This is the eighth in a series on My Personal Faith Journey.
On the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday on January 17, 2011, it is a time to remember and a time to rekindle his dreams.
I am also reminded of my faith journey and a freedom I experienced as a young boy.
Dr. King has always been one of my heroes which may seem odd. But it’s true.
When I was born on July 9, 1955, my father was a Baptist pastor in Selma, AL.
A few months later on Thursday, December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to white people on a city bus in Montgomery, AL, which was a local law at the time. For over a year, Dr. King helped to organize the black community to refuse to ride the buses (the primary paying customers) until December 20, 1956, when a federal ruling took effect saying that the law was unconstitutional.
We moved to Montgomery in 1960 when my father, Lewis Marler, became pastor of Ridgecrest Baptist Church (until 1970) on a street that is now named Rosa Parks Blvd, just four miles from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Dr. King served as pastor.
These were my “growing up years” of kindergarten through the ninth grade. They were also growing up times for many adults in Alabama as well as in U.S. history for the civil rights of all people.
My father and mother talked to me about Dr. King’s ministry in kind, compassionate language which was in stark contrast to what I heard in our white community. I remember deacons in our church who would talk about that “trouble-maker King” as they smoked their cigarettes under the big oak tree after Sunday School.
But I never heard that kind of attitude in our home. My parents talked about how faith and behavior went together. What we said and how we treated others, mattered.
For me personally, the Civil Rights movement also became the time that my personal faith journey was changing.
In 1963 I made what Baptists called “a profession of my faith” in church. That is to say, I walked down the aisle after my father preached one Sunday and fell into my daddy’s arms and said, “I want to accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.” I was eight years old.
Prior to this action, I talked with my mother the week before about what this decision meant. She wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing since I was so young. So, she asked me to talk with my father on Sunday in his office like most children did in our church who were considering this big faith decision.
I remember walking into my father’s office. We sat down in two chairs in front of his desk and he said, “Malcolm, tell me about what you are thinking about doing.” Of course, my mother had filled him in about our conversation earlier. As we talked, he asked a few questions. He concluded by saying, “This is your decision. You are the only one who can make it. You will know when it is right for you. Let’s pray about it together.” He put his arms around me and prayed that God would lead me throughout all of my life.
On that Sunday, I discovered a new kind of personal freedom in the heart of the Civil Rights movement. My personal freedom was the realization that my personal sins could be forgiven. I had the realization in my heart that God loved me and would always love me and be with me, no matter what. It was a beginning.
It would be years later before I realized that “God loves everyone and that we are all equal” was not everyone’s experience who lived in my community, or in the world.
Dr. King’s words in his freedom speech meant something different at the time to this eight year old, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Or was it so different after all? We are all called to be free. Free to love, and free to ask for forgiveness when we fall short.
We are called to help others find that freedom.