01/18/2013 12:01 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2013

Racism, the Church and the Fierce Urgency of Now

In my early teens, when mixed cassette tapes and Walkmans were all the rage, I discovered my parents' record collection. Tucked in between Carole King's Tapestry and Free to Be You and Me was a recording of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. On the back of the record jacket was a picture taken from the vantage point of the podium, looking out over the sea of faces that crowded the National Mall that historic day -- the face of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. As his voice rose with each line of that well-known crescendo of dreams, I would ponder the enduring truth of his words decades later: "We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt."

Last year at this time I joined Christian colleagues in visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. I had just begun to serve as president of the National Council of Churches USA -- the youngest woman to ever serve, at the age of 35 -- and was participating in the annual meeting of one of our partners, Christian Churches Together. As I rounded the corner of the exhibit to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Eugene Carson Blake was taking the podium on the video monitor. Rev. Blake had served as NCC president from 1954-1957, and was a vanguard in both the civil rights and Christian unity movements throughout his ministry. As I stood there listening to his words, I was struck by the radically different place of the churches in the public square today. Yet as I scanned the thousands of faces in the crowd to which he spoke, I remembered the simple and obvious truth that, even then, the movement for racial justice was not the churches' alone -- but it was one in which the churches claimed their rightful place, giving witness to the hope we have in Jesus Christ as the One who breaks all barriers between us as children of the living, loving God.

Fifty years after the March on Washington, the scandalous realities of racism must still be exposed for what they are: an affront to the Gospel. What, then, is the face of today's movement for racial justice? With whom are the churches marching today, and toward what effect? When our children look back on the record jackets of our time, will they see our faces in the crowd and know that we, too, "refuse to be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream"? On this historic joint occasion of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the second Inauguration of President Barack Obama, our nation's first African American president, the NCC is issuing a Call to Action. As churches in the U.S., we are recalling and renewing our historic commitment to racial justice, and inviting partners in the churches and society to link arms once again.

While the truths The Rev. Dr. King spoke in 1963 endure, the churches and society are rapidly changing, raising new questions about what it means to uphold a vision for racial equality, equity and justice. There is urgency now, even as there was in 1963, to pray with our feet -- to tend to the significant challenges of our time as they intersect with racial justice, including immigration reform and poverty. The movement needs to move, and quickly for the sake of the lives that are at stake. In his speech, The Rev. Dr. King said, "We have come to this place to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off, or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time." He also said that, "1963 is not the end, but the beginning."

As Christians, we honor this legacy by claiming anew our rightful place: at the podium, in the great march and, yes, as faces in the crowd.