I grew up in the woods, in a small northern California town. People there were generally miners, descendants of miners, or expired-hippie-boomers who wanted to start a family away from San Francisco. My parents were the latter. They raised me with music and travel, as well as backpacking and stacking wood. My parents built our solar house around us in the ’70s and started a tree nursery. I went to church on Sundays, sat in storytime at the library, and had little TV reception except for PBS.
In elementary school, I learned about Abe Lincoln, George Washington, and Martin Luther King Jr. I did not, however, learn perspective. To me, Washington and King were in the same category: history. They had holidays; they happened millenia or eons ago. The abolition of slavery, the first Thanksgiving, and the moon landing were all equidistant from me. When you are a kid, your world is about you, and you are too immature to think otherwise.
In January of 2000, I had graduated university, married, and was carrying my first child. Then, as now, I had little to overcome. Where we were staying, while my husband did military training, was a few miles from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. This church was Martin Luther King’s first church, and it was also his birthday celebration. What a happy coincidence. I was not focusing on the timeline of history or coincidences as I headed to church. I was exploring the world, like one does while traveling, like reading a history book. I was expecting someone would give a civil rights speech like I had seen Jesse Jackson give on TV. It was a church, but maybe it wouldn’t be too church-y. All that civil rights stuff was history. I made assumptions about what people there would be doing, but ultimately what they were doing was…. going to church.
We sat mid-way back in a dark wood pew. There were a dozen men sitting, in what to me should be the choir loft, but they weren’t a singing choir. The church bulletin said they were the elders, so more like “a great cloud of witnesses” facing the congregation. They were old. Most of the people were as old as my grandparents. In a contemplative moment I realized, yes, the elders were church leaders. More than leaders, they were friends of a man assassinated less than a decade before I was born. He had changed the world enough to get into a 3rd-grade history book, a street named in most cities, and a holiday.
The service started, and there was no civil rights speech. The sermon was about God and the love of God through Jesus. We read from the Bible, Old and New Testaments. The hymns were full of life and love. It was like at my church, only more Baptist. I was happily perplexed.
History came to me, and not like a textbook, when we stood at the end and the lady next to me grabbed my hand. I grabbed the hand next to mine. I grabbed the hand, that held the hand of Martin Luther King Jr. in protest. We sang the song I did not need a hymnbook to know: We Shall Overcome.
The members of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church held my hand in love because we are brothers and sisters. They were, and are still longing to overcome because protest is never finished. Their longing is my longing as well. Their protest is my protest. I held the hand, that held the hand of Martin Luther King Jr.
We shall overcome someday.