On Thursday afternoon, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a tailor’s assistant, refused to vacate her seat in the white section of a city bus because her neck and shoulder were sore and was arrested by local authorities in Montgomery, Alabama. The next day, many of the city’s black ministers including Ralph D. Abernathy arranged to gather to discuss the possibility of mounting a mass boycott of Montgomery’s buses in response to Parks’ situation and the unjust Jim Crow laws that created it. Believing the meeting would be best attended if it was held in the evening and at a central, downtown location, Abernathy called one of his best friends, Reverend M.L. King, Jr., pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, to ask if the meeting could be held there. King, not too long out of graduate school in Boston, was hesitant to get involved, enjoying his position in an elegant church, his beautiful wife, Coretta, and having a one month old daughter. His life was good. Still, he agreed to host the event.
Friday evening, as the meeting droned on and began to fizzle, people began to walk out, one after another. “I would like to go too,” King whispered to Alabama State Professor James E. Pierce, “but it’s in my church.” Abernathy rose and saved the meeting and then roped King into continuing to help him organize the group over the weekend. By Monday afternoon, the Montgomery Improvement Association had been organized and King, seen as “well educated and an articulate speaker,” was nominated to be the group’s president. Reluctantly, King agreed to accept the position: “Well, if you think I can render some service, I will.”
A 7:00 pm public meeting was scheduled Monday at Holt Street Baptist Church to launch the boycott but several of the leaders grew scared. One of the older leaders, E.D. Nixon angrily rebuked them, saying, “Somebody in this thing has got to get faith. I am just ashamed of you. You said that God has called you to lead the people and now you are afraid and gone to pieces because the man tells you that the newspaper men will be here and your pictures might come out in the newspaper. Somebody has got to get hurt in this thing and if you preachers are not the leaders, then we have to pray that God will send us some more leaders.”
As the meeting time approached, preparing to deliver the major speech, Martin King was “obsessed by a feeling of inadequacy.” He turned to prayer. Thousands of Montgomery’s black citizens flowed into the meeting, filling it to capacity long before seven.
And then, it happened.
King stepped forward to tell they people why and how they would protest the arrest and conviction of Mrs. Parks. Yet, when he took the pulpit, and engaged that powerful voice that has now become indelibly engraved in our national psyche, the air ignited. King’s words, wrapped in practical sense and biblical truth, grabbed the hearts and minds of the crowded church and wove the beginnings of a movement that would go on to change the world. “We must keep God in the forefront…Love is one of the pinnacle parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation.”
When he stepped down, the crowd erupted. The Civil Rights Movement, under Dr. King, was born.
While King was a talented speaker and a charismatic leader, the story of that night and of the movement that followed was actually not one of an individual leader, standing alone. It took the courage of a 42-year old seamstress to stand up to a racist culture, providing the movement with a test case. It took a Ralph Abernathy and his relationship with King to pull his apathetic friend into that night and to walk with him through the subsequent years of the movement, ending with King lying, dying in Abernathy’s arms on the balcony of the Lorainne Motel in Memphis, Tennessee from a gunshot wound to the head. It took the sage, older leadership of E.D. Nixon to rebuke the young ministers and push them into the fight. It took thousands of others including Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, Diane Nash and others to stand up, walk out and not back down, week after week, day after day to get the job done.
Most of the greatest moments in history include similar examples of collaboration. We think of Moses but the story would not be the same without Zipporah, Aaron, Miriam, Jethro and Joshua. David needed a Samuel, a Jonathan, his mighty men, Joab, Bathsheba and others. Jesus entire ministry displays the powerful collaborative of Father, Son and Holy Spirit but then draws on wise men, prophets, Joseph and Mary, John the Baptist, his friends like Lazarus, Martha and, their sister, Mary and the disciples. The Apostle Paul had Barnabas, Silas, John Mark (for a while!), Timothy, Luke, Titus, Priscila and Aquila.
The Reformation required a Luther but also a Calvin, a Philip Melanchthon and a Martin Bucer. John Wesley founded Methodism in the midst of a move of God but also alongside his brother, Charles, and good friend, George Whitefield. Charles Finney was used for amazing things to bring revival across the 19th century U.S. but always with the prayer and support of Father Nash. It should not surprise us that the God who exists in a triune Holy Community draws His people into His purposes collaboratively.
Church is not meant to be a place to come and feel better. It is designed to be a family in which we come to be equipped to go and love better. We come together that we might go together, filled with and led by the Holy Spirit into “turning the world upside down.”
Every local body is uniquely gifted with stewardship of a diverse tapestry of personalities and spiritual capacities that, together, are meant to be used by God to display His glory to the community in which we live. Your church is a local missionary outpost, set into your neighborhood to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a people who are desperately panting for it.
We sometimes wonder why it is so difficult to share our faith. Why can’t we just walk up to people, tell them the Good News and see them fall to their knees, changed? I believe the reason involves God’s jealousy and purposes. He less needs us to go tell them then we need to go tell them so that we are driven closer to Him and closer to each other. In other words, although we have believed, repented, been baptized, filled with the Holy Spirit and released to go and tell the Good News, we are not done yet. God is after more and more of our hearts. He is after our hearts being drawn closer and closer to Him.
God is tricky. Better said, His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. He has set life up in a way that is only navigable by walking closer and closer to Him. To reach them, we have to be right next to Him, in deeper and deeper relationship each day.
And there’s more! He has somehow hidden the keys to our neighbor’s hearts within the people around us in our own church. We are thereby forced to love Jesus more and to love one another more, coming together in creative synergies to launch out into becoming “fishers of men.”
Of course, this is not always the way it goes. Many people are going to be reached by individual members just turning and caring, in the Holy Spirit, for the people right next to them. But many more will be reached by creative ideas that come our of creative collaborations with people across the aisle from you on Sunday morning. This makes church an electric place where creativity and care meet. The God who is Creator of the universe and who is simultaneously Love, comes together through His people to show off and to rescue people’s lives.
Church is meant to be an incubator of these endeavors. Sometimes these collaborations will be backyard barbecues with a few unbelieving neighbors and a few members of our homegroup. Sometimes they will include a strategic alliance of business men in your congregation joining the Chamber of Commerce as a team to connect with the business people within your area. Two members may launch a children’s camp or a food pantry or even an afterschool mentoring program. To be honest, all of this makes being a church a heck of a lot of fun.
Like Dr. King, it is easy to shrink back, overwhelmed by our inadequacies when we are faced by the hurt, pain and problems in our communities. But we, in Christ, are the head and not the tail. We are salt and light. We were made for this moment. As E.D. Nixon told that group fifty years ago, we have to have faith. The Lord sets up God-sized challenges to draw us to dependence on Him. In Christ, we can do all things.
Please chime in with some of the collaborative ways that God is weaving you together with people in your church! We will also do our best in the blog to highlight some of the best of these ideas. May the Lord teach us to love Him, to love one another and to love our neighbors together and in His power.