April 16, 2013
His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon; Archpriest John Jillions, Chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America; and Protodeacon Sergei Kapral were among the US religious leaders who gathered here on Monday, April 15, 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.
Sponsored by Christian Churches Together [CCT], the gathering challenged participants to consider the current state of race relations and social justice in the United States. Representatives of other Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches were also in attendance. [See here for background information.]
“The conference took place at Saint Paul Methodist Church, which had been a staging ground for civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s and the center for training in non-violence,” said Father John. “The church next door—16th Street Baptist Church—was bombed on Sunday, September 15, 1965, killing four girls and wounding many others.”
Metropolitan Tikhon, Father John and Protodeacon Sergei led conference participants in singing “Memory Eternal” for the girls who were murdered on that day, for Dr. King, and for all who lost their lives in the civil rights movement. Prayers were also offered in Kelly Ingram Park, where violence against civil rights demonstrators, including hundreds of children, took place in 1963.
Among the veteran civil rights activists who addressed the participants were Dr. Dorothy Cotton and Dr. Virgil Wood.
Participants signed CCT’s response to Dr. King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, which was given to Dr. Bernice King—Dr. King’s youngest child, born 19 days before he was jailed in Birmingham—who spoke movingly about her parents and the ongoing work to promote non-violent social change.
The Orthodox section of the CCT response reads as follows.
“As the Orthodox Christian family of Christian Churches Together, we repent before God our habitual focus on ethnic and cultural identities and our failure to advance our ancient tradition of concern for the poor and the oppressed. In this way we often are not mindful of the priority of the Gospel of Christ for everything we are and everything we do. We confess that we have neglected our duty to defend the sacredness of all human persons created in the image and likeness of God against the demeaning assaults of racism and xenophobia. Too often we have forgotten the words of our Lord Jesus Christ that ‘what you do to the least of these you do unto me.’ Too often we have ignored the warning of Saint Basil of Caesarea, ‘The bread that you hold on to belongs to the hungry; the cloak you keep locked in your storeroom belongs to the naked; the shoe that is moldering in your possession belongs to the person with no shoes; the silver that you have buried belongs to the person in need.’ Attentive to the beauty of our liturgical services, we have slighted the ‘liturgy after the liturgy,’ the transformation of society through the works of mercy and justice.
“As Saint John Chrysostom long ago warned, ‘Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that?’
“May our repentance soften our hearts to true compassion which, as Saint Isaac the Syrian claims, weeps for all who suffer anywhere in God’s creation. May our compassion commit ourselves to make real in our parishes and our society that community in which ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
A gallery of photos may be viewed here.