Active and Ongoing

Here in Canada, yesterday was Monday – a Monday like any other Monday with the exception that the elementary school teachers in Toronto were on strike. It was a fitting demonstration for the spirit of the third Monday in January as I know it.  It still feels strange to me not to have Martin Luther King, Jr., Day on the calendar as a holiday.  Yet, its absence also serves to underscore its importance for me as an American, a Christian, and a clergyman.

For all intents and purposes, the third Monday of January is still just another Monday for many in the United States, too, even if they do have the day off. And even for those for whom it is a special and intentional day of service, the observance of MLK Day can distract from the urgency of the daily, ongoing struggle for equality.  Too many constitutional freedoms and inalienable rights are still denied far too many Americans – and Canadians, for that matter. A day of service once a year won’t remedy that.

I am reminded daily of Dr. King. In the centre of a wall in my church office hangs a photograph of the Civil Rights icon sharing a table in the cafeteria of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with my friend and former preaching professor, Dr. John Claypool, who in 1961 was the young pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Dr. Claypool had helped to organise the Louisville chapter of the NAACP and was asked to host Dr. King’s visit to the seminary campus.  A press photographer spotted the pair sipping coffee and chatting about the particulars of the upcoming chapel service where Dr. King would speak. When the photo appeared in the local newspaper the next day, it ignited a firestorm that almost cost Dr. Claypool his job.   The back-draft from his church and his community was swift and hot.  In 1961, Louisville, Kentucky, wasn’t a place where black men and white men shared tables.

1961 wasn’t all that long ago.

Memories fade.  Intentions falter.  New challenges emerge.  Society moves on.  Yesterday’s hard-won progress becomes today’s taken-for-granted routine.  The fact that many of us cannot fathom separate water fountains or store entrances for black and white is a sign that ground has been gained.  However, the forces of inequality have hardly surrendered.  They’re not even in retreat.

That is why remembering the struggle is as important as remembering the icon.  Civil Rights would not be what it was without Dr. King.  But the cause of civil rights would never have advanced without his courage coupled with the gumption of many other activists and preachers, professors and maids, cab drivers and school children, college students and sanitation workers who were willing to walk to work, to march in the streets, to sit down at lunch counters and cafeteria tables, and to absorb the verbal and physical flak of the resistance – day after day, week after week, month after month.  “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” ¹

That’s why that photograph hangs in my office with my various academic degrees in orbit around it.  That photo reminds me every day why MLK Day is needed, and why it is never enough. It reminds me every day of the prophetic call of the gospel – to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour – that is the reason why I set out to earn all those degrees; why I have an office in a church; why I entered the ministry in the first place. It reminds me every day to ask myself, “With whom do I stand (or sit) and to what end?” It reminds me every day that the good fight is an active and ongoing campaign – not a past victory to honour and celebrate one day out of the year.

 

¹ Read the full manuscript of Rev. Dr.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” here.

In Memoriam

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the death of my dear friend and mentor, John Claypool. To commemorate his passing – and celebrate his enduring legacy – I’ve composed this reflection, portions of which appear in the September 2015 issue of Baptists Today, alongside the reminiscences of others who were fortunate enough to learn from him during his time at the McAfee School of Theology.

________________________________________

I don’t have to look far to be reminded of John Claypool each day. In our house hangs a copy of a black and white photograph showing the Rev. Dr. Claypool and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. having coffee in the refectory of Southern Seminary on the day the civil rights icon visited the campus in 1961. It’s very special to me – and not just for featuring two men whom I believe to be 20th century saints in the same frame. It’s special because, like most everything to do with John Claypool, there’s a story behind it: a story about choosing love and grace over all other available options.

My wife gave me this photograph as a Christmas present. Dr. Claypool brought the original from the Louisville Courier-Journal with him to class one day in 2002 as a prelude to the day’s lesson. As an aspiring preacher, seeing my professor with Martin Luther King, Jr. was like a basketball player seeing his coach with Michael Jordan. But Dr. Claypool hadn’t brought the picture to brag. He’d brought it to illustrate a point. That picture got him into a whole lot of trouble.

Claypool and MLK 1961

John Claypool (second from left) shares coffee with Martin Luther King, Jr. at Southern Seminary in 1961.

Dr. Claypool was the Pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville at the time, and as soon as the paper hit the stands he knew he had to brace for the backlash. It was one thing to be present when the prestigious Southern Seminary hosted a controversial but undeniably significant figure like King; it was quite another to be spotted sharing refreshment with a Black man, especially an “agitator” and a rumored Communist. Dr. Claypool knew what people in town would think – and perhaps do. But Dr. King had asked if there was a place to get a cup of coffee before he gave his address, so Dr. Claypool led the way. To hear him tell it, it was as simple as that. Of course, what he really did was make a profound choice. He chose the grace of hospitality over the safety of propriety. He chose to share a cup of coffee in calm, holy defiance of his culture’s bigoted, ungodly conventions.

The humility with which Dr. Claypool shared this photograph, and the openness with which he told the story behind it, forever endeared him to me as a mentor and exemplar of prophetic pastoral leadership. Throughout our time together, Dr. Claypool impressed upon me that simple but purposeful acts lie at the heart of Christian witness. Living intentionally out of Christ’s love, compassion, and generosity matters more than profound exegesis or homiletic agility. It’s through such simple yet purposeful acts, like welcoming the outsider, that you tell Christ’s story through your story. It’s through such simple yet purposeful acts, like the breaking of bread and the sharing of a cup, that God has long revealed God’s self.

I am one of the many to whom God revealed God’s self more fully through the simple yet purposeful witness of John Claypool. His humble, confessional reflections on the grief and joy of this world, and the mystery and wonder of the Holy, have helped me navigate the complex task of living faithfully in a complex world. He’s also inspired me to directly engage the civil rights issues of today. I’ve often wondered how he’d respond to the recent police shootings, and the riots, and the mass incarceration of Black men. No doubt he’d be offering refreshment, physical and spiritual, to anyone in need – and getting into what John Lewis has called “the right kind of trouble.” [1]

 

[1] https://kmslibrary.wordpress.com/page/2/.

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 556 other followers

  • RSS Weekly Scripture from the Revised Common Lectionary

  • Editor’s Choice

  • Recent Posts

  • Previous Posts

  • Categories

  • Art Matters

    Marc Chagall, The White Crucifixion, 1938

  • Follow Me on Twitter @RevBTT