January 19, 2015
The Episcopal Diocese of Western New York has participated in honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on this holiday weekend in a number of ways: Youth, clergy, and laity have worked in social service projects in Niagara Falls and in Medina as a public witness to social justice. Clergy, including me, have joined in the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship Breakfast in Buffalo on the morning of January 19, and many gathered at the Diocesan Ministry Center on afternoon of January 19 for a screening and discussion of the film “The Watsons Go To Birmingham.”
In this Diocese we are beginning now a series of conversations for all on racism and segregation in our region of Western New York, We are asking the question: “What actions can we take to break down walls and wedges of separation.” Some have asked me why our diocese has embarked on this course of action.
On this day to honor Dr. King, I answer those questioners by providing you a few excerpts from Dr. King’s great “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail.” This seems appropriate for this occasion when “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” is being viewed.
Dr. King was arrested several times, and it was during one such period of incarceration that he composed his eloquent “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail” of April 16, 1963. It was a response to the urgings of white church leaders in Birmingham that blacks should negotiate and be patient and not protest or resist the wedge of segregation in any way.
Passages from Dr. King’s letter of 1963 speak to the Diocese of Western New York in 2015:
- “…segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality….segregation substitutes an “I-it” relationship for the “I-thou” relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things….Isn’t segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?”
- “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress …comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
- “I have been so greatly disappointed with the white Church and its leadership.. Of course there are notable exceptions…..But despite these notable exceptions I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed by the Church.”
- “ I hope the Church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the Church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle….If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands….”
As a diocese which inhabits the most segregated metropolitan region of our nation, Dr. King’s words give us the heart to address our fears, the courage to engage in a process of self-examination, and the hope that the Spirit will be with us as we engage in the work of struggling to build the Kingdom of God in this our land. God bless us as we undertake new tasks of conversation, analysis, action, healing and reconciliation.