Monday, May 27, 2024

How I Met Your Grandmother

So, my grandchild, you want to know how I ended up marrying such a beautiful, intelligent, loving, caring woman, when I am… well, me. I’ll tell you the story.

Once upon a time, I went to Northwestern University. What I did not know was that your grandmother was there at the same time. We never met there. However, I did meet Phil, with whom I started a band, and who became my roommate in junior year. While we were at college, we went to parties, and at one party, I met her sister Mary Beth Cregier, whom I learned Phil liked. Nothing much came of that then, but several years after graduating (it was October 17, 1987), we were at the Beaumont, a bar in Chicago. Phil was ready to leave but I wanted to hang around a bit longer. Some minutes later, I nudged Phil and said “Don't look now, but Mary Beth Cregier” is here. I pronounced it Cree-ger, only learning later that it rhymes with Kier (which rhymes with beer), like “Creh-geer”. Mary Beth was there with her other sister Donna. I had not heard the term “wingman” before, but that's what I was doing. I tried to keep Donna entertained, who at the time was a gorgeous model and was sporting that bored, unimpressed look that so many beautiful women show when they are not interested. Phil and Mary Beth talked about her career in commercial photography, and his career trading options at the CBOE. Through some idea he had about making a calendar of the girls of the CBOE, he eventually started dating Mary Beth. I did not see Donna again for a long time. 

In the meantime, I dated some other women. At some point, Mary Beth tried to fix me up with a friend of hers. She, her friend, Phil, and I had a double date dinner. But we weren't really a match.

Phil and Mary Beth were a match and continued to date. When I was between girlfriends, I would be a third wheel out with them. Mary Beth would try to get me interested in her sister Cathleen. Sometimes it was a funny story. Sometimes it was how we were similar, or how I’d like her. But I wasn't very eager for another blind date. 

After another failed relationship, I was living in Chicago, on Broadway at Wellington, and decided to have a party. 

I invited friends, band members, and co-workers from Chicago and Evanston. I thought, here's my opportunity to meet Cathleen in a less pressured blind non-date situation. It was May 14th, 1988. She was gorgeous, which I don’t remember being told before. It should have been obvious because her sisters Mary Beth and Donna were too. Long, naturally curly reddish-brown hair, bright blue eyes, and a beautiful face accented by an effortless smile. What we talked about, I can't recall. She did later tell me that my long hair and interesting outfit made an impression. I was still in a rock band, so I had some interesting clothes. Anyway, the next thing that happened was a double date with Phil, me, and the sisters Mary Beth and Cathleen at the Charleston bar in Chicago.

When we met, I was working in Evanston as a typographer, reverse commuting via El train (with no car or place to park it). I was in a band named Friendly Fire. Cathleen had a Psychology degree from Northwestern, had worked as an ER unit clerk and a dispatcher at Regional Emergency Dispatch, then went to Rush University to get a Nursing degree. She was working as an RN at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center, commuting in her used Dodge Aries K Car. (She would eventually get a Masters, then a Doctorate in Nursing, becoming a Nurse Practitioner specializing in Geriatrics.) 

Anyway, that first date went well, so we had some one-on-one dates, such as dinner at No Hana or Shiroi Hana. We went to movies. We had dinner with Mary Beth and Phil. My cousin Aaron was in Chicago, so we ate at The Yugo Inn and went to Max Tavern. Later in June, she took a longed-planned vacation to Ireland with her parents. For that, I made her a mix tape to miss me by, then I missed her for nine days. 

On my calendar for July 3, 1988, I wrote "Navy Pier" and "Love". We went for the fireworks. The next day, we went to Grant Park for a picnic with my cousin Aaron and Cathleen's sister Donna. Here we are:

Kier & Cathleen, July 4, 1988

By her birthday, July 12 (less than two months after meeting), she was ready for me to meet her parents. We went to their home in Harwood Heights for a birthday party. I don’t remember much about it, so it wasn’t a disaster. 

Sometimes I found myself looking for flaws in her beauty to try to explain why she was with me. Eventually, I learned that stunningly beautiful women attract narcissists and pathological liars, and otherwise normal men who will lie to impress someone they feel is out of their league. I was apparently not one of those, except for the out-of-their-league part. Or as my friend Neil, who was my roommate at NU freshman and sophomore year, said later about why our respective wives are with us, “because most men are a-holes.”

In time, I found myself writing “The Way I Do,” a love song for Cathleen. You can hear it on the Internet, assuming the website is still there. Just in case, here are some of the lyrics:

Is this feeling an illusory notion?
Do all my traumas fade away?
But they're the building blocks of my emotions
The past is always here to stay

The way I love you
I love you the way I do

Finally, an equilibrium of desire
An ideal intersection of our space
A symmetry in what we require 
Emotional progress at a logical pace

The last known romantic in a world full of cynics
Where everyone survives on his own
You're never more alone than when you've been together
You're never more together than when you've been alone

Okay, it's not a Shakespearean sonnet. I was in my twenties. One year later I wrote another song for Cathleen called "One Year Later," followed over the years by "I Still Need You," "Far Above Rubies," "Silver Lining," and the forthcoming "Nothing Can Separate Us." We even wrote songs together, such as “Healer of Our Hearts” and “Hope for You All.”

After we had declared our love for each other, I wondered if we should marry. I was somewhat leery because my parents had divorced. I mentioned that to my mother, and she said not to let that sway me, that anyway they had almost 20 years good years, plus three wonderful children to show for it. “Besides,” she said, “you’re not going to do better than her.” Neil echoed that sentiment. “You’re not going to meet anyone better who gives you the time of day.” 

Later I would marvel at how we had not met at Northwestern. Were we fated to meet? Was I always looking for her, but didn’t know it? Such is the romantic thinking of young lovers. 

So, I proposed to her in May of 1989, a year after we met. I knew she would say yes because we had already discussed who we would invite to a wedding if we got married. And planned the restaurant where I would propose. And the engagement ring. We then planned the wedding for the following year, on May 27, 1990. By the time of our rehearsal dinner, Neil said he had thought Cathleen was “one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, but that’s the least of her qualities.” We were wed in Chicago at the 2nd Unitarian Church on Barry Avenue, by a Catholic priest and a Unitarian minister. We had a wonderful two-week honeymoon in California: Half Moon Bay, San Francisco, Napa Valley, Yosemite National Park, and visiting my father Barry, his wife Yvonne, and my half-brother Brendan in Nevada City. 


Conor was born in 1992 and Liam in 1996. Your parents know the rest. 

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Fred (Mister) Rogers, Christian

Christianity seems like a hard sell these days. Some of its most visible spokespeople are blowhards, narcissists, charlatans, or criminals. As a Christian, I would like to present some alternative examples of Christians for your consideration. My first essay was about Martin Luther King, Jr. My second is about Fred Rogers, host of Mister Rogers Neighborhood…

Fred Rogers commemorative stamp unveiled on March 23, 2018.

Fred Rogers commemorative stamp unveiled on March 23, 2018.

It might seem obvious that Fred Rogers was a Christian if you know that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. But if he was a Christian, wasn’t he hiding his light under a basket (Matthew 5:14-16)? Shouldn’t he have been evangelizing his faith?

I would say that Rogers was evangelizing, implicitly in his television show, but also personally to everyone he met. He ministered to interviewers, including Tom Junod, Tim Madigan, and Amy Hollingsworth. He cared for the spiritual needs of colleagues, musicians, and children and others that he met on the street, in restaurants, and elsewhere.

In fact, I would say that Rogers modeled Christ in his compassion for everyone he met.

The Basics

Fred McFeely Rogers was born to one of the richest families in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in 1928. Due to the difficulty of his birth, his parents did not have another child until adopting Elaine (“Laney”) as Fred’s sister when he was 11. His parents employed at various times, a chauffeur/butler, and a cook/maid. His mother Nancy was very active in church, helping the poor in the community, and in local philanthropy. Young Fred was “proud of his mother’s good works, and at the earliest age he shared the family devotion to the Presbyterian Church.” (King, p.22)

A formative experience in his early school years was being chased by bullies yelling “Fat Freddy!” Saved by a kindly neighbor, Fred said later that “the advice I got from the grown-ups was, ‘Just let on you don’t care, then nobody will bother you.’” Fred never accepted the advice that pretending not to care would work. (King, p.31) As an emotional outlet, he played piano and used puppets to work out conflict. He would put on shows for family and neighbors.

In high school, some thought of him as “a bit of a sissy” (King, p.32), until star athlete Jim Stumbaugh vouched that Fred was “OK.” Fred had, at his mother’s suggestion, taken Jim’s homework to him when he was hospitalized with a football injury. They got to know each other and see the substantial people behind the stereotypes.

Rogers started college at Dartmouth but transferred to Rollins College in Florida to pursue a music composition degree. He was greeted there by Joanne Byrd and friends, fitting in with the music students in a way he didn’t at Dartmouth. Joanne and he shared a sense of humor, and they dated each other some, but she graduated a year earlier and pursued a Master’s Degree at Florida State.

“I went home my senior year for a vacation in Latrobe, and I saw this new thing called television,” said Fred years later. “And I saw people dressed in some kind of costumes, literally throwing pies in each other’s faces. I was astounded at that.” Rogers understood the extraordinary power of the medium, even as others saw it merely as a diversion, and he understood its potential for education, perhaps more fully than anyone else at the time. (King, p. 66)

Fred had planned to tell his parents that he wanted to go to Seminary, but instead decided to move to New York city where he found a job at NBC based on his music degree, and with the help of his father’s connections. He was on the ground floor of the nascent medium, working hands-on as a gopher, making connections. In 1952, Fred proposed to Joanne by letter, flying to Florida to seal the deal. They were married that year.

In 1953, Rogers jumped at the chance to work on educational television on the newly established Pittsburgh public television station, WQED, 40 miles from Latrobe.  He soon became program manager there.

“I was just at the right place at the very right time,” Rogers later recalled. “I knew that the decision to leave New York and to come to Pittsburgh and launch in this place nobody had ever heard of was the correct one for me. It gave me a chance to use all the talents that I had ever been given. You know, I loved children, I loved drama, I loved music, I loved whimsy, I loved puppetry.” (King, p.92)

From 1954 to 1961, Fred Rogers and Josie Carey hosted The Children’s Corner on WQED. In 1955, while working full-time on the show, he enrolled part-time at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, earning a Master of Divinity in 1963. At first, the Pittsburgh Presbytery wanted to ordain Rogers as a minister to follow a traditional path to a pastorship in a church. But Bill Barker, another pastor who saw the potential of Rogers’ TV calling, told them:

Look, here’s an individual who has his pulpit proudly in front of a TV camera. His congregation are little people from the ages of about two or three on up to about seven or eight. And this is a whole congregation of hundreds of thousands if not millions of kids, and this is a man who has been authentically called by the Lord as much as any of you guys sitting out there. (King, p. 124)

Fred and Joanne had two children: James in 1959, and John in 1961. They all moved to Toronto in the summer of 1961, staying until the summer of 1964, for Rogers to host the new MisteRogers show on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). From late 1964 to spring of 1966, MisteRogers aired on WTAE, Pittsburgh’s commercial ABC affiliate. From late 1966 to spring of 1967, it was on the Eastern Educational Network (the EEN, a precursor to PBS). Finally, in 1968, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted nationally on what would soon become PBS, airing 895 new episodes with Fred Rogers until 2001. Fred Rogers died in 2003.

Always Ministering

Rogers had left The Children’s Corner in 1961 to complete his M.Div, then was ordained with a special television ministry. However, the church declined to fund this endeavor, so Rogers had to find another avenue. He did film a special episode of The Children’s Corner for the church with co-host Josie Carey in 1960, titled “Sunday on the Children’s Corner.” This might have been what a church-sponsored series would look like, with its more pointed Christian messages. (Tuttle, p. 74) However, the trade-off would have been a smaller, religious audience confined to the church versus a wider, inclusive audience. Preaching to the choir versus subtle teaching without a religious overtone. As it was, the former was not an option.

Television reporter Bob Faw said, “The real Mister Rogers never preached, [never] even mentioned God [on his show]. He never had to.” (Hollingsworth, p. xxv)

While his on-air ministry may have been more subtle, his personal ministry was more direct. Fred Rogers had a unique capacity for relationship, what Esquire magazine writer Tom Junod once called "a fearlessness, an unashamed insistence on intimacy." (Madigan, p. 6) Rogers told Tom Junod “I’ve just met you, but I’m invested in who you are and who you will be, and I can’t help it.” (Junod, Esquire, p. 177)

Author and Rogers interviewer Tim Madigan tells Shea Tuttle:

In the first telephone call, at the end of an hour, a fairly long time for a celebrity to be talking to a reporter, he said to me - and it was a really amazing interview - but he said to me, “Tim, do you know what the most important thing in my life is right now?” And I said, “Well, Mr. Rogers, we just met. How could I possibly know that?” And he said, “Speaking to Mr. Tim Madigan on the telephone.” ... “He embodied the sacred presence from the moment he woke up in the morning until the time he went to sleep at night.” (Madigan, quoted in Tuttle, p. 33)

Rogers was especially concerned with ministering to children. For example, once while dining out with Joanne and a colleague, a little boy appeared at the table, his head just below the tabletop at Fred’s side. Fred looked down. “My dog died,” said the boy, simply, and in an instant Rogers was kneeling on the floor with the boy talking about pets and death and a little child’s struggle to understand. (King, p. 180)

Famed musician and guest on the show, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, said of Rogers “He never talks down to kids. It’s a relationship that’s based on love and respect, with boundaries…. I think Mister Rogers ‘gets it’ by creating the safe place on television, to actually make sure that the unsafe feelings that one has, well, let’s say, in exploring music or in exploring life, [are] in context of something that is supported, that is as basic as—well, the most precious thing, unconditional love.” (King, p. 283)

Another famous musician, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis grew up watching Fed Rogers’ show. “He was love” says Marsalis. (The Bible says in 1John 4:8, “God is love.”) “You thought that the show was not real, you know, ‘just a show. He’s not actually like that.’… Then when I met him… [as a guest on the show] it was an unbelievable pleasure to see that he was exactly as he was on the TV show. He was patient, calm, generous.” (King, p. 275)

Rogers’ appearances—predictably mobbed by fans—suffered logistically from the amount of time he felt compelled to give each child. (King, p. 289) This brings to mind Matthew 19:13-14, where people brought children to Jesus so that he would lay his hands on them and pray, “and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

King opens his biography of Rogers with this story:

In 1985, Rogers said he wanted no children to be present when he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Rogers knew that if there were children in the studio audience, he wouldn’t focus on Winfrey’s questions, he wouldn’t pay heed to her legion of viewers, and he wouldn’t convey the great importance of his work. The children and their needs would come first. But he found the audience composed almost entirely of families, mainly very young children with their mothers. Winfrey’s staff had decided that it would be fun to have him take questions from the audience. As soon as the children started to ask him questions directly, he seemed to get lost in their world, slowing his responses to their pace, and even hunching in his chair as if to insinuate himself down to their level. In the audience, Winfrey leaned down with her microphone to ask a little blond girl if she had a question for Mister Rogers. Instead of answering, the child broke away from her mother, pushed past Winfrey, and ran down to the stage to hug him. As the only adult present not stunned by this, apparently, Fred Rogers knelt to accept her embrace. Minutes later, he was kneeling again, this time to allay a small boy’s concerns about a miniature trolley installed on Winfrey’s stage. As the two conferred quietly, Winfrey stood in the audience looking more than a little lost. Seeing that the show was slipping away from her, she signaled her crew to break to an ad. For Fred Rogers, it was always this way when he was with children, in person or on his hugely influential program. (King, p. 1-2)

Pray without Ceasing

In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, the Apostle Paul nears the close of his letter with the seemingly impossible advice to “pray without ceasing.” Rather than try to summarize the various interpretations I’ve seen and heard, I’ll just say I think it’s like keeping open the lines of communication with God. Rogers appears to have done so.

Amy Hollingsworth, author of The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, writes about “the importance of prayer” to Rogers. “Each morning he prayed for his family and friends by name, still offering his gratitude for those on his list who had passed away.” (Hollingsworth, p. 20)

Biographer King writes “Rogers’ [daily] preparation was not so much professional as it was spiritual: He would study passages of interest from the Bible, and then he would visualize who he would be seeing that day, so that he would be prepared to be as caring and giving as he could be. Fred’s prayers in those early morning sessions were not for success or accomplishment, but rather for the goodness of heart to be the best person he could be in each of the encounters he would have that day.” (King, p. 317)

Every day that Fred walked onto the Neighborhood set to film episodes of the program, he prayed the same prayer: “Let some word that is heard be yours.” (Tuttle, p. 159)

In 1992, Rogers gave the invocation at the Boston University commencement, saying, in part:

Now, you know prayer is asking for something, and sometimes you get a yes answer and sometimes you get a no answer. And just like anything else you might get angry when you get a no answer. But God respects your feelings, and God can take your anger as well as your happiness. So, whatever you have to offer God through prayer—it seems to me—is a great gift. Because the thing God wants most of all is a relationship with you.

When accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award Emmy in 1997, Rogers said at the podium, according to Tom Junod:

“All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are…. Ten seconds of silence.” And then he lifted his wrist, and looked at the audience, and looked at his watch, and said softly, “I’ll watch the time,” and there was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked… and so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds… and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier, and Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said, “May God be with you” to all his vanquished children. (Junod, Esquire, p. 136)

To me, that was Rogers leading them in prayer.

When author Tim Madigan’s brother Steve fell ill, Tim told him “Fred prays for you by name every morning. Did you know that?” “You've got to be kidding me,” Steve said. “Mister Rogers prays for me?” “Every morning,” Tim said. “I know he does.” “God,” Steve said, and his eyes misted over. “That's so awesome.” (Madigan, p. 109)

Rogers is known to have had a constantly growing list of people to pray for every morning. He also prayed at other times and was often moved to reach out to people when he did so. If you want to be led by the Holy Spirit, you have to keep the lines of communication open through prayer.

Led by the Holy Spirit

What does it mean to be “led by the Holy Spirit”? Rogers told this story:

Last week I had this very strong urge to visit a young woman I know who is pregnant and unmarried. I haven't seen her in a long time. Yet, here was this exceedingly strong urge to see her. We had a good visit, a long visit. Very near the end of our visit, she said, “Mr. Rogers, did you know this was my birthday?” I said, “No.” She said, “I just wondered if that was the reason you stopped in.” When I left, I was thinking God really cares about people who might seem like the outcasts of society. Why did I stop in? If it’s mind reading, it needs to be called inspired mind reading. (Tuttle, p. 162)

Another time, Fred had visited Neighborhood employee Lisa Hamilton and her family when her husband had cancer and prayed with them. He did this regularly for months. On the morning her husband died, before Lisa told anyone, the doorbell rang, and it was Fred. “I was praying,” Fred said by way of explanation, “and I felt you needed some help.” Lisa said, “So Fred Rogers is the person who called the funeral home. And he wept with me over Scott’s body - the only person I remember weeping with me.” David Newell (Mister McFeely) said Fred had never mentioned his timely appearance at Lisa’s door to the staff. But this didn't surprise Lisa. “He did a lot quietly,” she said. “So, I feel that I am one of probably hundreds of people with stories like that.” (Tuttle, p. 163-4)

“Miracles”

Maxwell King quotes Elaine Lynch, secretary at Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a group of Make-a-Wish children included a twelve-year-old boy who was autistic:

I tried to get as much information from the family as I could so Fred had an idea of what their problems were. This was a mother and father, and the autistic boy was, I think, the oldest of three. He had a sister, and he also had a younger brother, all of whom, they claimed, had never heard him speak. He grunted— “Mmm, mmm”—what he wanted, pointed to what he wanted. Fred, when he came out to visit with the family, had the King and Queen puppets on his hands, and he started talking to the family, and he finally got to the boy, who was almost as tall as Fred at that point. The child started speaking in full sentences to the King and Queen. Well, I don’t know whether you can imagine what the family was going through at that point, hearing their son speak for the first time. The father started blubbering.

Rogers said nothing as himself. He stayed in character as the voices of King Friday XIII and Queen Sara Saturday. And Lynch—who later referred to the whole exchange as a “miracle”—rushed upstairs to get the family their own King and Queen puppets from Rogers’s office. (King, p. 224)

In the “Hero” article, Tom Junod tells the story of a boy with cerebral palsy who had been abused and would harm himself. Sometimes he thought God must hate him. The boy’s mother sometimes felt that watching Mister Rogers was the only thing that kept him alive. Mister Rogers came to visit him, but he could not control himself:

Mister Rogers didn’t leave, though. He wanted something from the boy, and Mister Rogers never leaves when he wants something from somebody…. He said, “I would like you to do something for me. Would you do something for me?” On his computer, the boy answered yes, of course, he would do anything for Mister Rogers, so then Mister Rogers said, “I would like you to pray for me. Will you pray for me?” ... The boy was thunderstruck because nobody had ever asked him for something like that, ever. The boy had always been the object of prayer, and now he was being asked to pray for Mister Rogers, and although at first he didn’t know if he could do it, he said he would, he said he’d try, and ever since then he keeps Mister Rogers in his prayers and doesn’t talk about wanting to die anymore, because he figures Mister Rogers is close to God, and if Mister Rogers likes him, that must mean God likes him, too. (Junod, Esquire)

TV and Holy Ground

Shea Tuttle recounts that Fred attended a sermon which he found terrible, but the woman next to him said that it was exactly what she needed to hear. Rogers said:

I thought about that for a long time, and finally, I realized that I had come in judgment and my friend had come in need. The Holy Spirit was able to translate the words of that feeble sermon to speak to the need of my friend.... That experience changed my life. Ever since, I’ve been able to recognize that the space between someone who is offering the best he can and someone who is in need is Holy Ground. Even the space between the television set and the receiver in need (and who isn’t in some kind of need) is Holy Ground. (Tuttle, p. 158-159)

Rogers wrote in a letter to a friend: “What a tough job to communicate the gift of Jesus Christ to anybody. It can’t simply be talked about, can it? Jesus himself used parables – so I guess that’s our directive: try to show the kingdom of God through stories as much as possible.” (Tuttle, p. 105)

Rogers told Hollingsworth, regarding the relatively slow pace of his show, “It seems to me that our world needs more time to wonder and to reflect about what is inside, and if we take time, we can often go much deeper as far as our spiritual life is concerned than we can if there’s constant distraction. And often television gives such constant distraction—noise and fast-paced things—which doesn’t allow us to take time to explore the deeper levels of who we are—and who we can become.”  (Hollingsworth, p. 3)

Rogers’ Theology

While at Western Theological Seminary, Dr. Bill Orr’s Systematic Theology had great effect on Fred:

Oh, we learned about epistemology and Christology and eschatology and sanctification and justification and existentialism, but most of all we witnessed the unfolding of the life of one of God’s saints. Dr. Orr would be quick to remind me that we’re all saints, we believers; nevertheless, when you see someone go out to lunch on a winter’s day and come back without his overcoat because he had given it to a person who was cold, you have a growing understanding of “living theologically.” When we asked Dr. Orr about the coat, he said, “Oh, I have one other at home,” and that was all he said about it. (Tuttle, p. 57)

In a 1976 radio broadcast Rogers produced for The Protestant Hour, Rogers said “Christianity is a matter of being accepted as we are. Jesus certainly wasn’t concerned about people’s stations in life or what they looked like or whether they were perfect in behavior or feeling. How often in the New Testament we read of Jesus’ empathy for those people who felt their own lives to be imperfect, and the marvelous surprise and joy when they sensed his great acceptance.” (Tuttle, p. 24)

When Hollingsworth told Rogers of an upcoming interview, he wrote “How wonderful that you will be interviewing Cardinal Bernardin! He has been such a hero to so many. His forgiveness of his accuser is legendary and healing: a real reflection of Jesus. I often think of what my professor-friend Dr. Orr used to say: ‘The only thing that evil cannot stand is forgiveness.’”

Author Tim Madigan interviewed Rogers in 1995, and they continued corresponding by letter, email, and phone. In 1997, Madigan was contemplating divorce, but was afraid of what Rogers’ response would be, and said so. Rogers responded “Tim, please know that I would never forsake you, that I will never be disappointed with you, that I would never stop loving you.” This is reminiscent of Hebrews 13:5, “he [God] hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” Rogers continued, “As for suffering: I believe that there are fewer people than ever who escape major suffering in this life. In fact, I’m fairly convinced that the Kingdom of God is for the broken-hearted. You write of ‘powerlessness.’ Join the club, we are not in control: God is.” (Madigan, p. 3) Later, Rogers says to Madigan about grief, “With grief there is, inevitably, some time of anger and you know, God can take our anger. I think God respects the fact that we would share a whole gamut of feelings.” (Madigan, p. 159) If you doubt that God wants to hear your true feelings, read through the Psalms.

Rogers said elsewhere, “Frankly, I think that after we die, we have this wide understanding of what’s real. And we’ll probably say, ‘Ah, so that’s what it was all about.’” (Hollingsworth, p. 147)

Was He Gay?

The short answer is “No.” No one who knew him, whether they were straight or gay, thought he was gay. No one ever accused or suspected him of any kind of unfaithfulness to his wife Joanne.

Rogers himself was often labeled a “sissy,” or gay, in a derogatory sense. But as associate Eliot Daley put it: “Fred is one of the strongest people I have ever met in my life. So if they are saying he’s gay because... that’s a surrogate for saying he’s weak, that’s not right, because he’s incredibly strong.” He adds: “He wasn’t a very masculine person; he wasn’t a very feminine person; he was androgynous.” (King, p. 207)

In Maxwell King’s 2018 biography of Rogers, he quotes a friend of Rogers who claims that Rogers said he had found both women and men attractive. (King, p. 208) This prompted some people to decide that Rogers was bisexual. I am not convinced that he was, and besides that second-hand quote, I’ve seen no other evidence. Rather than get derailed by the controversy, I link to a Snopes article that discusses it thoroughly and dispassionately: Was Mr. Rogers Bisexual? 

Rogers himself said “I’m not John Wayne, so consequently, for some people I’m not the model for the man in the house.” (King, p. 207) Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne, writes about John Wayne as a role model for some white conservative male evangelical Christians; those whose “evangelical militancy” and “warrior God” have a “Jesus more closely resembling William Wallace than either Mother Teresa or Mister Rogers.” (Du Mez, p. 174)

Did Mister Rogers Ruin Our Children?

Did Mister Rogers’ message that “There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are” spoil all those children watching his show? Clearly, some pundits and critics thought so, though without any evidence that I’ve seen, such as sociological investigation, longitudinal studies, surveys, or other systematic data.

In the spring of 2010, the Fox News Channel devoted part of its daily newscast to a segment entitled “Is Mr. Rogers Ruining Kids?” Fox & Friends took it all the way, describing Rogers as “this evil man” who taught kids that they are special, thereby sapping their will to work hard in school, or to improve themselves. (King, p. 357)

Don Feder, a nationally syndicated columnist for the Boston Herald, summed it up: “For over twenty-five years on his PBS series, Fred Rogers has been filling the innocent heads of children with this pap…. Under a self-esteem regime, America is becoming a nation of feel-good mediocrities.” (King, p. 291)

These opinions might reflect more on the pundits and their worldview, which I would not describe as Christian. Do Christian parents tell their children that God loves them? I hope so, though apparently, some teach them that they are dirty, rotten sinners, bound for hell.

In fact, Rogers never told children not to work hard. Quite the opposite. We own a Mister Rogers cassette with the songs “You Have to Learn Your Trade” and “You’ve Got to Do It.” The former says in part:

You have to learn your trade.
Everything takes practice.
When you see what you have made,
You’ll shout, “Look here, the fact is
With a fair amount of practice you can really,
Positively learn your trade.

The latter song states “make-believe pretending just won’t do it for you. You’ve got to do it.”

Rogers told Hollingsworth: “Self-esteem doesn’t come from a child hearing something that’s not true about him or her. If an adult does not believe that the child has done a good job with something, well, it’s not the least bit helpful to say so…. I would hope that you wouldn’t say ‘I’m proud of you’ if your child has done something that might be hurtful to him or her or to somebody else, because that just doesn’t help. I guess we’re coming right back to the very first thing we talked about, and that’s truthfulness—you know, being ourselves and allowing somebody to share in that.” (Hollingsworth, p. 65)

Actually, the idea of every child being special was not the entire thrust of Rogers’ message. With a theological background, and having studied child development at the University of Pittsburgh and the Arsenal Families & Children Center, he was most concerned with the spiritual and emotional growth of children. He wanted to teach them positive ways of dealing with fear, anger, pain, and doubt. 

Biographer King says “Fred repeatedly emphasized personal responsibility. The difference is that Rogers honed in on the cultivation of self-discipline.” Rogers said, “I think of discipline as the continual everyday process of helping a child learn self-discipline.” (King, p. 292)

Jared C. Wilson of The Gospel Coalition wrote in 2018 of Fred Rogers that “it should be clear to those who can make the connection with a Christian worldview that he was intent on treating every person he met as an image-bearer of God.” (Mister Rogers’s Deathbed Confession)

Was Mister Rogers Born Again?

Mister Rogers was an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). It is not known as an evangelical denomination. Though I can find no documentation of a “born again” moment, in the aforementioned story about attending a sermon, Rogers says that “changed my life.” 

This is what Jesus says to explain the phrase “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” in John 3:3-6:

Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

In other words, it is the Holy Spirit that is born in you when you are “born again.” When you encounter someone who was not raised in the evangelical tradition, being “born again” might mean nothing, or it may have a negative political connotation. In evangelical circles, your testimony of being born again (or deciding to follow Christ) is held in high regard. When you encounter someone who is being led by the Holy Spirit, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” (Matthew 7:15-20) To be more specific about the “fruit” (or results) of the Spirit, we can look at Galatians 5:22-23: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” I see all of these in Fred Rogers.

Reverend Burr Wishart, who worked with Rogers at the Pittsburgh Foundation, said “He [Fred] would take offense at it, but he was the most Christlike human being I have ever encountered.” (King, p. 120)

Conclusion

I did not focus on the Christianity of Fred Rogers when my younger sister or my children watched him. Only after seeing the two recent movies about him did Rogers’ Christian motivation become clear. (I reviewed those movies at Crossover Cinema, in Kindness Makes a Comeback.) As I asked in my overly long writing about Martin Luther King, Jr, what do I mean by “Christian”? Basically, that would be a follower of Christ, of Jesus’ teachings. Personally, I look for what the Apostle Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit” mentioned above (Galatians 5:22-23). I believe that I’ve shown here that Rogers was called by God, led by the Holy Spirit, and always ministering; in short, a Christian. Why do I feel a need to prove this? Because many unbelievers doubt that there are good examples of Christians, some not realizing that some of their own heroes, such as Fred Rogers or Martin Luther King, Jr, were Christians. 

Bibliography

I had read three books about Fred Rogers, so I thought I was ready to write this. Then I came across a fourth book with a slightly different perspective, so I read that too. There are other books about him with perspectives that are not pertinent to my purpose. Having four different perspectives reminds me of the four gospel writers, each having their own perspective. 

Hollingsworth, Amy, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2005.
Hollingsworth writes from a more religiously conservative perspective than Tuttle. She also maintained an eight-year correspondence with Rogers in between interviews with him.

King, Maxwell, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, Abram Books, New York, NY, 2018.
This is the longest, most comprehensive, and most conventional biography of the four books I read about Rogers.

Madigan, Tim, I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers, Ubuntu Press, Los Angeles, 2012.
Madigan is a journalist who interviewed Rogers and whose life was changed by their ensuing friendship.

Tuttle, Shea, Exactly as You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2019.
Tuttle writes from a more religiously liberal perspective than Hollingsworth. She did not meet Rogers.

Junod, Tom, “Can You Say… Hero?”Esquire, November 1998, pp. 132-138, 176-177.
This article was the basis of the movie starring Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which appeared 20 years later.

Junod, Tom, “My Friend Mister Rogers,” The Atlantic, December 2019.
Junod discusses his friendship with Rogers after the “Hero” article appeared, and the subsequent development of the movie based on the article.

Langmann, Brady, “Mr Rogers Changed Tom Junod’s Life. Here’s the True Story Behind A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Esquire, November 22, 2019.
Langmann interviews Junod about keeping Fred Rogers’ message alive.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Liveright, New York, NY, 2020. 
The subtitle says it all. I had this book but didn’t read it until I read Rogers saying he wasn’t John Wayne. 

Saturday, October 28, 2023

A Song for my Father

Barry and me in Chicago, c. 1987

Today, my father would have turned 91, but he died six months ago. In August, we went to California for the memorial service. I had to speak, and it went well. Eleven of us - my dad’s widow and his four children, their spouses and two of the four grandchildren - rented a house in Pacifica for four days after that. We had fun. Unfortunately, someone had come to the service with COVID and half of us got it. So, my wife and I came back to Illinois sick with it for a couple of weeks, but we’re all better now.

I thought some of you might be interested in what I said about my dad. First, for some context, I’ll quote the local paper for Barry’s obituary:

Barry William Strejcek, affectionately known by some at Rossmoor as “The Mayor of Oakmont,” died on April 29, 2023, at age 90 1/2, peacefully at home, from aging with heart disease and dementia.

He was born October 28, 1932, to Doris and William Strejcek and grew up in the Cleveland area. He attended Shaw High School, then Miami University of Ohio, then served in the U.S. Army in Germany during the Korean conflict.

He returned to earn a BA in political science and a master’s degree in labor economics, both from Ohio State University.

Barry married his first wife, Mary Jo (“Jody”) McPherson, in 1959. They lived in Ohio, Missouri, New Jersey, and Washington DC. Children Kier (1960), Nathan (1962), and Mardi (1969) were born to Barry and Jody. Their marriage ended in divorce.

Barry’s working life centered on civil rights and the common good. He was active in the Democratic Socialists of America, founded by Michael Harrington. His career was with the National Urban League, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Barry appreciated that the federal government gave him the opportunity to work towards justice and equality.

In 1976, Barry met Yvonne Schumacher when they were both working for EEOC; they married in 1980 in Washington DC. Their son Brendan was born in 1981. When Barry retired in 1989, they moved to Nevada City, California, where they were leaders of Sierra Foothills Unitarian Universalists in Auburn. They were among the founders and charter members of the UU Community of the Mountains in Grass Valley. Barry and Yvonne moved to Berkeley in 2004 for her completion of an MDiv degree at Starr King School for the Ministry, and then to Harrisburg PA, Boston MA, and Brighton MI following her parish ministry calling in the Unitarian Universalist Assn. They retired

to Rossmoor senior community in Walnut Creek CA in 2015. There Barry’s friendliness earned him that moniker “Mayor of Oakmont” as he would wave to every car driving by while walking his dog Sammy daily, schmoozing with everyone he met along the way.

His passing is deeply grieved, after nearly 43 years of marriage, by his wife Yvonne, of Rossmoor; also his children Kier (and Cathleen) of Naperville IL, Nathan (and Stacey Moye) of Washington DC, Mardi (and Alberto Muciño) of Arlington VA, and Brendan (and Chenbo Zhong) of Toronto, Ontario, Canada; also four grandchildren: Conor (and Laura), Liam, Locke, and Marissa, and two great grandchildren, Ellis and August. He was predeceased by great granddaughter Violet Joan.

Barry stood for human equality, believed in it fervently, and

worked for it all his life. He loved his family and friends. He had a great sense of humor; loved the natural world especially exploring national parks, hiking, and climbing mountains, visiting great cities, playing card and board games, watching TV and films, reading great books, engaging in schmoozing (especially political conversations), eating out, and most especially donuts, blueberry pie, and root beer.

Memorial gift suggestions: Equal Justice Initiative (eji.org), NAACP (naacp.org), The Alzheimer's Association (alz.org), or Threshold Choir International/Diablo Valley Threshold Singers (tci.org).

Deep gratitude to Suncrest Hospice staff, whose tender, skillful care for Barry was essential in his last months of life, enabling him to die at home in peace. 

And this is what I said at the memorial service: 
[If you’d rather listen, go to http://www.strejcek.net/barry-celebration-audio/col-audio.html]

Hi, I’m Kier, Barry’s eldest child by Jody McPherson. I’d like to talk about what my father handed down to me. 

Barry taught me to appreciate music, reading, movies, comedy, science fiction, politics, and sports. 

He preferred jazz and classical music, but had Beatles records, the Woodstock soundtrack, and Santana and Grand Funk Railroad records and 8-track tapes. He took me to my first concert when I was almost 14, which was Grand Funk Railroad, which was his choice. The second concert he took me to was Led Zeppelin, which was my idea. I returned the favor years later, taking him to see Czech composer Beidrich Smetana’s Ma Vlast performed in Chicago’s Grant Park. 

Barry took us to Washington Senators baseball games in DC. In 2006, I took him to a Cubs vs Tigers game at Wrigley Field with my kids. Barry rooted for the Tigers, living near Detroit with Yvonne at the time. The Cubs lost. 

He would take us to Hechinger’s hardware, Sears, and The Waffle Shop across the street for a treat, usually a hot fudge sundae, which I would “inhale,” according to the server. 

Barry helped me build model planes and cars and took us to hobby shops. He encouraged my HO train hobby and built an elaborate pulley system for a drop-down train table in the basement. He helped with building the mountain out of chicken wire and plaster. He built things in the house: a laundry chute; and a doll house and bunk bed/study for Mardi; parts of our kitchen; and a bedside shelf that I still use. He re-roofed the house, with a little help from us. 

He took us to movies, especially comedies, like the Marx Brothers, and Woody Allen. And of course, science fiction movies, and books. He read many books and lefty magazines, such as Dissent and The Nation. 

One of the first moral lessons Barry taught me was when I asked what a certain word beginning with “N” meant. The part I remember is that I shouldn’t play with anyone using that word. Harsh, I thought at age 6, but wise, as revealed in time. We had Martin Luther King Jr quotes on the fridge. Barry took us to see the King documentary in a DC theater in 1970. 

For Boy Scouts, he took me to hike a section of the C&O Canal. I had missed that part by getting sick in the middle of my Troop hiking the whole thing, from DC to Cumberland, Maryland. Nathan went with us. We had to camp out one night, and it rained so hard that our tent floor was floating on water in the morning.      

Growing up in DC, we went to protest marches. On May Day 1971, we marched against the Vietnam War. Many were wearing paper masks of Lt. Calley of My Lai Massacre infamy. 

When I was 12, in the summer of 1972, I was complaining about President Nixon and Vietnam, so Barry suggested that I volunteer for his Democratic opponent, McGovern. He volunteered to drive me to the McGovern headquarters on K Street to try it. We went and then I continued to work there on my own, and then at Watergate, but that’s another story

When I was 14, he let me use his Super 8 camera and editing equipment to make a short silent movie called “Revolt!” starring Nathan in long hair and one of Barry’s Army shirts, and a cast of local kids and toy guns. In 2005, I digitized that and his Super 8 home movies as a Christmas gift.

Barry taught me to drive, back when a Driver’s Ed class wasn’t a requirement, though he might not want to be held responsible for that. Our first test drive with Jody was… tense

Jody once said that Barry was a Democratic Socialist before Democratic Socialist was cool. In the 2016 Democratic primary, I voted for Bernie Sanders as a nod to my political heritage. Sometimes in my head I would confuse their names and think of Sanders as Barry Sanders, who was of course a famous Detroit Lions running back. And where is Yvonne from? Detroit. And Grand Funk Railroad is also from Michigan. Just sayin’. 

Barry drove me to college in Illinois in 1978, stopping at his parents’ retirement place in Ohio. It was nice to see my Strejcek grandparents. I didn’t know then that I would never see them again. That kind of separation can be a side effect of divorce. 

I made my peace with the divorce. None of the stereotypical “I never told my Dad I loved him” or vice versa. I wasn’t there for his final days, but was in DC with Mardi and Nathan. Two visits that mean a lot to me are: when I went visited several days with him at Sacramento’s Mercy Hospital after his big heart attack in 2002; and a few years before that, Cathleen, the kids and I were visiting Barry, Yvonne, and Brendan in Nevada City, and Barry got sick. While the others went to town, I sat with him and fed him soup. 

I do have one regret. I was supposed to call Silver Spring, Maryland during Barry’s 50th-birthday surprise party, but I failed. I was at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois at the time, playing guitar in a rock band at a Halloween party. My costume included one of Barry’s Army fatigues, and an Army Surplus gas mask. I was not feeling that well. Anyway, this was before cell phones, in the time of pay phones and long-distance call plans. Even with all that, I could have planned better. So, I apologize again, Barry. 

For Barry’s 60th birthday, in 1992, I wrote and recorded a song for him. I will not sing it now, but I will read it to you. [I have since made a slideshow video of the song: https://youtu.be/s5Iw7YjRChM.]

Handed Down (1992)

I remember protest marches
Where everybody had a dream
We'd get together and make things better
Eliminate war from the scene
A dozen years have passed in darkness
Maybe now we can redeem
What our souls were needing
As if our hearts were bleeding

You introduced me to Marx and Lennon
Of course I mean Groucho and John
Double features and weekend matinees
Woodstock or Woody would be on
No more sundaes at the Waffle Shop
Just like the Senators, it's gone
And so we too are distant
And though our visits are not frequent...

I hope I can hand down
What's been handed down
What's been handed down to me

I've always thought I had a happy childhood
That means that you did something right
Driving lessons and model airplanes
And more important what is right
Now I find myself where you were
Parenthood is such a fight
For sleep, for reassurance
To bring the past into the light

I hope I can hand down
What's been handed down
What's been handed down to me

I've had some help in learning my role
‘Cause every father is a son
When that son becomes a father
He's thought of what is to be done
Patience is not the highest virtue
Selflessness could be the one
And now I want to tell you
I think some battles have been won

I hope I can hand down
What's been handed down
What's been handed down to me

(I also posted these lyrics on Father’s Day 2019: https://www.thestrayczech.com/2019/06/fathers-day.html])

Friday, September 30, 2022

Martin Luther King Jr., Christian, Part 1

Christianity seems like a hard sell these days. Some of its most famous (or infamous) salesmen are blowhards, narcissists, charlatans, or criminals. Every week it seems, yet another denomination is rocked by accusations or revelations of terrible misdeeds. Various Christian institutions have tolerated, promoted, or even participated in racism, slavery, antisemitism, war, sexual abuse, and on and on. 

Yet the world has billions of Christians, and its central ideas are well known, often respected. In fact, the Christian faith has animated social reformers through the ages, particularly against slavery and for civil rights: for example, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Most people would agree that Dr. King was nominally a Christian because he was a Baptist Minister. However, some on the left (including me in times past) would ignore his Christian faith as irrelevant while revering him as a kind of secular saint. Some on the right would deny that his faith was genuine or criticize his ideas as un-Christian. I will argue that his Christian faith was genuine, and fundamental to his formation and effectiveness as a civil rights leader.

Who or What Is a Christian? 

Before we get too far, what do I mean by “Christian”? Basically, that would be a follower of Christ, of Jesus’ teachings. Most denominations or individual churches have some kind of statement of beliefs posted on their website. Though Protestants deny that “works” will “save” you, they still look for evidence in a believer’s life. A believer should show evidence of repenting from sins, of spiritual growth, of transformation (“born again” or “a new creation”). Personally, I look for what the Apostle Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance (Galatians 5:22-23).

King: Peacemaker? Troublemaker? Prophet? Martyr? Communist? Christian?

A white Baptist pastor told me that, growing up Baptist, he was taught that Dr. King was a communist. I had been reading Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King’s Epic Challenge to the Church, by Edward Gilbreath, so I copied this and handed it to him on Martin Luther King Day:

A year after the [Montgomery bus] boycott, in 1957, when the evangelist Billy Graham invited King to lead a prayer at his Madison Square Garden crusade, he eagerly asked King how he managed to keep the boycott so peaceful. “Prayer,” said King, simply. “Montgomery was a movement of prayer.” (pp. 48-49)

Graham also asked Dr. King to lead the New York revival group in prayer. As Jemar Tisby puts it:

The differences between King and Graham would become more prominent as the Civil Rights movement continued. Graham spoke of “law and order” as a solution to urban uprisings. He criticized King’s direct action nonviolent tactics and admonished him to work within the established legal and political systems. But in 1957, in front of a crowd of 18,000 New Yorkers who had come to hear about Jesus from this famous evangelist, King espoused his hope for a racially unified tomorrow.

The entire prayer is at Stanford University's Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute: Invocation Delivered at Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Crusade.

(PBS aired a Billy Graham documentary that describes his rise as “pastor to Presidents,” including his infamous inclusion on the Nixon tapes.)

The Calling

The catalyst for Graham’s invitation was the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, which started in December 1955 and ended 385 days later. King had graduated from Morehouse College with a BA in Sociology, Crozer Theological Seminary, and then Boston College with a PhD. In 1953, he married Coretta Scott, and the next year, at age 25, he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. Shortly after their first child was born, Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white man. King was not the initiator of the boycott. He was brought into the movement somewhat hesitantly at first. He had declined to be considered for the local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) chapter presidency due to his young family, his relative newcomer status, and pastoral responsibilities. Local leaders saw something in him however and chose him to be the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).

No other candidates were put forward, and King was asked if he would accept the position. [Ralph] Abernathy, seated beside him, fully expected King to decline. Instead, after a pause, King told his colleagues, “Well, if you think I can render some service, I will,” and accepted the presidency. (Bearing the Cross, p. 22)

Was King called by God? Why would God call a young, even green pastor, for this mission? When God called David, he was the youngest of eight brothers. He was still a youngster when he defeated the giant Goliath. When God chose Israel as His people, it was because they were a small nation, not because they were great. Incidentally, King was 5’7” tall.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in front of a Montgomery bus
after the successful boycott. Courtesy pbs.org.

Nonviolence, Love, and Christianity

King would give his first speech as president of the MIA to a church full of people the same night he was elected:

“First and foremost, we are American citizens. We are not here advocating violence. We have overcome that.… The only weapon that we have… is the weapon of protest… the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right… We must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all of our action.” The protesters must not hate their white opponents but be guided by Christian love while seeking justice with their demands. “Love is one of the pinnacle parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation.” But the protest was not simply a matter of convincing the white officials of Montgomery of the justice of the MIA’s cause, King indicated. “Not only are we using the tools of persuasion, but we’ve got to use tools of coercion. Not only is this thing a process of education, but it is also a process of legislation.” Then King closed, reminding the audience to protest courageously but with dignity and Christian love. Rising to their feet, the people applauded heartily. (Bearing the Cross, pp. 23-24)

In March 1956, during the on-going boycott, King was invited to speak at a Brooklyn church. He mentioned Gandhi using passive resistance to break loose from the British Empire. But he said “I have been a keen student of Gandhi for many years. However, this business of passive resistance and nonviolence is the gospel of Jesus. I went to Gandhi through Jesus.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 75)

Hearing Jesus

It is possible to be raised in a faith tradition, attend religious services regularly, even become a minister of that faith, and not truly feel transformed by it. For example, John Wesley, British founder of Methodism, had been an Anglican minister for ten years when he felt his “heart strangely warmed” in 1738 and began his movement. (How to Pray, p. 95)

King was leading the boycott, but after a month and a half, and an arrest on January 26, 1956, he had received death threats to himself and his young family. These events shook the confidence of King, who had just turned 27. Late at night, he prayed alone at his kitchen table:  

"Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right," he prayed, "but I have nothing left." The voice of Jesus came quietly, King said, but he heard it: "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world." (Birmingham Revolution, pp. 51-52)

From that point on, King said that he was not afraid to die, that the cause was greater than one man, and could continue without him. In March, King held a press conference after his conviction under an antiboycott statute. Asked if he was afraid, King said:

No, I’m not. My attitude is that this is a great cause… the consequences for my personal life are not particularly important…. And my great prayer is always that God will save me from the paralysis of crippling fear because I think when a person lives with the fear of the consequences for his personal life, he can never do anything in terms of lifting the whole of humanity and solving many of the social problems that we confront. (Bearing the Cross, pp. 75-76)

Just a few nights after his kitchen table prayer, King’s house was bombed. Windows were broken and there was a hole in his concrete porch, but Coretta and his young daughter were unharmed. Martin was at the First Baptist Church, supervising a collection to help pay for gas, oil, and tires for volunteer drivers who were transporting boycotters in lieu of using buses. Coretta called the church and Martin went home. The Police Commissioner, Mayor, and Fire Chief, and several hundred Black onlookers were already there. As the crowd grew larger and angrier, the Police Commissioner assured the crowd they would work to solve the crime, then asked King if he would say something to the crowd. He told them that everyone was all right, and said:

Don’t get your weapons. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what God said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them. I did not start this boycott. I was asked by you to serve as your spokesman. I want it to be known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped, this movement will not stop. If I am stopped, our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right, what we are doing is just. And God is with us. (Autobiography, p. 80)

The legal actions between the city and the boycotters went all the way to the Supreme Court. Nearly a year after its start, at another large meeting at a church, where many ministers from across the South and beyond attended, King said the real goal was not to defeat the white man, but “to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority.… The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community” where all men would treat each other as brothers and equals. (Bearing the Cross, p. 81)

The Black Church and the SCLC

The boycott was not started by King or directly by the church, but once involved, King and the area Black churches organized it, publicized it, and held frequent meetings at churches with thousands of attendees. From the first meeting with King as MIA president, the leaders asked the attendees to endorse their decisions. The church was the only Black institution with the standing, membership, and leadership skills to lead the movement.

In 1899, W. E. B. DuBois called the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which was by then over 80 years old:

“by long odds the vastest and most remarkable product of American Negro civilization,” and the Black preacher “the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil – a leader, a politician, an orator, a ‘boss,’ and intriguer, an idealist.” The community was generating an original form of leadership that would culminate in Dr. King. (Head and Heart, p. 292)

After the Montgomery bus boycott, the MIA looked ahead to public school integration. Bayard Rustin wanted to use “the Montgomery movement as a basis for a wider civil rights movement across the South.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 84) This movement would confront Jim Crow laws through mass direct non-violent action and voter registration. The new organization would be called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King insisted on “Christian” “to emphasize that most of its participants and its potential popular base came from the black church.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 97) The SCLC slogan was “to redeem the soul of America.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 285)

King led a “Pilgrimage” to DC in 1957. “This will not be a political march,” King said. “It will be rooted in deep spiritual faith.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 90)

Continue to Part 2, including Letter from a Birmingham Jail, I Have a Dream, and Moses and the Mountaintop.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Martin Luther King Jr., Christian, Part 2

Want to start at Part 1?

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

The SCLC launched a campaign with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in April of 1963. They coordinated marches and sit-ins against segregation in Birmingham. In response, a judge made "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing" illegal. Having already committed to bailing out jailed protesters and running out of money, King was torn. In a meeting of various leaders, opinions were divided. How can they march and afford more bail money for more arrests? On the other hand, how can they back down now?

Deeply troubled, King told his colleagues he would pray over the decision alone in another room. He left, and the others waited for his return. Thirty minutes later, King reappeared wearing a new pair of blue-denim overalls. The group quieted, and King spoke with firmness. “The path is clear to me. I’ve got to march. I’ve got so many people depending on me. I’ve got to march.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 242)

Likewise, Jesus frequently separated from his disciples to pray.

King was arrested with Abernathy, local leader Fred Shuttlesworth, and others while marching to City Hall. While they were in jail, an open letter from eight local “moderate” white religious leaders was published as a newspaper ad titled “A Call for Unity.” The letter questioned the necessity and timing of the Birmingham civil rights protest. Though the moderates’ letter had been written and planned before the arrest of King and others, the timing of its appearance was unfortunate. King read their letter while he was in jail. He began writing a response in the margins of the newspaper, then on paper brought to him in his jail cell by a sympathetic trustee. Eventually he got paper from his lawyers, and they in turn smuggled it out. His colleagues pieced it together and it was eventually published in various newspapers and magazines around the country.

King's Birmingham mug shot
from April 12, 1963, courtesy History.com.  

As the subtitle of Edward Gilbreath’s Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King’s Epic Challenge to the Church suggests, King presented an “epic challenge to the Church” in Birmingham. You may already know Paul wrote some letters (the epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians) to churches while in prison or house arrest. Notably, King refers to Paul’s “Macedonian call” in his letter, from Acts 16:9, “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us.” King was referring to the accusation of being outsiders coming to Birmingham unbidden:

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

King’s response was nearly 1,700 words while the original ad was barely 500. You can read the entire letter in King’s book, Why We Can’t Wait, or online at University of Pennsylvania African Studies Center "Letter from a Birmingham Jail". The Internet Archive has the "Call for Unity" and King's response as a PDF.

King answers many of their objections. Their non-violence:

Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?"

Unjust laws:

To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

Civil disobedience:

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.

The “Call for Unity” charged that direct action was “such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed” to solving Birmingham’s problems. In other words, peaceful demonstrations are bad if they “incite” violence. King responded:

We need emulate neither the "do nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.

The “more excellent way” echoes Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:31, introducing chapter 13, the famous “love” chapter used (somewhat out of context) in so many weddings. (“Though I speak with the tongues of and of angels, and have not love [charity], I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal…”)

The white religious leaders say that “extreme measures” are not “justified.” King responds:

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." [Matthew 5:44] Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." [Amos 5:24] Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." [Galatians 6:17] …. So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?

King complains about the church in general in its silent support of the status quo, a statement that echoes louder six decades later:

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

King finishes the letter in a more personally conciliatory tone. He was soon released on bail. The campaign itself won minor concessions from the city, but more importantly, demonstrated the viciousness of southern segregation to the rest of the country as it saw televised footage of police dogs and fire hoses used on demonstrators. The audience included President Kennedy, who had also called Coretta King while King was in jail to assure her that the FBI had found King safe, and that he would be calling her soon, which he did.

Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth of Birmingham's bethel Baptist Church, who was jailed with King, said King was the leader of the Birmingham campaign because "God had chosen him to be the spokesman." (Birmingham Revolution, p. 53) Shuttlesworth also said about the Birmingham victory: "Maybe that's why we win, because Dr. King always said that unearned suffering has to be redemptive." (Birmingham Revolution, p. 118)

I Have a Dream

The SCLC, the NAACP, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and others, despite often differing in opinions on strategy, planned the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On August 28, 1963, from 200,000 to 300,000 people – far above predictions, and about one-fifth white – crowded around the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool, across the Mall to the Washington Monument. They heard music from Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, a choir, leaders of various religions and organizations, such as Roy Wilkins (NAACP), John Lewis (SNCC), A. Philip Randolph (Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), Walter Reuther (UAW), James Farmer (CORE), and others; and of course, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Wikipedia has an image of the original program.)

King on the Lincoln Memorial steps, August 28, 1963. 
AP file photo. 

King’s speech started out slowly and lifted off when he went off-script with the “I have a dream” repetition, which he had used before. It is a rhetorical gem, often cited as one the best speeches of the century. From a Christian point of view, he uses the word “brotherhood” three times and the phrase “all God’s children” three times, and ends with “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last” (in the future, when we have “let freedom ring”).

He quotes the Bible from the prophet Amos:   

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. [Amos 5:24]

The ninth and final “I have a dream” is from the prophet Isaiah:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. [Isaiah 40:4-5]

You can find the transcript of the speech here: https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety. You can find the audio recording here: https://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/A_76C3B93B557D4976A032C27C72ACED18

Moses and the Mountaintop

Moses has been a key biblical figure in the African-American church and spiritual songs from slavery times onward. In the Bible, Moses led the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land. (This takes up most of the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.) Slaves who were introduced to Christianity were understandably drawn to this narrative.

The speech King gave the night before his assassination is haunting for anyone to hear, especially its finale. He foreshadows his death seemingly prophetically. However, as we have noted elsewhere, he was always aware of the danger of his mission and had been attacked many times. What struck me after becoming a Christian and reading the Bible, was the parallel to Moses in that same culminating section. Before I discuss that, there other parts of his 43-minute speech that foreshadow his impending death. King opens with a joke about the introduction he got from Ralph Abernathy:

As I listened to Ralph Abernathy and his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about. It's always good to have your closest friend and associate to say something good about you. And Ralph Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world.

That heartfelt response seems almost like a goodbye. King goes on take a rhetorical trip through the history of the world to find the time in which he would most like to live. After considering all of history, he chooses the present time because he sees “God working in this period” even though the world is “all messed up” and the “nation is sick.” He goes on to urge unity and strength, and that “we aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody.” What we are saying, King said, is:

God sent us by here, to say to you that you're not treating his children right. And we've come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God's children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.

King expounds on the Good Samaritan parable, extending it to the civil rights movement and the Memphis sanitation workers strike (why he is in Memphis):

That's the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job.” Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" The question is, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.

King builds to the speech’s climax as he recalls being stabbed and lists all the things he would have missed had he died then. He then tells the crowd that the airplane he was on that morning had been delayed while they checked the plane and all its baggage (presumably for bombs) because of his presence. The end of the speech does seem like he foresaw his death:

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so, I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

Moses, after leading the people out of slavery, was not allowed to enter the promised land, only to see it from atop Mount Nebo (Deuteronomy 34). Moses was being punished for an incident in Numbers 20:2-12, where he brought forth water out of a rock (for the second time), but did not follow God’s instructions, and also took credit for doing it, thereby committing disobedience and pride.

But I see some parallels between Dr. King and Moses beyond leading the people out of Egypt and the mountaintop. Moses was born a child of Israel, but was brought up in the house of Pharaoh, who was basically a king. Martin Luther King Jr’s father was the leader of an influential church in Atlanta and could have eventually inherited his position. His father was not happy to see him take on risky leadership positions and dangerous missions. But Martin Jr. went out on his own.

Moses killed an Egyptian and was exiled when God called him into service despite that crime. Martin might not have been an adulterer when he was called into service, but God would know his future.

Moses was reluctant when God told him what he needed to do, but eventually became bold, and would demand that Pharaoh let his people go. Martin did not immediately jump at the chance to lead his people to freedom, but he would eventually argue with presidents.

Moses sinned while getting water from the rock the second time, preventing him from entering the Promised Land. Perhaps adultery prevented King from the same.  

Continue to Part 3, including Theological Journey, Was King a Communist?, Was King a Prophet?