On April 12, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. found himself in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. He and his Southern Christian Leadership Coalition had joined other civil rights groups in non-violent protests against racial segregation, racist laws and racial violence in the city. Government officials convinced a judge to issue a blanket injunction against all types of demonstrations in an attempt to stop their efforts. Because they refused to obey the order, Dr. King and other leaders were arrested.
That same day, an open letter from eight prominent clergy was published in a local paper. In the letter King was condemned as one of the “outsiders” that were causing unnecessary turmoil in their city. These religious leaders said that Birmingham could handle its issues on its own. Ironically entitled “A Call to Unity,” the letter was actually a call for the visiting protesters, especially King, to leave.
Dr. King immediately began to write a response on any piece of paper he could find. These collective scraps would come to be known as his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Among the many powerful lines in his letter are these words:
It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Over the course of my life, I’ve increasingly realized how true these words are. As a natural introvert, I don’t seek out new relationships with people I don’t know. But because of the many gracious individuals who invited me into their lives, I discovered that I needed those who were “outsiders” to me. I am forever grateful for these friends who helped me do away with my “us vs. them” and “in vs. out” mentality. Can I share my thank-you notes to some of those who helped me understand humanity’s mutuality and shared destiny?
Thank you, Keith Wood and Tom Jessup for inviting me to join the leadership of the predominately black Buckhead Community Fellowship in Atlanta in 2007. You hoped that I, as one of the pastors, could help create a more diverse congregation by drawing in more people who looked like me. While I’m sorry that during my time there, I drove the remaining six white people out, I’m so grateful that I was given the privilege and challenge of doing church life where I was the minority. I’m thankful that this time with you exposed some prejudice within me that I had yet to deal with. And I am honored beyond words that many in our congregation grew to accept and trust me as a brother.
Thank you, Joe and Mary Green, for making me an adopted adult son in your home, so that I could get to know and love your daughter Sherry, her wife and her daughter. I had been wrestling for some time with what I had been taught in my Adventist upbringing and what I was coming to understand about the troubling experiences of individuals who identify as LGBTQ, especially those born and raised in families of devout faith. Seeing Sherry’s ordinary yet magnificent family and your pride in them settled the issue in my mind. Because you, Joe and Mary, opened the door to your family, I have been welcomed with open arms into so many more families. And the LGBTQ relatives in my own family now know my door will always be open to them, and that they will always have a seat at my table and a guest room waiting for them.
Thank you, Dr. Johnny Ramirez-Johnson, anthropology professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, fellow pastor at Glendale City Church and dear friend, for helping me better understand the frustrations of being a scholar of color but only celebrated for being energetic and entertaining. While beloved by your students, you were rarely appreciated for your intellectual brilliance and prodigious scholarship. Because of your gracious confrontation of my similar stereotyping behavior, I have learned how to better love you and how to love and respect others in your field who share your experience.
Thank you, Mary Khayat, Anoosh Keshishzade, Dr. Armine Zambre, Father Vazken Movsesian and so many Americans of Armenian descent for embracing me as a friend since I moved to Glendale nine years ago. Before arriving, I had almost no knowledge of Armenia, the diaspora or its history and had no idea what it would mean to live in a city with almost 100,000 people of Armenian heritage—whether they were born in the US, Lebanon, Iran, Russia or Armenia. Because each of you have taken the time to sit with me–over a cup of American or Armenian coffee, or in your home eating your “simple” refreshments, which in my home, would be equivalent to the amount of food we serve for Thanksgiving Dinner—because you shared the joys, sorrows, triumphs and tragedies and allowed me to ask a lot of questions, I now know that my identity and my destiny will be forever connected to each one of you. That it would be extremely important for me in 2019 to finally see the House and Senate pass resolutions that assigned the term “genocide” to the atrocities that began in 1915, speaks to how important our friendship has become over the years.
And thank you, Martin Luther King, for modeling a way of life that awakened our nation to the reality of our mutuality and interconnectedness. May I continue to believe in and work for your dream for our world.
This article is adapted from a presentation made at the City of Glendale’s Martin Luther King Togetherhood Breakfast, January 16, 2020, at Dignity Health Glendale Memorial Hospital. The article was published in the February 2020 edition of Intersections, the magazine of Glendale City Church.