Do we suffer together?

Quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Graphic art by Daniel James Rarela.

Quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
Graphic art by Daniel James Rarela.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and a lot of bad history will inevitably be going around the news and social media. Or perhaps a lot of well-meaning white people will call for a day of unity. Unity is good principle to have in the abstract. All people should understand that we hold to a common bond as members of the same species. Theologically, we were all created by the same creator. The apostle Paul also deeply cared about unity of the church. In one passage he memorably describes the church as the “body of Christ” and continues to use this image of the body throughout an extended portion of 1 Corinthians. In one portion, Paul writes “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it” (1Corinthians 12:26a, CEB). So, at least one thing that Paul says about the church, is that we suffer together.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was clear though, the white church was not feeling the pain and suffering of the black community. As a white clergyperson in a majority white church, it stings to realize that we have not lived up to the call of the church to be united in suffering together.

Over the last few years, every MLK day the same images seem to keep popping up. One graphic designer created a series of images to go with quotes from “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” Often when we imagine MLK at his apex: on the steps of the Lincoln Monument describing his dream. We adore the way he idealistically describes what the U.S. could be. Much less often do we dig in to the letter he wrote to white moderate clergy in Alabama.

In an interview with Mic, Daniel James Rarela says, "As a graphic designer, I wanted to shatter this false image of a Martin Luther King who everyone loved, never got arrested, was universally popular and made zero privileged people feel uncomfortable or angry enough to want to kill him." MLK faced lots of vitriol, but what is often forgotten is the white mainline church that passively agreed with MLK but disagreed with his actions or refused to act.

Often on MLK Day we hear calls for learning. Learn the history. Wake up to the social injustices that are around you. This is a good idea. But is it enough? What if we in the white church went beyond that and instead went to solidarity. What if we began to feel the hurt of the black community and stood next to them. What if we deeply felt kinship bonds and so would do anything to stop the injustices of the world?

Talking with a friend who is a black woman and deeply involved in the movement for black lives, she asked me if that was really that important. She asked if it was true that white people won’t do anything until they feel a sense of solidarity and pain? She began to explain that for black and brown people, there is already a strong sense of belonging to each other and people feel in solidarity without having to do the work of developing friendships and family bonds. It became clear that the white church in particular struggles because we don’t have enough social connection to black and brown communities to even feel the pain.

In the East End, the struggle is similar to the majority black communities in Houston. Beyond all the problems of poverty, there is deep fear of loss. A worry that the community will be changed and the residents who have lived there for generations will be displaced and broken off from the community that has given them life. The need in the East End is to band together. To be overtaken for love for our community and all those who reside in it. We need to be in solidarity to face the challenges of the neighborhood. Only then will we truly fulfill the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.