Author's note: My 90th birthday will be June 8, 2013. Should I call it a lifetime experience? I'm in pretty good shape. A retired Episcopal priest (ordained in 1955), I remain very active, spending quality timel offering spiritual direction to a fine mix of people and continuing my lifetime of writing. My ears perked up when the thought surfaced that I might write quite personally about a few crucial American religious moments in which I'd particiipated.
I always felt that Martin Luther King Jr. was the most down-to-earth person. He dealt with specific challenges, situations and facts. Pie-in-the-sky was not on his menu. His opposition to the Vietnam war became a major focus of his time and energy. I remember when he said "The Washington Post has calculated that we spend $332,000 for each enemy we kill. It challenges the imagination to contemplate what lives we could transform if we were to cease killing."
My initial encounter with King occurred in 1961 when I participated in a Freedom Ride-Prayer Pilgrimage originating in New Orleans. It was also my personal introduction to the concept and practice of nonviolence. King sent key aides to instruct us in its practice. King called violence "a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy."
I was in the same room, or on the same road, with him a number of times. One was in 1965 in Selma, Ala. A small group of volunteers from different parts of the U.S. had been invited to meet with him. Observing King at close hand, I saw a straightforward, hard working man in his shirtsleeves, tired and sweaty. When he spoke to our small group informally his style was intimate. He wasn't projecting or on a pulpit. In fact, I realized that I needed to listen very closely. Doing so, I found that he touched a hidden nerve in an area known as my conscience. He stirred impulses about injustice and hope for human rights that moved against my narrow self-interest.
There seemed to be something akin to a young Moses about King. He earnestly wanted us to reach a promised land that he already knew. He knew the passage would be long. King understood he world's powerful and political Pilates, past and present, and their inevitable role in betrayals of the poor and price tags on justice.
On Feb. 6, 1968, I was in King's company for the final time. We were in Washington, D.C. for a nonviolent protest against the Vietnam war. A small crowd surrounded King inside Arlington Cemetery below the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Earlier that day our appeal for permission to hold a memorial service for the war dead has been rejected by a federal appelate court. So we ended simply, silently, praying for peace. Frankly, that was more eloquent than words.
Today it is apparently easier to place King back in history than to live with what he still has to say. When it comes to peace and justice, King is as unyielding in death as he was in life.