By Pastor Tim Phillips
Note: These are edited comments from the January 19, 2015 Evergreen Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Celebration at New Beginnings Christian Fellowship. It is printed here in celebration of African-American History Month.
When we were first talking about this gathering, it occurred to us that perhaps we should say a few words about why it is important for us, specifically, to be together on this day. And I thought immediately about being on an airplane. And the person in the seat next to me asks that dreaded question: “So, what do you do for a living?”
Sisters and brothers, I confess that I am often tempted to lie because once someone finds out I am a pastor things get complicated.
But that’s not the worst of it because the next dreaded question is: “What kind?” I’m always tempted to say, “Well, I hope a good one.” But that’s not what they are asking. What they want to know is what kind as in the kind of denomination I serve. And when I say I am a Baptist, that’s when things get really complicated. Sorry to say, I’ve discovered that saying I’m an American Baptist doesn’t seem to help anything.
So this is what I have started to say when people ask me. I say I am a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist. And it’s amazing! Something clicks and the lights go on and they seem to get it.
I realize that saying I am a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist is shorthand. But it is also true. Dr. King’s home church, Ebenezer in Atlanta, is an American Baptist Church. But it’s more than that.
Our spiritual ancestors – John Smyth in England and Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams in America – fought for freedom as a spiritual value. And our ancestors in what became the Northern Baptist Convention believed that if freedom was a spiritual value it, should be a social value too. So they said they would not approve as a missionary anyone who owned slaves. Many of them were already working in the abolition movement. That’s when many of the southern churches left and formed their own convention.
But for us, the pattern was already set. And along came Helen Barrett Montgomery, one of the first women ever elected to lead a national denomination – our denomination. She believed that freedom was a spiritual and a social value so she worked for economic justice and the education of women.
And along came Walter Rauschenbusch, pastor and professor at one of our great theological institutions who came to be known as the ‘father of the social gospel’ because he saw the social dimensions of the liberating good news of Jesus. Dr. King himself wrote that Walter Rauschenbusch had a big impact on his theological understanding.
So I’m a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist.
And I’m a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist because he was a preacher at our 1964 convention where he also received one of the first of our denomination’s highest honors for peace – The Edwin T. Dahlberg Peace Award. And our publication department printed copies of Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” with a study guide and distributed to all the churches, encouraging them to talk about racial justice.
So I say I am a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist.
I’m a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist because the great Jitsuo Morikawa – a Japanese-American who knew something about the social value of freedom having spent time in an internment camp during WWII. Dr. Morikowa helped to continue the legacy of Dr. King among us as a pastor and teacher and national leader of our denomination.
So I’m a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist.
I’m a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist because Dr. King knew that, in the work for love and justice and peace, you need to be free to make partnerships with all kinds of people – other Protestants and Catholics and Jews and Muslims and Hindus – because this work is too big for any one of us alone.
So, if you ask me, I’ll say that I am a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist.
It’s true. It is shorthand. But it’s shorthand for a long history. It’s shorthand but it’s shorthand for a tall order -- to live into that dream of a Beloved Community; which sounds lovely but we, of all people, know how hard that work is.
So, the next time someone asks you what kind of believer – and what kind of Baptist – you are, you might consider joining me in saying truthfully and proudly: “Well, I’m a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist” and then see what happens to them ... and to you!
This blog includes thoughts from various contributors at Seattle First Baptist