It was summer. It was Maine. It was Sunday. So my dad, a U. S. army reservist on a two-week hitch in the small town of Bangor, decided to do what he always did on Sundays. He went to church.
He didn't know anybody in the small congregation. As a black man, he didn't expect the few churchgoers to fall over themselves to welcome him. But this was the Sixties. This was Maine. And this was Sunday. So the last thing he expected is what happened.
After the church service—with its hymns and praying and preaching—my father was followed from the church to the parking lot by a knot of agitated men, including the preacher.
Were they following him to invite him back?
Just the opposite. Don't come back, they told my dad.
Ignoring his military uniform, his spit-polish style, his quiet and reserved nature—and his lifetime love for the Lord—they focused instead on his skin color. That was enough, in fact, for these church-going men to look beyond their own Christian values, such as they were, and turn my dad into a fearsome enemy.
"So don't come back," they told my dad. And they didn't mince words. Outnumbered, my dad didn't challenge them.
Soon enough his reservist hitch was over, and dad returned home to the bosom of our family. Then the story went into our family's archival memory: a Christian black man being threatened by Christian white men who warned him never return to "their" church. An odd circumstance, indeed.
Maine has a solid anti-slavery, pro-equality history. Of all places, this little dust-up shouldn't have happened there. And yet it did.
It's one reason why today's national celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. feels so significant. For all the ungodly ways we in America have behaved in our race relations, we still find ourselves on this day officially called to honor, through Dr. King, our ability as a nation to become bigger and better. Maybe even godly.
Dr. King must have understood our potential as a nation when he declared, in the face of unthinkable hatred, "I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear."
It's one of the less lofty of the many memorable statements Dr. King made. The words of the quote are simple and plain. But such simple words get at the heart of the reason why today's holiday is so important. It's a day that reminds us that love is something to stick with—even in moments when we might instead feel like balling up our fists to fight.
This day says don't fight. Instead, just stick with love.
Love is illogical. All love. Romantic love. Parental love. Friendship love. Marital love. Neighborly love. National love. Cross-cultural love. We don't love in any of these circumstances because it's easy. We love, says this day, because that's what God says we must do.
So love your enemies, Jesus said. Do mercy. Let this light called love shine. Even when it's not easy. Then others will see God because we're loving like him. In many ways we honor not the man, but the God whose teachings the man sought to promote.
This MLK Day won't erase every painful racial memory still alive in any hurting heart. It won't resolve any racial tension still brewing in any wounded American neighborhood, workplace, or town. It won't transform any one service project into an ultimate solution.
The day offers, however, a reason to pause and reflect on who we can be when we're being better. Being bigger. Being more. Being like Christ.
In those times, we're not afraid of people who are different. We're not controlling or possessive or fearful. We're not standing in a church parking lot acting as though we don't know the One on whose blood our church was founded.
On this day, instead, we remember that we can change. Not in one day. Or because of one man. This year we remember that we can evolve. Then the worst of our past fades. The best of who we can be emerges. And the Son comes out. So rise and shine. On today, let's go love.
Patricia Raybon is a TCW regular contributor and author of My First White Friend and The One Year: God's Great Blessings devotional. www.patriciaraybon.com.
For more TCW resources on this topic, read about how to teach kids about racial reconciliation in TCW article "Teaching Kids About Race;" about an inspiring couple working to build bridges of reconciliation in their neighborhood in "The Color of Love;" advice for building bridges in the church in "Crossing the Divide;" and about "The Color of Friendship" at this link.