Reflections on Memphis: The past, the present, and the future we hope for

June 26, 2017

As the rain fell on a hot and muggy Southern afternoon, I stood there outside the husk of what was once a proud church—and is still a landmark in the Civil Rights movement—as cars and trucks were slowly exiting the gravel driveway across the road from me. With my hands in my pockets, I was trying to wrap my head around the feedback we had just received and the task we had in front of us.

For the last hour and a half, my colleagues and I had been in a planning discussion with various leaders of all colors in Memphis about how to best reflect the successes and the challenges to accomplishing racial unity in this storied Southern city and how to do so in a respectful manner in the context of a horrifying anniversary: the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King 50 years ago.

We encountered skepticism from some about whether our intentions were legitimate. We heard from others that far more was going to have to be done if we were truly going to get this right. We felt the pain of years of marginalization from a few. And we had moments recounted for us where society itself raged against our black brothers and sisters.

As a Tennessean, I was angry at my state. It’s hard not to wince when someone tells you how they were tear-gassed by the local police while they were meeting—inside a church. Part of you wants to say that will never happen again, but then the other part tells you to look around and understand we are all still dealing with the vestiges of that dark time in our nation’s history, even if we don’t want to admit as much.

As a Christian, I was anguished. Racism is evidence of the fall. And though while spiritual, its physical manifestations have been cause to much pain and death. Some of the experiences that were shared with us on that day reminded me of just how far our Genesis 3 descent has taken us.

As I walked back through the creaking doors and into the old church, I thanked the final handful of attendees for coming and sharing their experiences. I paused another moment and remembered how grateful I am that Dr. King did all he could in his 39 years to afflict the conscience of society and stir the hearts of the church to action against prejudice and racism, and the systemic wrongs those sentiments perpetrated. I think he would have been heartened by the conversation that took place, because everyone was open and honest in their discourse.

There are people hard at work who view the pursuit of racial harmony as a gospel imperative.

And so that gave me hope. A dialogue had begun about shaping an agenda that accurately portrays where Memphis and our society is on race. Is that enough? Far from it. But it’s an important and necessary step as we look to the future.

So there I was, standing in a dusty sanctuary, hopeful, angry, and anguished all at once. Reflecting on the experience, perhaps Clayborn Temple is exactly where I needed to be. You see, while this edifice had been abandoned for many years, it now houses a small, but growing, congregation again. There is life once more in those old bones as hymns are sung, the Word is proclaimed, and a multi-ethnic congregation meets in a city still racked with division that, at times, can be as thick as the humidity. As they do so, they are doing the renovation work necessary to restore the site to its former glory.

There are people hard at work who view the pursuit of racial harmony as a gospel imperative.

That’s an appropriate analogy to end on. Much like Clayborn, it’s still abundantly clear there is a lot of work to do. Like the sagging staircases and patched-up stained glass windows of that church, our nation sometimes seems to be a pock-marked shell of the opportunity society the rhetoric of our founding promised. Yet, if you look closely, there are people hard at work moving us day-by-day to get there; co-laborers who view the pursuit of racial harmony as a gospel imperative. Just like that church, they are rallying around the Creator who tells us this is not how it was meant to be and gave his Son to lead us to a place where things will be as they should..

I drove away from Memphis awed by the resolve I witnessed, grieved by the magnitude of the hurt inflicted upon some of our new friends, and buoyed by the level of discourse we experienced. I am eager to return there with my teammates and get this right. It’s time for the church to be the Galatians 2 model we are called to be—for every race.

Racial unity is a gospel issue and all the more urgent 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. Join the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition at a special event, “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop,” taking place April 4, 2018, in Memphis, Tenn. Key speakers include Russell Moore, Benjamin Watson, John Piper, Jackie Hill Perry, Matt Chandler, Eric Mason and many others. Learn more here.

Brent Leatherwood

Brent Leatherwood serves as Chief of Staff. In this role, he directs the office of the President and is also responsible for strategic partnerships and media relations. Before coming to the ERLC, he served as the executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party from December 2012 to December 2016, where he managed the … Read More