by Ken Sehested
The story begins on a Saturday, before dawn, while still in high school. I began my 12-hour shift of pumping gas, doing oil changes, and washing cars in my hometown along the South Louisiana bayous.
First thing when we opened was to transfer product displays and stacks of new tires outside. The radio was on—the station owner loved the Cajun and Zydeco music on the local station. Then the music stopped, momentarily, for a bit of news. The announcer was saying something about Martin Luther King Jr.
“That Martin Luther Coon, he ain’t no Christian,” Mr. Dediveaux muttered toward the radio in an emphatically derogatory tone. “Everywhere he go there’s trouble.”
It would be years before it occurred to me the same was likely said about Jesus.
As the product of a piety-saturated, apolitical religious environment (except when liquor and gambling policies were on the electoral ballot), I was largely oblivious to the Civil Rights Movement. But by the time I entered seminary, the history and figures of the era became an obsession. I read everything I could get my hands on.
One of my purchases was an oversized book filled with photos of Dr. King and a host of other movement luminaries. To this day I retain the vivid memory of being caught up in a bewildering epiphany as I turned from one page to the next. As if my gut had goosebumps.
It took me a few seconds to comprehend the prophetic disclosure that unfolded. The photo was of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta sitting at a piano, their infant daughter Yolanda perched on Martin’s lap, as he and Coretta sang from an open hymnal.
As my eyes began searching out the details, there it was. The hymnal cover was clear. It was the Broadman Hymnal. The hymnal I grew up with. Published by the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination that formed over the express conviction that even missionaries could own slaves.
At one time I could quote from memory the page number of dozens of titles in that hymnal. As I came to discover, a good many churches that hosted Civil Rights Movement mass meetings—churches that were threatened by cross-burning Klan torches—did their singing from the Broadman.
I also learned that terrorism on American soil has a long history.
That moment—that photo—stands among my life’s greatest revelations. I came to realize that the language of faith can have many different, even competing meanings, just as any chemical compound, minus even one element, turns into something else altogether.
My life’s preoccupation since then has been sorting out the redemptive notes from the enslaving.
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