Something extraordinary happened at the Martin Luther King Jr. event I attended last night. It was organized by Pray Chicago, a movement that is trying to get churches from all 77 neighborhoods in the city to act as one body.
Well, an Asian pastor got up to read an excerpt of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” and the first thing he said was, “I’m here because they needed an Asian to speak.” After a roar of laughter, he asked all the Asian people in the audience to stand up. More laughter, with a few brave souls standing. Then he said he seriously wanted all the Asians in the audience to stand up. About 30 people stood up in the balcony, though I wasn’t positioned to see any of the hundreds of people on the main floor.
Then the pastor said something like: “As Asian people, we want to thank Black Americans. Black people were enslaved, beaten, and discriminated against, but you didn’t give up. You bled and died for your freedom and in so doing you lead the way for people like my grandparents who came from Korea to have civil rights in America. You paved the way for freedom for all Asian America. I want all the Asians in the room to join me in saying thank you to our Black brothers and sisters.” (Watch the video at 57 minutes to see him and quote him verbatim).
I’ve never heard such a thing in my life! It’s true that every disenfranchised ethnic group that have immigrated to America since the end of slavery—not just Koreans— have ridden on the coat tails of the Black freedom fight, but this truth is rarely acknowledged, let alone applauded. On the contrary, in my experience, people from these immigrant ethnic groups have looked down on black people and wondered why the socioeconomic success they’ve been able to experience has not been reflected in the black community.
I just so happened to be sitting on a pew with a Korean pastor and his wife. She beamed a smile at me from the moment I sat down next to her, and she continued to do so throughout the night Three young white female cousins, one of the girls’ mother, and a young black woman sat on the row in front of me. The eight of us circled up for prayer at four or five designated times during the service.
When they asked if anyone knew of someone who had been shot or killed in Chicago, I was the only one in my group to stand up. We cried as we prayed against the violence in the city, which last year saw 762 murders and more than 4,000 total shooting victims. Among the dead was Christopher Fields, a student I had taught in the 3rd grade. He was killed last June at age 17. As he escorted his female cousin from the bus stop to his house, a drive-by shooter sprayed bullets at a group of people gathered on a nearby porch, hitting Christopher. I ran into Chris’ father at Walmart in October and the grief on his face was just as it was at the funeral.
When all the singing, praying, reading, and exhorting was over and we were grabbing our coats up to go home, I decided to give each person in my prayer huddle my business card. I told them that I was inspired by the prayers, but I needed a tangible next step, something I could do to keep this powerful experience alive.
I told the group that we had prayed together for two hours, but we are leaving as strangers. We don’t know each other’s last names ... we haven’t shared a meal together ... haven’t met each other’s dogs or best friends. We only had a superficial connection, and this type of relationship only serves to keep stereotypes, segregation, and violence persisting in Chicago and other parts of America. I said, “We’re in this situation because people don’t know—let alone love—their neighbors.”
Each person accepted my invitation to keep in touch with great enthusiasm. I wanted to ask them to mark the moment by taking a group selfie, but I wasn’t that brave. I didn’t want anyone to feel weird, and, as an introvert, I had already reached my fear of rejection threshold.
I walked out of Progressive Baptist Church remembering that this historic place was the only church in Chicago that would host Dr. Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1966. Back then, the white evangelical church in the city saw Dr. King as a holy agitator and wouldn’t dare welcome him and his social justice ideology onto their pulpits (an issue he addressed directly in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”). And many black church leaders in Chicago also refused to host Dr. King for fear of political and social retaliation.
But thanks to Dr. King, I walked out of the Progressive Baptist without fearing angry white mobs ready to attack, despite the fact that church abuts the Bridgeport community, an mostly white enclave on the South Side that historically has been hostile to black people.
No, something much more insidious bothered me. I wondered if any of the multi-ethnic Christians with whom I had just fervently prayed would actually reach back out to me. I wondered if they would actually seek a friendship with me outside of the four walls of the church. It’s much too early to tell, but I haven’t received a single email or text message yet.