I'm catching up on blog posts. This one was written on Jan. 25, 2012
On January 23, I was given a great honor, The Center for Multicultural Education of Missouri Western State University gave me the “Drum Major for Justice” award at its annual awards banquet. The award is given to individuals at Missouri Western and in the larger St. Joseph community who have worked for justice in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was humbled to be one of three recipients of the award for 2012.
The award takes its name from MLK’s remarkable speech, “The Drum Major Instinct” in which he declares that we all have the desire to be out front and to be leading the band. Yet, Jesus taught us to serve others and to embody the Kingdom of God’s ideal that the least shall be the greatest. At the end of the speech, he states that at his funeral, he does not want long speakers describing his many awards. Instead, he says, “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
I was more than humbled to receive the award; I was a little overwhelmed, because if there is any award in our community I would ever desire to receive, it is this one. For someone to say that you are standing up for God’s vision of justice in the same tradition as MLK is not only an honor; it is also quite daunting. Any conscientious person receiving such an award would naturally think of her or his many failures to do enough for the cause of justice. I know I certainly did.
I was given the chance to share a few words when the award was given out. I declared that this great honor was one I shared with the church where I serve, First Christian Church of St. Joseph, MO. In whatever way I have been able to speak out and work on behalf of marginalized people in our community, it is only because my church has supported me doing so and has been there with me. During my first year here, I spoke up at a city council meeting in support of a new homeless shelter which faced opposition and FCC members were there with me. I have made my beliefs very public about the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in both church and society, but it was the membership of FCC which voted to be open to and affirming of all people, including LGBT people. By taking often unpopular stands like these in our community based on our understanding of a loving and just God, our church has faced criticism from those outside the church and has even lost some members. Yet, it is the church’s determination to stand on principles of justice that make me proud to be its minister. So, I accepted the award, but as I did so, I stated publicly that it was First Christian’s award too.
When I spoke at the banquet, I shared a story from my father’s experience that has guided my own sense of working for God’s justice. When my father was a young minister at a small white Baptist church in Texas, an African-American family began attending. When word got out that the new young preacher was fine with African-Americans coming to his church, other such families began attending. After a time, the original family desired to join the church, but the white members insisted on a church business meeting first. Members of the church who had not darkened the doors in years showed up to vote to refuse membership to the African-American family. My father went to meet with the family and to share the news of the church’s rejection of them. They were gracious to the young minister and considered the decision to be just another example of the larger racist culture, yet my father left their home feeling that he should have spoken up and fought for their inclusion. He never forgot that feeling of regret.
To give my father credit, throughout his career as a minister he routinely worked to overcome divisions between blacks and whites. One of the last churches he served was located in a small town in southeastern Virginia which literally had a black side of the tracks and a white side of the tracks. He baptized the first African-American person in the church’s long history and did so over the objections of some church members. Even with many occasions for standing up against racism on his resume, my father never forgot about the time he failed to do so. I learned from him that any short-term discomfort, opposition or rejection you may face for standing up for the justice of God pales in comparison to the regret you will feel for not doing so.
In my ministry, I have tried to stand for God’s justice even in the face of opposition, because I know that in the end each of us must face our own conscience and our God. I am proud to serve a church that feels the same way. Together, may we at FCC continue to be “Drum Majors for Justice” and work for the dignity of all God’s children.
Grace and Peace,