Undivided Lives, Undivided Communities

Today we celebrate the life of a great American, a man who more than anyone embodied the vision of a nation striving to become better, a nation truer to its principles. At the time of his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. was an increasingly uncomfortable and troublesome figure to some authorities. His appeal for justice caused them to label him a rabble-rouser and a socialist. “Yet he loved America so much,” says Richard W. Wills, former senior pastor at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, who has written extensively on the civil rights leader, “that even at the height of Jim Crow segregation he claimed to be a citizen of a great society to which he pledged allegiance.”


He also claimed dual citizenship, Wills told a breakfast for community leaders in Richmond last week. He recognized a higher power that he served. “His passion for justice and for civil rights was grounded in that second citizenship.”

King frequently reminded his followers that the achievement of civil rights did not in itself represent the goal: “The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.”

This month, Hope in the Cities and the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities launched a metropolitan Richmond project, “Unpacking the 2010 Census: The New Realities of Race, Class and Jurisdiction.” Teams of facilitators will present a powerful new DVD using data aimed at provoking discussion about policy options to address poverty and structural inequity in the region (see my last blog on Ben Campbell’s book, Richmond’s Unhealed History). 

Healing a divided community requires us, as facilitators, to live authentic, undivided lives. The author and educator Parker Palmer writes, “If we are going to make the journey toward the undivided life, we need trustworthy relationships, tenacious communities of support.”

Parker facilitates what he calls “circles of trust,” designed to create safe spaces “where the soul feels safe enough to show up and make its claim on our lives.” And he cautions, “The soul’s freedom ends where my agenda begins.”*

Richmond’s ongoing journey to wholeness over the past three decades builds on the actions of specific individuals who have had the courage and faith to open their hearts to allow God to heal their woundedness and to create a space of trust with those whom they most distrusted.

Audrey and Collie Burton, long-time civil rights activists, reached out to Howe Todd, a white senior city administrator. They invited Todd and his wife to their home. They traveled together to other cities. They had honest conversation. Such was the effect on Todd that the leader of a community organization remarked, “Whenever I went into a meeting with him, I felt that the cards were stacked, that the decisions were already made. Now he really listens to what I have to say.” The new relationship sent ripples across the city. 

A friend once asked, “Who are the six blacks and six whites who, if they had a Damascus Road experience, could transform Richmond?” His question illustrates a strategy for community mobilization which is not dependent on organizational capacity. Rather, it involves careful discernment to identify individuals through whose radical change the community might glimpse entirely new possibilities.

In “Unpacking the 2010 Census,” much crucial date will be shared. But beyond dissemination of data, we pray for transformed lives. Richmond – and the country – is crying out for leaders, who, in the words of Mari Fitzduff, the Northern Irish peacemaker, can “transcend the needs of their own group,” and who are willing to risk becoming “strangers in their own land.”

This calls for a ministry of accompaniment. As people of faith, we must accompany leaders who will have the courage to stand for fundamental and costly change; leaders who will live undivided lives and build the undivided American community for which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his all.