I came to Memphis in 1986 because I read somewhere that it was the poorest city in America. It did not take long to discover that this was true.
But along with economic and healthcare injustice, I found vibrant churches across the denominations, neighborhoods with strong identities, and a climate of looking for ways to work together toward healing the scars of the city. As the site of some of the passionate efforts for justice by Martin Luther King, Jr., Memphis had a legacy.
Memphis is also the place of King’s death.
Countless visitors have stood below the motel balcony where King died and soaked up a sense of the sacred mingled with the history of our country.
School children across the land learn to associate “I have a dream” with Martin Luther King, Jr. For many of us, those four simple words conjure something big, very big, that is still changing America five decades later.
Before Martin Luther King, Jr. was the iconic leader of the Civil Rights Movement, he was a Baptist preacher. And the son of a preacher. He knew the Bible, and he dug past the surface to the heart of God. The cause of justice is the cause of God.
In his famous speech, King said, “No, no, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He lifted these words from the Old Testament prophet Amos (5:24).
Amos was a shepherd who lived during a time of military peace, but a time rife with social injustice. Oppression of the poor. A privileged class. Dishonesty. Prejudice. Amos answered the call of God to speak out against injustice to a hostile audience. Is it any wonder that Martin Luther King, Jr. should quote Amos? Later in the landmark speech, King also quoted the prophet Isaiah, and the promise that in preparation for the coming of God, every valley will be lifted up and the uneven road will be leveled. King dreamed of this vision of justice that Isaiah cast before all our eyes (Isaiah 40:4–5).
And he dreamed that the glory of the Lord would be revealed and all flesh would see it together. Together. “We cannot walk alone,” King said about the journey into justice.
By God’s grace and with God’s help, we still journey together toward the glory of God. The work of the Church Health Center among the working uninsured is a journey into justice every day. Every congregation that commits to being a place and agent of healing helps to level the road for the coming of God into someone’s life. Every individual who chooses justice becomes part of those rolling, mighty waters.
So this year when you hear the familiar words, “I have a dream,” don’t be satisfied with sentiment or a long weekend because of a Monday holiday. No, we are not satisfied. Not until we see the glory of God together.