“The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”
In the early 1960s the schools, theaters and churches in Arlington County, Va., were not integrated. There were black Methodist Churches in our area we did not even know existed. They had their own bishops and hierarchies, their own pastors and were Methodists in name, sharing common beliefs and history. Yet we were segregated, without communion with each other
I was studying for the ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., 1961-1964, and worked on weekends as an assistant pastor at a church in Arlington. These were years of increasing racial violence and calls for social justice. During demonstrations at the Lincoln Memorial for racial justice sponsored by Roman Catholic, Jewish and Protestant seminarians, we were harassed by George Lincoln Rockwell and members of the American Nazi Party.
The major work of our local church social action committee was arranging teas, suppers and providing refreshments after worship. I guess you would call it hospitality.
The proposed 1963 March on Washington prompted great alarm. Many felt that, given the large numbers of people, violence was a distinct possibility. Not knowing what to expect, the District of Columbia and federal government were preparing for the worse.
A month before the March, our white congregation was invited to provide overnight lodging for a delegation of Christian brothers and sisters traveling north to attend the March. There wasn’t much discussion. Our church council voted no. Unanimous. “After all, there might be trouble.”
Wednesday Aug. 28, a pleasant summer morning. I joined the march, already in progress, somewhere near 18th Street. A moving flow of thousands. Many carrying signs. “We Demand Voting Rights Now.” “We March for First Class Citizenship Now.” “We Demand an End to Police Brutality Now.” Moving west on Constitution Avenue, the marchers were led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Twenty minutes or so later, just a few hundred yards from the Lincoln Memorial, near the corner where an entrance road intersects with Constitution Avenue, a different prophet captured my attention.
He was standing on the curb, a white man, maybe age 60, tall, ill-kempt, lean, gaunt. Staring straight ahead. Unmoving. Angry. Unflinching. He held a banner with large letters. “The world will end December 31, 1963. Repent!”
I saw him for just a few seconds. First thought: “This man does not know what’s going on.” Short-sighted. I don’t think he really saw the countless women and men who passed in front of him. His message about the end of the world seemed misplaced, given the events of the day.
Another reaction. This man doesn’t have the facts. We simply don’t know when the “End of the World” will occur. I found out later that historians have listed more than 160 predictions since the time of Christ. All failed.
Why repent? Not because of a false vision about the end of the world. Dr. King and others preached it differently. “Repent for our sins of prejudice, bias. Repent for the pain and suffering we have caused to Black people.”
I wondered about this other prophet. Perhaps later during the March, he finally blinked – and as if awakened – looked around, saw the thousands and then listened to the voices we heard. Jewish, Protestant and Catholic prayers. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, James Farmer. Martin Luther King Jr. It may be, he felt the energy of the day as we all did, became disgusted with himself, threw the banner into a trash container and joined the March. I imagined this. I don’t think it happened.
The March on Washington was a powerful moment of judgment, repentance and action. I saw two prophets that day, the first, Dr. King, a man of faith whose dream inspired a movement. The Civil Rights Act, guaranteeing voting rights, outlawing discrimination in restaurants, public places and accommodations was passed by Congress the next year. Five years later, in 1968, Methodists, newly called the United Methodist Church, would be integrated.
Almost 60 years after the March, we are still drawn to the work and vision of Dr. King. His fact-finding, prayerful, non-violent protests were shaped by his love for Christ and people and his knowledge of injustice. We can honestly thank God for his prophetic witness.
Yet I am haunted by the other prophet at the march. Self-appointed. Out of place. Unseeing. Unblinking. Stubborn. Stiffened against the world. In many ways we share his vision – dare I say it – a white man’s point of view? The prophet of Parochial Unawareness.
My worry is that the Church may emulate this other prophet – still staring, uninvolved, unmoved, denying and thus contributing to the injustice of the world.
Jim Brewster is a retired United Methodist minister and a Tideland News contributor.