Martin Luther King, Jr Sunday Sharing

Wendy Dorsey

January 14, 2018

Good morning, 8th Day Faith Community.  I am a little embarrassed and humbled to be standing up here this morning - on the day we celebrate the birthday of a beloved leader of our country who has passed on before us, but who still inspires us to fight for the cause of equal justice for all, regardless of color, culture or creed.  When my Racial Justice and Healing Collective (Mission Group) decided to plan this worship, we had a list of ten illustrious African American men and women whom we know and whom we considered asking to preach at 8th Day.  There was hesitation about asking them to preach for 8th Day, however.

King spoke about White resistance to justice.  He noted how African Americans were putting in a tremendous collective effort to educate themselves on the realities of racism, but, he said, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance.  It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the White people of America believe they have so little to learn….White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap – …“ (P 560-61 A Testament of Hope). 

I know I’m still learning about White racism and what a barrier to progress it is on so many levels.

Then my dear mission group looked at me and said I needed to do it.  They said, “You White people need to preach to yourselves about racism.  You can’t always rely on us to do the dirty work!”  In the book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, Martin Luther King tells a story of seeing several thousand demonstrators waiting at the airport after the Montgomery March.  He said,

I was seeing a microcosm of the humankind of the future in this moment of luminous and genuine brotherhood.  But, [he goes on to say] these were the best of America, not all of America.  Elsewhere the commitment was shallower.  Conscience burned only dimly, and when atrocious behavior was curbed, the spirit settled easily into well-padded pockets of complacency.  Justice at the deepest level had but few stalwart champions.”

I hope that if Martin were to come to our community, he would not see us settled into well-padded pockets of complacency – but, instead, a microcosm of genuine brotherhood and sisterhood.

So, another person in the collective said to me, “Why don’t you tell your community why you are so passionate about the work of ending racism?  They need to know!   Tell them your story!”  So…whether you want to hear my story on Martin Luther King Sunday or not, I’m here to share more personally—rather than doing a formal sermon—about how and why I have followed the call to anti-racist work for many years now.  In doing so, I hope that in some small way I am honoring the work and legacy of Dr King.

On the table are two books with pictures of MLK on the covers.  The one is called The Radical King and shows a picture of a radical Martin with fist raised, giving one of his fiery speeches.  The other is a more peaceful picture of King and Rabbi Heschel linking arms in prayer during the Selma march, eyes closed; that book is about White Allies.  Although my story is not as dramatic and influential as many of the White allies in the book—and certainly even less consequential than the stories of countless Black activists who have fought for justice throughout our history in this country—I will share it as an example of what Paul talked about in his sermon last week: ordinary people following call, being committed over time.  Mine is an ordinary story about an ordinary person following a path led by God’s Spirit and beloved mentors along the way.  I will share my journey toward a vision for a world in which racism and prejudice are eradicated.

In thinking about doing this, I had two problems.  The first problem for me was, “Who really cares about my story?” a deeper question that springs from my upbringing in a religious environment: “It is an inconsequential story and selfish to promote myself!”  To this objection, I said to myself, I really like to hear the stories of individuals who are part of the church, because it gives a little window into why they are so passionate about different issues, and why they are here at 8th Day, like Paul did last Sunday.  Brene Brown, who wrote Daring Greatly, said we must be vulnerable to live wholeheartedly, and therefore we must do what we fear—share honestly our feelings.  This was, in fact, what my mission group asked me to do.  I am not so good at this, but I do hope my sharing comes from my heart as a gift to you, my beloved community.

The second question I asked was, “Where do I begin?” For this question, I had to answer, I must begin with my parents, who were missionaries in China with the Friends Ambulance Unit during World War II.  My mother, a nurse, and my father, an ambulance driver, were both conscientious objectors and met while on mission in China—similar to how some of the couples in this church met while on mission—most recently Crisely and Alfonzo who are part of the L’Arche community.  What witnesses they are!

In fact, when Alfonzo mentioned at the wedding that he and Crisely couldn’t think of three non-quirky people in 8th Day, I realized the reason why I feel so at home here.  We each have our own unique (and quirky) story to tell, but in those stories are threads of common themes.  We value our diverse experiences and we connect at the level of our common passion for justice and service to God and our neighbors.

I would like to start by sharing a poem which helps me think about the common theme in my life.  It’s called,                         

The Way It Is

There’s a thread that you follow.  It goes among
Things that change.  But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
Or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
William Stafford

This poem reminds me of a story from my childhood.  I loved the George MacDonald book The Princess and Curdie.  There is an image in the book of the princess and Curdie wandering through dark underground caves.  They find this silver thread and follow it up and up until they find the fairy godmother weaving in a castle turret.  The thread of my life is often hidden under the weft and warp of the cloth of my journey—often invisible—but still there.  I do think we each have a thread and that with God’s guidance we can follow it truly.  I will try to offer glimpses of the thread of my life which led me to become passionate about eliminating oppression, especially the oppression of racism.

Psalm 139 expresses for me the amazing way that we are led in our personal and collective journeys through life.  Somehow, even in the dark valleys, I have felt God ultimately guiding my life.  The threads of crossing boundaries, building community, exploring both the depths and the breadth of the spiritual life, and the search to promote justice, compassion and healing have woven together to make my life journey in the Spirit a rich, creative, challenging and fulfilling one.

Some incidents from childhood have a lasting influence on our outlook as adults.  Another story from early childhood which was memorable to me was a story from the Quaker collection The Friendly Story Caravan.  It was about an Indian raid somewhere in the West.  One family survived the raid because they left their latchstring out on the door handle—which allowed strangers to come into the home.  I think this is an image of being open to the other which impressed me as a child. 

When I was four, I had polio after an epidemic of the mumps.  I had to be quarantined in the hospital for a time, and I have a blank in my memory of that.  I do remember, however, my parents saying later that they were putting a fence around our yard to keep us kids in.  I thought, “I will never stay inside that fence!”  I believe my early childhood memory of being “incarcerated” in that hospital likely influenced my later instinct to protest oppression and strive for freedom.

The Bruderhof – Community, Oppression and Social Justice

When I was seven, our family moved to the Bruderhof, a Christian community of families who shared “everything in common” as described in the Early Christian communities in Acts.  One memory is when we very young children we were made to sit in the dark quietly for days pondering our sins – which I had no idea what they were!   As a teenager I remember thinking, “Why, if God made my brain, was it wrong to question things?” I remember once insisting that there was good in every person, and my father countering that there was a seed of evil in every person.  I began to realize at that point that here was a fundamental parting of the ways between my parents’ beliefs and mine. 

In high school, I read Albert Luthuli’s Let My People Go, and we teens made a play from Cry the Beloved Country, both about the South African struggle. 

So, as you can see from these examples, my framework of awareness of social justice issues was formed in my early experiences and became a solid foundation for when I eventually left the Bruderhof.

Even when I left the Bruderhof after obtaining an Associate degree in Nursery Education, I thought I would go back.  However, the thread did not lead that way.  It led instead to jobs in the Troy/Albany area in Catholic child development centers and a hospital, a serious consideration of whether to become a Catholic (even a nun—because they lived in community) and an association with a Catholic charismatic group. 

DC, Church of the Saviour, and Total Immersion

Finally, after prayers by a Catholic priest and the discovery of Betty O’s Call to Commitment, the thread led me to Washington DC at the age of 25, to join the Church of the Saviour, which was born the same year as me!   There I enrolled in the predominantly Black Federal City College to complete an Early Childhood degree, worked with mostly Black children in Head Start, participated in a Potters House Friday Night Mission Group, and met my future husband, Nick Patterson, in a group house associated with ROMAH.  The latter, a pre-courser of Manna, stood for Rehabilitation of Men and Housing. 

My husband to be was Black, twice my age, a recovering alcoholic, and a returning citizen.  In roaming the paths of Rock Creek Park with him I found something I had not experienced in my life until then: a profound experience of unconditional love.  Sharing stories of our lives—mine of the Bruderhof and his of his experiences of oppression living as a Black man in this country—we fell in love and married after three years.  Both my education as a student at Federal City College and as a partner of an African American with a vastly different life experience, helped me understand racism up close.  I read many books on racism.  Later, I realized that we had married eight years after the miscegenation laws had been declared unconstitutional in the Loving vs VA case, and finally taken off the books in VA.  We had a son, Reuben, and I remember people then saying that it was unfair to bring a biracial child into the world when racism was still so rampant.  My attitude was that we would change the world so children of all colors were welcome!   I didn’t realize then how entrenched racism was—and still is—in the very fabric of our country.  Little did I know that, twenty years later, when we adopted Black Brazilian children, they, too, would experience discrimination and oppression growing up in America.

Nick died five years later in 1980.  I had known David Dorsey from the Servant Community where I had lived for a time in 1973.  We reconnected in spring of 1983 and were married in October 1984. 

Adoption and Racism

We decided to adopt Black or Biracial children, since we already had Reuben, who was five then.  After one agency folded and another stopped receiving children, we heard about LIMIAR, which worked with children with disabilities and sibling groups who were in Brazilian orphanages.  They worked with an adoption agency here and we were able to choose a sibling group—and finally adopt them two years later. 

Racism influences the adoption business as well.  We were unable to adopt Black children here, due to rules that White parents couldn’t adopt Black kids.  Even when my first husband and I looked into adoption, we were told they would match us with a light-skinned child since we were an interracial couple!   The children coming from Brazil were mostly dark-skinned because the Brazilians wanted the White children!   Oh, what a messed-up world we live in!   We couldn’t adopt kids in this area—although there were thousands of kids in foster homes—because of racist attitudes.

Anti-Racism Trainings

In the mid 70’s the Church of the Saviour engaged in a weekend racism training.  I don’t remember too much about that, except that a white family who had adopted some black kids attended – and then left.  There were some hard feelings after that weekend, and I don’t remember hearing much about what happened or why people were upset, but there was little if any follow-up.  In the early 2000s Dottie Bocksteigel, Erin Batres, Kate Lasso and I started the Welcoming Hearts Mission Group.  Erin and Kate were married to Hispanic men, Dottie was of course wanting to better include our L’Arche community members, and I was most interested in how 8th Day operated as a multi-racial church.  We did sermons and led some workshops and other events, such as the Camp Meeting a Wellspring.  We had some connection with the Spiritual Group #4 focused on racism. 

I preached a few sermons on racism.  One in 2006 was based on Hitchcock’s Lifting the White Veil and Barndt’s Dismantling Racism, on the need to de-center Whiteness and look at our structural racism in order to become truly multicultural and inclusive.  In 2008 I did a sermon on becoming a multicultural church, and shared some of my reasons for “Why I believe 8th Day is destined to become a Multicultural Church” including personal, biblical and the roots of 8th Day culture. 

In June of 2014, a sermon on Pentecost was based on Jesus’ boundary-breaking ways of operating and asked us to think about how we may need new wineskins to become more welcoming to diverse people.  My recommendation then was that 8th Day should become an anti-racist church. 

Barndt says in Becoming an Anti-Racist Church

we are still a very long way from authentic multiculturalism….Cultural racism, the domination of one racially defined culture over others – stands alongside individual racism and institutionalized racism as the third manifestation of the systemic racism that overpowers us and prevents us from becoming the church that God intends us to be.

At that time I said I was recommitting to 8th Day because of “my passion for helping this community to become an anti-racist church.” I wanted to help 8th Day get to the place where

our structures and processes for membership and leadership in the church are no longer dominated by White power and White cultural ways of doing things….I want to see a Beloved Community in which all persons, regardless of their race, economic status, ability, or gender orientation find a welcoming home and a place to offer their unique gifts and leadership.

I’m not sure we are any further along this road than we were then.  We still do have a long way to go, especially in the areas of power and leadership of the church.

Then, after 8th Day studied Lifting the White Veil, The New Jim Crow and Witnessing Whiteness, Dawn was attending 8th Day, and she and I started talking about starting a mission group.  In October of 2012 we met with Harold Vines and shortly thereafter, Steve and Karen Mohr and Mike Smith formed the Racial Justice and Healing group.  In the spring of 2013, we, along with other members of Friends of Jesus and Sandra and Trish of Seekers, attended the Damascus Road Anti-Racism Training in Philadelphia.  David and I stayed with a wonderful Mennonite couple along with Terry Thompson and Mike Hopkins and we got to know them a bit.  At the end of the training, we worked together to figure out the stages of an anti-racist church.  That was the beginning of a collaboration between members of Friends of Jesus, 8th Day, and Seekers as we worked on the Damascus Road team to address racism in the Church of the Saviour churches.  Currently, our Racial Justice and Healing Collective is working on “Race Face to Face” discussions to bring to churches and other groups.  We are also starting a new initiative, the People’s Justice Center of DC which is planning to do community organizing with youth in this neighborhood.

In Martin Luther King’s writing “Where Do We Go From Here?” he expresses a profound disappointment in the lack of progress on justice and equality.  He says,

Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook.  He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough.  Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash. 

He talks about how there are committed Whites who genuinely want equality,

But they are balanced at the other end of the pole by the un-regenerated segregationists who have declared that democracy is not worth having if it involves equality.  The segregationist goal is the total reversal of all reforms, with reestablishment of naked oppression and if need be a native form of fascism.”

Wow!   Does this ever sound like 50 years later in our Trump era with White Nationalism unabashedly rising to public view!

The great majority of Americans are suspended between these opposing attitudes.  They are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.

The persistence of racism in depth and the dawning awareness that Negro demands will necessitate structural changes in society have generated a new phase of white resistance in North and South.  Based on the cruel judgment that Negroes have come far enough, there is a strong mood to bring the civil rights movement to a halt or reduce it to a crawl.  Negro demands that yesterday evoked admiration and support, today – to many – have become tiresome, unwarranted and a disturbance to the enjoyment of life.  Cries of Black Power and riots are not the causes of white resistance, they are consequences of it.

The inevitable counterrevolution that succeeds every period of progress is taking place.  [He then goes on to say,] A final victory is an accumulation of many short-term encounters.  To lightly dismiss a success because it does not usher in a complete order of justice is to fail to comprehend the process of achieving full victory.

In one way MLK expresses the frustration of a long journey and fight against racism and the experience of backlash whenever there is progress made.  On the other hand, MLK also expresses his deep and abiding faith that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice in the end.  On the one hand his words are astoundingly accurate for our time 50 years later – which could be seen as immensely discouraging.  On the other hand, because his words are so timeless, we, too, can take heart that we are part of that long arc of the moral universe.

Our scripture today from Ephesians says that Christ….

has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.  He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross….In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

My prayer is that the words Paul speaks to Gentile and Jew as the early Christians expand their mission, will be true for us as well as we seek to become that Beloved Community that Martin Luther King so eloquently envisioned.  We owe it to him—and to our commitment to follow Jesus—to not give up the struggle until it is won.