Bishop Alfred Norris preaches at a joint service at St. Paul United Methodist Church. Credit: Courtesy / Rev. Gavin Rogers

“… All life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be … This is the inter-related structure of reality.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

San Antonio is a diverse and beautiful city, and its tapestry, history, and differences make it a special place in which to live. Our annual Martin Luther King Jr. march reminds us of the importance of diversity in a society that often shuns people who are perceived as different.

Throughout his life, King challenged Americans and people all over the world to serve others above themselves while breaking down boundaries of race, culture, and life experience.

King’s teachings included caring for and treating fairly the city workers who often go unnoticed – the women and men who build and fix our roads, protect our neighborhoods, take out our trash, drive our buses, and care for our children, seniors, and sick.

His ministry reminds us how often we forget to treat others as ourselves, and his sermons disturb us when we are distracted by self-interest and our dreams become too small.

San Antonians have a lot of work to do when it comes to honoring diversity, bridging the gaps of inequality and racism, and being good stewards to all people living in our city. It begins with our neighbors across our street and extends to the neighbors we often forget about – the homeless, strangers, single parents, veterans, and migrants.

On Sunday, St. Paul United Methodist Church and Travis Park United Methodist Church united in a combined worship service to celebrate Human Relations Day and King’s legacy.

Bishop Alfred Norris, of Atlanta, delivered a powerful sermon reflecting on the more uncomfortable aspects of King’s ministry, which stand in contrast to the more congenial versions commonly displayed today.

Norris is credited with helping desegregate the racially divided Methodist Church to form what is today known as the United Methodist Church. He attended seminary with King’s younger brother, A.D. King, and participated in the civil rights movement.

His sermon, transcribed below, served as a reminder to all that fulfilling King’s dream requires active involvement in our communities, sacrifice, and compassion – concepts that, when put into action, are often uncomfortable and challenging, but worthwhile.

“The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on Jan. 15, 1929. His father and maternal grandfather were Baptist ministers, as he later became also.

By any standard of measurement, Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most outstanding citizens and leaders our nation has produced. He was a man of deep faith, undaunted courage, and supreme optimism. He transcended restrictive labels or designations of linguistics, wordsmiths, and historians. He was neither perfect nor divine. He was an ordinary man who made extraordinary contributions to the human condition. He understood, perhaps as well as anyone in the 20th century, that unless humans learn to live together in community, they, or we, will perish as fools.

Those who were privileged to meet him personally know of the ease and warmth with which he conversed and related to people. He was both humane and urbane, which in the eyes of some is an impossible combination. He had the uncanny ability to make little people feel big and big people feel small. Of course, those are labels he fought hard to discredit and dismantle. He accorded equal value to every person, and the poor – the masses – heard him gladly.

A southerner by birth, King saw, heard, and experienced the harsh realities of racial discrimination and segregation. And even as a young boy, he questioned the policies, practices, and laws that subjugated an entire racial/ethnic group to second-class citizenship.

In every age, God raises up persons who have the ability to articulate a vision and hope that excite and inspire large numbers of people to reach for something better, purer, and more in keeping with God’s will for creation. I believe Dr. King was such a person. He was articulate, charismatic, visionary, and prophetic.

I have seen listings of hundreds of the greatest personalities in history categorized according to their professional and vocational disciplines. In those listings, King is categorized in the area of political or social action. How shameful! How disgustingly inaccurate! Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that there is something dirty or immoral about politics. We are political animals. But King was not a politician, and he was more than a social activist.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a prophet. Prophets pronounce the judgment of God on politics, government, businesses, labor, education, some religious practices, military engagement, and any other sphere of human endeavor. Prophets are not pawns of any system. They cannot be bought. Prophets are fearless. They seek justice for all God’s children. Prophets speak to power as Moses spoke to Pharaoh. They remind the powerful that their power is not to be used to enslave people, but to liberate people. King was a prophet for excellence.

Prophets look beyond the “isness” of existence to the “oughtness.” This is what is, but if what is is causing an entire generation or group to suffer indignities and insults and social economies and educational deprivation, then what is is not in keeping with that ought to be according to the oracles and will of God. And anyone who assumes that because they possess a lot of things that can own people cannot be considered a righteous person. For people were created to be loved and things created to be used. When people are used as things are loved, then people are seen as less important than things. When people are considered property, they are perceived as not having any rights. Prophets speak against tyranny in any form, and no injustice is beyond their scope of concern and redress.

Our nation, by any standard of measurement, is a great and prosperous one. We can boast of better schools, more affluent citizens, a healthier economy, a more stable government, more technology, a better-prepared military, better housing, etc. But we have the resources and the potential to be much better and stronger. We are still guilty of denying so much to so many because of their race or gender. We have amassed an abundance of things, but the soul of our nation is hollow. We are becoming to doubt and question some of the reasons for our past gains in human relations, to the extent that progress is beginning to be replaced with retrogressive motives and actions.

It is totally absurd to think that a person with no job, no education, no dignity, no respect, and no hope can be satisfied and productive in this or any society. And it is difficult to erase hundreds of years of inequality and bigotry without providing some palliatives and alternatives to level the playing field. And if we continue to dismantle programs and discourage people and deter progress, the playing field will be more uneven. When everyone contributes and everyone shares the benefits that result from their contributions, then everyone is seen as a neighbor to everyone else and the beloved community comes into being.

Is this not what Dr. King envisioned? Is it not what Jesus had in mind when he described the kingdom of God?

When Dr. King was assassinated, he was in Memphis in the interest of securing increased wages and better working conditions for garbage workers. Even those who work in filth and stench deserve to be paid a living wage and treated with dignity and respect. Without this labor, the entire populace would wallow in dirt and squalor. I think it is safe to assume that Dr. King was not killed because he was helping sanitation workers. He was killed because he was challenging a smorgasbord of injustices in American life, and the enthronement of certain persons and policies was being threatened.

The cumulative effect of those challenges was being felt by those whose kingdoms were of this world, and many ways antithetical to the kingdom of God.”

Bishop Alfred Norris

Bishop Alfred L. Norris Sr., is a retired Bishop of The United Methodist Church.

Rev. Gavin Rogers

Rev. Gavin Rogers is the associate pastor at Travis Park United Methodist Church and the founder of the interfaith community group Pub Theology San Antonio. He is a native Texan and is a graduate of The...

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