God, let us learn how to act to change the world through your love. Help us to see the ways in which your love invites us to be transformed, and in that love let us use our gifts to help transform the world.
Today’s reflection begins with some of the words Martin Luther King Jr. shared over 50 years ago in Washington D.C. These words are taught in our schools, and have been adopted as a part of the American legacy, they are words built upon the gospel’s hope for a beloved community, and they call to us still. I invite you to listen to these words with new ears as we reflect on this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”2
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”
“My Country ‘Tis of Thee” is a song that brings back images of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Song was an incredibly important component of sharing “the dream” of a truly free and diverse nation. Songs were used to calm the nerves of those who were marching without weapons in peaceful protest, so when the violence started they could remain calm. Song was used to draw the community of people together for strength as they faced great fear. Song is one of the amazing communication tools we have where every voice, every person added makes the song more complete. Each voice added to the “dream” Dr. King share with us is a blessing and it is part of what the Gospels share as the beloved community. The beloved community is all people sharing their God given gifts, the gifts hidden by society and by discrimination. Today we will hear in the Corinthians passage that we all have these gifts to be shared.
1 Corinthians 12:1-11Common English Bible (CEB)
12 Brothers and sisters, I don’t want you to be ignorant about spiritual gifts. 2 You know that when you were Gentiles you were often misled by false gods that can’t even speak. 3 So I want to make it clear to you that no one says, “Jesus is cursed!” when speaking by God’s Spirit, and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. 4 There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; 5 and there are different ministries and the same Lord; 6 and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 7 A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. 8 A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, 9 faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, 10 performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues to another, and the interpretation of the tongues to another. 11 All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person.
Other songs were powerful during the public acts for equality in the 1960s. Two that we continue to teach our children are “Come by Here” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Often we don’t give these songs much credence as songs of power, but to the people marching with Dr. King these songs gave peace in the face of danger, and hope to stay non-violent in the face of fierce opposition. These songs were songs of power and bravery that the many different voices joining together might overcome the hatred and bigoted violence coming toward the people of peace and justice.
In a New York Times article in 2010 the history of the song, “Come by Here,” was shared to help point us back to the amazing history it had as a song of bravery. “Come by Here” or as many know “Kumbaya” was a song created in the deep south under among slaves and former slaves. It actually was never called Kumbaya and most likely got that name because people couldn’t quite understand the beautiful speech of the people singing it. This song with a humble root would grow to become a spirited part of the movement of Dr. King and other brave leaders.
In today’s political rhetoric, “Come By Here” is mocked and teased as a song and term of weakly seeking compromise. The same New York Time’s article stated:
In the civil rights era, “Come By Here” was a call to action. In the cynical present, essentially the same song has become a disparagement of action.
Politicians have continually used the rhetoric that compromise, working together is weakness. Some have literally used “Kumbaya” as a demeaning term for those who are weak.
I too have mocked this song with others, as we hold hands and joke that this will be a “Kumbaya” moment. In doing this I fear I have made light of the work of Jesus’ message of bringing people into community, and also teased the work of brave souls who came before me as people of weakness. Perhaps on this Sunday we should reconsider the power of “Come by Here” and “This Little Light of Mine.”
1964 was the summer the civil rights act passed and in that same summer that a group of students and civil right leaders from all over the United States went to Mississippi to work hard to get people, especially Black Americans, signed up to vote. During this work James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were discovered to be missing. Later it was discovered that they were lynched by a mob, and some were members of the KKK. When the group doing the work of training people to go out and help register people to vote learned the three young men were missing he called the group together. This story was re-told by Martin King Luther Jr.’s speechwriter and friend Vincent Harding in interview with Krista Tippett. He said something happened during that gathering that turned him from ever making fun of the song “Come by Here” again.
As the leaders of the movement to create equality and register people to vote in Mississippi called all of the people together, it was clear that there was struggle and concern about the friends who had gone missing. They had no idea what had happened, but they and the country feared the worst. Vincent Harding tells that one of the leaders of the movement told everyone to go and consider if they wanted to continue. No one would think less of them for going. He asked them to take some time to make their decisions.
As the people gathered to discuss their choices groups of people started breaking out in song:
“Come by here my lord, come by here, come by here my lord, come by here. Someone’s missing lord come by here. Oh lord, come by here.”
No one left, they all stayed and the song of bravery was one of the reasons. They stayed put and became another signpost for us of the bravery of the coming together it takes to change the world. They joined each others voices and shared their gifts, because those missing could not.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called us to courage, compassion and creativity to overcome the oppression and division that existed among us. Joining voices helps and continues to help us to do that. King’s vision of a stronger America is still not come to pass. This past year of violence, riots, and stories about the aversive discrimination that exists in our country continues to show us that the nightmare is not over, that Jesus’ vision of a beloved community has not come to pass. And I can assure you that many of us don’t know what to do to help continue the dream.
Vincent Harding tells one other story of a young man named Darryl. Darryl is was a young man that Dr. Harding met on a couch in an apartment of a friend. Darryl told Dr. Harding the thing people need today to help challenge systems of discrimination, to live more into the dream is “signposts.” These “signposts” are the things young children need to hear to know they can be more than just a part of a system of birth, work, and death. These are stories like “Come by Here” from the Mississippi Summer. Dr. Harding soon learned that the man sitting next to him on the couch was a drug dealer for his neighborhood, but even he knew the world and what he did was not ideal. Darryl knew that what people needed were “signposts.”
That is why we keep telling the story of Dr. King, of Vincent Harding, of Rosa Parks, and others who have gone before us. This is why we keep singing and teaching “Come By Here” and “This Little Light of Mine.” We tell and we teach because generations now and in the future need to hope and reach for something greater. They need to reach for a community where all people can share their God given gifts, and no one will be judged by the color of their skin, but instead by the content of their character.
We need to know we are loved as we help create this community, because there will be hard days. We need to know our light still shines and that God will come by here as we continue to dream of a beloved community. We need to keep singing these songs in the face of feeling silly or as if compromise does not truly change the world. Working together with our brothers and sisters, inviting peaceful solutions, and seeking true justice is our calling as people loved by God and lead by Christ. Singing proudly the songs of the civil rights movement is one of the ways we continue to be signposts of bravery and courage for the dream. At the very least as people of Christ we need to point to signposts of love, so that people can hope for a better future where all voices are heard.
Go today, be a signpost, or a person pointing to a signpost of hope. Know that God needs all of our voices to accomplish this dream. May we sing proudly about our little light, and invite God to come by here, so we live to sing about a “sweet land of liberty.”
 Quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr. I Have a Dream delivered 28 August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm. Accessed January 15, 2016.