02/21/2012 11:27 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Lead the Change: MLK, Faith and Fearlessness

Lead the Change from Middle Collegiate Church on Vimeo.

When I fell in love with God in a church on Michigan's Upper Peninsula in 1964, I was five years old and did not notice that my family was the only black one in the pews. A year later, when our family moved to Chicago, we swayed to the music and prayed to our God in a black Baptist church. When I was 7, we moved to a Presbyterian Church, where Aunt Yvonne was the pianist. While my caramel-colored aunt played piano, Mrs. McIntosh -- plump, Irish and kind -- played the organ, and Reva -- the spitting image of her cocoa brown mother-- directed our children's choir. For just a moment in time, worship in our multiracial church was a festival of gospel and classical music, with show tunes sprinkled in for flavor.

Then, our white neighbors moved further south, away from their black working-class neighbors.

It was just after The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968 that I read his quote, "11 o'clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours if not the most segregated hours in Christian America."

Last week during a worship celebration at Middle Church, the congregation viewed our short video "Lead the Change" that includes excerpts from a 1963 interview King gave on this topic. The congregation was struck by how his words seemed so timeless. "I think that the opportunity of the future is to really go out and to transform American society, and where else is there a better place than in the institution ... the institution that should preach brotherhood and make it a reality within its own body."

King grew up in the segregated churches of the south. Yet the church was a place where God's children found spiritual resources like prayer, song and community to navigate the trials of racism in America. For the activists of the Civil Rights movement, their leadership was rooted in their faith.

The church should be an institution to nurture and support leaders. Martin Luther King, Jr., grew up watching his father, Daddy King, guiding members of the Ebenezer Baptist Church to fight racism. He watched as they used their bodies and feet to stand and march in protest of injustice. They behaved the vision in their congregations, neighborhoods and homes. Though the darker brother, they knew they were beloved of God, full of gifts and dignity. They were full citizens in God's Kingdom, and so they should be full citizens in their country.

With his sister Willie and brother Alfred, Martin learned in Sunday School that rooted in God's Spirit they could have the courage to change things. And, though he would grow up to question religion and resist his call to ministry, Martin learned, in the heart of the south, pelted with the sharp stones of racism despite his family's middle class status, that he and his "so-called" colored friends were all created in God's image and that anywhere they went, God would find them and care for them.

In Psalm 139, we read: "O Lord, you have searched me and known me ... Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?" This prayer acknowledges that God is always as near as our breath; and with God that close, we have the opportunity to live without fear.

The night before he was killed in Memphis, Dr. King said with the confidence of the Psalmist, "I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

Martin was unafraid. His faith fueled his courage and inspired millions to live in the light of non-violent protest. Marianne Williamson writes about the importance of embracing our light and how God can live through each of us, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us."

Too many of us are afraid of our light. I have heard countless times in my ministry that some people -- no matter their race -- feel unworthy of God, think they can't be used by God. Let us not be afraid of the liberating love-power at work within us. We are afraid to speak up, to stand in, to voice our disgust and disappointment at the ways systemic racism continues to grip our nation in its ferocious teeth. We are waiting on someone else to do it, waiting for some hero to arise and lead us to freedom. And while we wait, the myth of "post racial" plays in our country because we elected an African-American president. While we wait, we build higher fences on our borders to the south, where the darker brothers and sisters live, our xenophobia and racism seething under the guise of immigration control.

It's important that we address the ways race matters in our communities, and why not start in our churches? We need faithful, courageous leaders who are unafraid of their light, unafraid to turn God's liberating love loose in a world that desperately needs it.

Dr. King was a man with a profound trust in God, a man of extraordinary intelligence who ignited a movement. He was also an ordinary human, with passions and faults, flaws and desires. Motivated by an unalterable vision, and a holy frustration with the status quo, King moved right into the face of injustice, and fearlessly claimed his role in the healing of the world.

King wasn't the only one. A woman named Rosa, who refused to sit in the back; a man named James, who trained student protesters; and a girl named Ruby who walked a lonely path to school -- they all claimed their light and shone it on a broken world, repairing some of the breach.

You and I must face the fear of our light. We must liberate ourselves and one another from the fears that keep us silent and still. We actually can, by God's Grace, heal our world.

In April, The Middle Project will host its sixth annual conference targeting leaders who want to build multiracial/multiethnic communities of faith, working for justice. We invite you to gather with us as presenters like James Forbes, Gary Dorrien, Barbara Lundblad, Macky Alston, Curtiss DeYoung and Miguel De La Torre help us empower our congregations to live out not only King's dream, but God's vision. We need to be intentional about how we design worship, choose music, and preach the Word so that we are setting the table for a radically welcoming community in our sanctuaries.

It is not easy, nor simple for churches to "preach brotherhood and make it a reality within its own body." But the church is the place and our faith is the source with which we may be instruments of change.