Hoosier United Methodists don’t need to wonder what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have said to us. We know.
On September 5, 1960, Dr. King was a keynote speaker to “School for the Prophets” held at Gobin Memorial United Methodist Church in Greencastle. This was a yearly continuing education event for the combined three Indiana Methodist Conferences. As the title of the event suggests, the sense was that these clergy called Methodist were to be prophets for the present time.
At this point in Dr. King’s ministry and leadership, he was, to some degree, just a guy doing interesting work with Civil Rights in the American south. In 1955, he joined and eventually led the Montgomery bus boycott protesting segregated busses. The following year, the Supreme Court ruled bus segregation as unconstitutional, making that boycott victorious. In 1958, he published a book and while on book tour was stabbed by an assailant. In 1959, Dr. King’s Civil Rights advocacy became a full-time focus as the President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the months leading up to his speaking at Gobin, the Atlanta lunch counter sit-ins had begun, where he would eventually be arrested in October 1960.
Dr. King’s message to Indiana Methodist clergy was a version of a sermon that he had preached as early as 1956 titled, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” Loosely patterned after Pauline epistles, Dr. King takes on Paul’s voice and wonders: “America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress.”
Retired Elder Rev. Steve Burris recalled this event. He had just entered the ministry the year prior in 1959 and was enrolled in seminary at Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary. When he heard Dr. King preach at Gobin Memorial, he was seated in the front row directly in front of the pulpit. He was relatively young in his faith, only coming to know Christ a few years prior. What he heard that day from Dr. King, marked what he called a “seminal moment” in his life and ministry.
During the sermon, Dr. King urged Methodists to consider the “responsibilities laid upon you to live as Christians in the midst of an unchristian world” and their allegiance to heaven above all else. Dr. King challenged the “superfluous wealth” of some while many live in abject poverty, as well as the sectarian quality of American Christianity.
Dr. King then said, “American Christians, that is another thing about the American Church that disturbs me to no end. I understand that you have a white church and you have a Negro church. Oh how tragic this is. You have allowed segregation to creep into the doors of the Church. I understand that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning to sing ‘In Christ There Is No East or West,’ you stand in the most segregated hour of America.”
“Moreover, I must reiterate the words that I uttered on Mars’ Hill: ‘Out of one blood God made all men to dwell on all the face of the earth.’ And so you have as Christians, a moral responsibility to work passionately and unrelentingly to remove the practice of segregation from your nation at every point. I am impelled to urge you to get rid of every aspect of segregation. Segregation stands against the broad universalism at the center of the Gospel…Segregation is wrong because it relegates persons to the status of things. Segregation is diametrically opposed to the underlying philosophy of Christianity… You have a responsibility to work courageously, all over your nation, to remove this evil system.”
Rev. Burris said he, as a white man, was caught off guard by Dr. King’s sermon. “It awakened something in me and lit a fire. It made me aware of things going on that I hadn’t paid much attention.”
That School for the Prophets event became a flashpoint in Rev. Burris’s life and ministry. “It affected my preaching and my ministry focus. It impacted my attitude when I worked in the business world. When I came back to ministry, I never gave up on racial justice.”
Rev. Burris recalled a significant ministry friendship with a black pastor, Rev. Bob Schmidt of 30th Street United Methodist Church, now Barnes United Methodist Church. The two men counseled together at Battle Ground Camp in Northwest Indiana, a camp with a long Methodist history. Together with their families and children they brought to the camp, they led the integration of the camp.
Rev. Burris went on to serve as the Council of Ministries Director. Alongside others, he led racial healing seminars for churches and organizations from 1997 until his retirement in 2001. He served as a representative to the North Central Jurisdictional Commission on Race and Religion.
“To this day,” he said, “I’ve never given up preaching on racial justice.”
The legacy of Dr. King’s charge to Indiana Methodists is significant for Gobin Memorial Church as well, shared Rev. Bryan Langdoc.
He remembered visiting Gobin in 2014 and meeting with the Staff-Parish Committee before beginning as their pastor. When he walked through the sanctuary for the first time, he saw a small plaque that noted Dr. King’s presence and ministry in the church.
Rev. Langdoc reflected that Dr. King’s presence and sermon on that September 5th has shaped the church’s outward ministry focus. The Greencastle chapter of the NAACP was started out of Gobin Churchin the 1960s, and restarted 4 years ago after a season of dormancy. Many of its board members are a part of the congregation. The church is active in conversations and ministry that foster justice, equity, and inclusion through the Christian faith.
To remember this piece of history, there are two remaining artifacts. One is an audio recording of Dr. King’s sermon which can be found online here.
In the last several years Gobin has engaged in a series of programs to help them remember and live into Dr. King’s legacy in their ministries.
Rev. Langdoc reflected, “It was really valuable when I discovered that it was a continuing education event for Methodist clergy in Indiana. It points to a different time and how much they loved opportunities for gathering and deep theological reflection. When we engage in that work and do it together, we are often surprised by what God does. We know this: the Methodist Conferences in Indiana wanted annually to come together to name the prophetic witness of clergy in the pulpit and wanted to hear from our front leaders. That happened in 1960, and that’s an amazing thing.”
As Indiana United Methodists honor Dr. King’s life, legacy, and continued ministry to the Church, his words to clergy in Gobin’s sanctuary ring in our ears once again:
“I would like to say to you…that I’m still convinced that love is the most durable power in all the world… And now unto Him who is able to keep us from falling. And now unto Him who is able to lift us from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope. And now unto Him who is able if we are sufficiently committed to Him to solve the race problem. And now unto Him who is able if we are sufficiently committed to Him to bring world peace. And now unto Him who is able to lift us from dark and desolate paths into sunlit paths of meaning. And now unto Him who is able to keep us from falling. To Him be power and authority, majesty, and dominion, now, henceforth, and forever more. And this is the letter. And now comes the living of it.”
To hear Dr. King’s sermon to Indiana Methodists yourself, go here: https://youtu.be/U-An0Muqlg4