By Trey Lyon
When the term “Beloved Community” is used in modern conversation it is inextricably linked to the work, writings and witness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — the iconic Baptist minister whose visage is now literally carved in stone among the Presidents and founding figures of our nation.
King found in the concept of the Beloved Community not only an end goal, but a chance to name the greatest threat to such a community ever coming to fruition; segregation — the deliberate separation of human beings created in God’s image.
The Beloved Community is a place where the equity and giftedness of the individual is affirmed but in relationship to the larger community. It is a radical shift from the iconoclastic individualism of our American culture to communal consciousness, a shift from what one of King’s favorite philosophers called the “I” to the “Thou,” from the “me” to the “you.”
What a radical, revolutionary idea.
On the corner of Park Avenue and Sydney Street sits a large church building that looks like an old school. Founded as the 5th Baptist Church of Atlanta by what would eventually become Second Ponce DeLeon Baptist Church, this congregation played its own part in Atlanta’s racial history.
Over our dining table in our house hangs a copy of a map from 1892 that shows this historic church at the corner of Bell and Gilmour Streets. The church would move from that property in 1908 further to the south of the city center, giving the property to a new congregation serving the African-American population that was growing in that “Sweet Auburn” district. It was the first home of what would become Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church served by Martin Luther King Sr. and Martin Luther King, Jr.
When the old 5th Baptist Church moved to its present location during the Depression and became Park Avenue Baptist Church, they eventually raised enough funds to purchase a new organ and donated the organ from the previous building to another church they had worked with before. For much of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life he heard songs and hymns spill forth from that same organ, as his mother Alberta played it in worship each Sunday.
That story is one that we treasure in our work at Park Avenue, but it is illustrative for another reason. The idea of these two churches, Ebenezer and Park Avenue, worshiping together as one was simply inconceivable for far too many years. Singing songs together, side by side, from the same instrument, was not something many folks could or were willing to dream about, and yet from those old pipes spilled songs that would inspire a young man to dream of what could be, a community where all persons were loved unconditionally and held in mutual regard.
Today, each Sunday folks begin to filter into Park Avenue. There isn’t an organ in sight, just a piano, a keyboard and a few other instruments. The audience varies week to week from majority Anglo to majority African-American. There are college professors and fixed income seniors, folks on government assistance and folks with financial planners. It is not perfect and it is not monolithic.
We are fortunate to live in a diverse community and have a congregation that has courageously said that it seeks to reflect that community in every way. And so we laugh and we worship, we pray and we disagree, we love and we hope, as a community. As for whether or not we are the fullness of the Beloved Community, I’m not sure we are there yet.
The vision of the Beloved Community is one where we think first of others, and last of ourselves — where we are more committed to the vision of the future where all are welcomed, loved and valued.
Are we there yet? I don’t think so. Following the march from Selma to Montgomery, Dr. King exhorted the crowd that they had not yet realized their goal, but he boldly cried out “How long?” to which the crowd replied “Not long!”
We are now in the tenuous position of becoming the answer to our own prayers. Whether we will the Beloved Community to existence is now up to us — to value others higher than we value ourselves, to dismantle our explicit and implicit structures of segregation, to value one another as a child of God. The question of “How long?” abides. The answer is entirely up to us.
Trey Lyon is one of CBF’s field personnel. He serves with his wife, Jen, and they work alongside Park Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. Learn more about the Lyons ministry here.
This column is Part 8 of the Dr. King and Beloved Community series here at CBFblog. Check out other posts in this series below:
Part 1 — ”Dr. King and Beloved Community — A CBFblog series” (by Aaron Weaver, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship)
Part 2 — “The The Spiritual Discipline of Martin Luther King Jr.” (by Doug Weaver, Baylor University)
Part 3 — “Celebrating Dr. King and the Separation of Church and State” (by Charles Watson Jr., Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty)
Part 4 — “‘Tell Them About the Dream, Martin!’” (by Patrick Anderson, Christian Ethics Today)
Part 5 — “Little boxes on the hillside — Dr. King’s Dream as part of God’s Dream” (by Lanta Cooper, Park Avenue Baptist Church)
Part 6 — “MLK Day of Service at First Baptist Church, Decatur Ga. (by Sharyn Dowd, FBC Decatur)
Part 7 — “Disturbers of the Peace: Living into Dr. King’s Dream (by Jim Holladay of Lyndon Baptist Church, Louisville, Ky.)