Several years ago I traveled to the big city of Memphis to embark on an educational journey. Wanting to obtain a doctor of ministry, I had looked at different schools in different places, and pondered a variety of programs. I finally settled on a seminary in Memphis. I’m sure it had something to do with Graceland.
Memphis is a big place, and there are lots of “king-sized” features there. The urban environs sprawl out for blocks in every direction, bounded by a freeway that goes around the city, but cannot contain it. Churches are huge. There is even the Bellevue Baptist Church that takes up enough acreage to feed a small country. And there is a patchwork of human diversity there: racial, socio-economic, multi-national, political, and so forth.
I tried to see the sights there. I found myself drawn to the stories people would tell about Elvis. The King of Rock and Roll chose to live in Memphis in the height of his fame and glory. He is supposedly buried there on the grounds of Graceland. This man whose name still draws swoons from the female crowd was quite the entertainer. He sold many records in his lifetime, from a recording studio right there in the heart of Midtown Memphis, and broke new ground in the middle of the 20th century like no one has ever done.
My trip to his home was complete with a visit to the souvenir shop across the way. There a homeless man entered the shop while I was there, causing other patrons to get nervous. The shop keeper politely directed him back outside, and missed nary a beat ringing up the next sale. I have to admit, it was a welcome distraction from all the Elvis “memorabilia” for sale that was made in China.
A second King there was over on Beale Street. In the town where the Blues were born, B. B. King was quite the performer. I had listened intently to an old album of his from the 60s in my earliest days as a bachelor in the hills of Virginia. “I Want to Get Married, But No Woman Will Be My Bride,” was one of my favorites. Thankfully, I finally found one who wanted to and we were. I respected King’s musical innovations. He knew how to make ole Lucille sing (that was his guitar). The Blues still speaks as a musical genre, even though there aren’t many singing this style anymore.
But perhaps the largest King whose memory lingers over the city is one named Martin. I mean, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King didn’t choose to live in Memphis. He was merely passing through, pausing long enough to spend some time in an incarnational way with some advocates of Civil Rights when his life ended on the balcony of a Memphis motel. King’s work resonated with many within the city. Just not the ones who held power.
I was a child when this event occurred. I don’t remember it vividly, but I do remember it in the way I remember other events of the day. The news came on, a bulletin or update was read (in those days people read the news, that’s all it was), and if our family wanted to discuss it, they would. If not, we would go on with our lives. I remember a small discussion around the issue of King’s death. I’m not sure what was said, but somehow I marked this event as a significant one, and was oddly shaped by it although I was part of a white, middle class family growing up in the Appalachian region.
There was only one person of color in my school, a bi-racial girl who lived across the highway from where I was raised, near a night club. We treated her as though she was one of us, mostly. I’m not sure how she would tell that tale, but we didn’t make a big deal over the difference in her appearance. It wouldn’t be until 8th grade when our school’s population would merge with 8th graders from three other distinct schools that we would meet more African American students. And in High School we would have exposure to teachers who were black.
Those were the days before “Black History Month” and a national holiday devoted to the memory of Dr. King. The legacy he left is one that proves that someone willing to speak up for justice can engender change in a whole nation, simply by articulating a dream. Even though he died defending his vision, and even though vestiges of the way things used to be still pop up in embarrassing ways from time to time, he spoke the truth to a powerful system, and today opportunities are better for people of all stripes. We live in a time that is still shaped by his work. Although not everyone has embraced a vision of racial reconciliation, there are many ways that progress has been made.
In one of my excursions through the city during my education at Memphis Theological Seminary, I arranged to visit the Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ, home of the late pastor and Bishop G. E. Patterson, a dynamic voice of the pulpit in Memphis’ inner city. His mega-church structure was built on the edge of a public housing area, one which his church helped to rehabilitate. The experience of going to church there was one of the high points of my life. I was in church over three hours and had no idea how much time had passed. From the music to the preaching to the fellowship among the gathered souls in that place, it was authentic worship. The Church of God in Christ is one of the larger denominations in America, and it is the church over which Bishop Patterson presided at that time. It was good to experience the exuberance of praise among a mostly black crowd, one in which I felt I stood out and felt conspicuous, not something I had felt many times in my life. The hospitality there is what I remember most. Everyone was welcome, and no one would be turned away. That’s how church should be. Everywhere.
I thought of these three kings of the city, and how much they had influenced the world, and how much their influence began in the church. Memphis Theological Seminary now holds a collection of the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In that same library is my completed doctoral project, not far from King’s works. While my project will probably never have much impact, I can be thankful that I was able to sojourn for a while in a place where kings have reigned. And I can hope and pray for a day when content of character will be more decisive in how we interact with one another.
Come, blessed day. Amen.