could literally be sitting for a portrait that is set in a religious context. In Germany what became the Christmas Tree and the Yule Log joined the church with the Germans. In Mexico aspects of Aztec religion merged with the Madonna to create the special form of Mexican Catholicism. What would be surprising, and sad, would be if there were no black Jesus, no black disciples. That might be how white slave owners taught the gospel to their slaves, but the historic Jesus was most unlikely to be blue eyed and blond, either. When the gospel is truly received, it will also be owned.

    Sometimes this process may go far enough to raise problems, as when Joseph Smith, Jr. re-imagined Christianity in America via Mormonism. However, how far removed is that from the Catholic-Indian fusion in Mexico? Indeed, that type of process may well have played a role in the birth of the New Testament. Strands of mystery religions, ancient mathematics, the Jewish revolt against Rome and its aftermath, and perhaps even the life of Julius Caesar may have all merged into the document we have today. (Anyone curious about this last possibility might want to check out Francesco Carotta's "Jesus Was Caesar," which was recently translated into English.)

    I remember reading Mircea Eliade in college, and learning about the "axis mundi." As a former Mormon (RLDS) who grew up in Joseph Smith's vision of Zion, in Independence, Missouri, I can quite personally relate to the localization of religion. In the Baptist circles I now inhabit, I catch occasional references to the Southern Baptist Zion in Nashville, Tennessee. One way or another, everyone finds their axis mundi. Without it, we all would be lost. With it, we can appreciate how others have found theirs, and learn from each other about our own. There is a very great axis mundi in Montgomery, Alabama.