“When Grandma was ten, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.” My seven-year-old daughter likes to bring up this fact at random times. It startles me, her easy connection to a death five decades ago. I never told her this, exactly. I did read her a book about Ruby Bridges, the first black girl to integrate an all-white school in 1960, noting that Bridges, who is alive and well, is the exact same age as my mother. When my daughter learned about King during Black History Month at her school last year, she must have remembered this detail and fused the dates, linking King to the beloved grandmother whose life is her lens into history.
My own memories of learning about Martin Luther King Jr. are hazier. I remember being told, when I was very young, that he was an adulterer. I remember absorbing the belief from my school books that he was a man who helped to end racism in my country a long, long time ago. And in college, at a Bible school, I remember analyzing his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as a masterpiece of rhetoric, with little attention paid to the content or to the awareness that I and my tribe might fit into the exact audience to whom King was writing. I was disconnected both from the power of his faith-fueled nonviolent action and to the immediacy of his words to our present context.
Yet the older I get, the more deeply I find myself moved by this man, especially his bedrock belief in neighbor-love. “Love your neighbor” – the words sound so simplistic, yet coming from a man who practiced them at great cost to himself, they are no mere platitude. What does it take to truly love your neighbor? In answering that question, King turned the parable of the Good Samaritan on its head, calling Christians to more than mere acts of charity. He said, “We must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.” The Christian, King says, not only takes care of those in trouble but looks to the systems actively oppressing them.
A Modern-Day Jericho Road
We need such an interpretation again today, shouted from the rooftops by people who have spent their life’s work both tending to the beaten and demanding that the Jericho Road become a place of safety. While King spoke primarily about poverty in the United States, surely there is no limit to the geography of neighbor-love. As the world has become increasingly connected by trade, war, migration, and social media, our responsibility to our global neighbor has grown too.
Yet that’s not the way many of my fellow believers see it. American Christians – or, to be more precise, white evangelical Christians – are now world-famous for their overwhelming support for building a wall between the United States and Mexico and deporting the undocumented people who are already here. These attitudes form part of a broader picture: 76 percent of white evangelicals approve of Trump’s travel ban on Muslims, and 69 percent are “very concerned” about domestic Islamic extremism (only a third of non-religious Americans feel the same way). My people – the ones who raised me to go and be a light and a witness for Christ among the nations – are more likely than any other Christian group to say they have low respect for Muslims.
What would Martin Luther King Jr. say to people who claim to follow God while spearheading a movement aimed at closing borders, building walls, separating families, and cold-shouldering the persecuted and destitute? His words seem as relevant as ever: “One of the great tragedies of man’s long trek along the highway of history has been the limiting of neighborly concern to tribe, race, class, or nation.”
The Other America
I’ll admit that King’s convictions on this point did not make sense to me either until I experienced firsthand what the effects of our still-segregated society are. In my early twenties, I found myself working with refugee families in my city of Portland, Oregon. I became sucked into their lives on the periphery of my glowing, busy city: the dingy apartment complexes with predatory landlords, the under-resourced and understaffed schools, the endless tangles of bureaucracy in order to get basic needs met. The more I hung out in refugee communities, the more I saw “the Other America” that King spoke about: the America that lives in poverty and economic despair.
Getting to know refugees also brought me into contact with others who were disproportionately affected by poverty. I started to second-guess what I had absorbed about the American Dream: that anyone could make something of themselves if only they tried hard enough. I learned how segregated our school systems are, how segregated our cities are (on purpose, through practices like redlining), and how the criminal justice system disproportionately targets and incarcerates communities of color. I met so many people who had been left by the wayside of the Jericho Road.
“If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.” —Martin Luther King Jr.
Story by story, neighbor by neighbor, I began to see. Refugees, immigrants, black men and Native American women, families suffering under generational poverty – they all became my teachers. Over time I began to understand the systemic nature of their experiences, and my own role and responsibility to bear witness.
I know how the recent travel bans have devastated lives, because I know people for whom the bans are personal: families who have survived hell on earth and who have beat insurmountable odds to resettle in the United States (where less than 1 percent of all refugees end up) – only to realize that their dreams of being reunited with family members are now on hold indefinitely. Last year one young woman showed me pictures of her fiancé, who lives and works in Germany, giggling as she talked about her hopes for their life together. Now she is caught in an impossible dilemma: since her fiancé is a national of a country currently on the US travel ban list, there is little to no possibility he will be able to join her. Does she stay here with her siblings and mother and father (who is paralyzed due to a sniper’s bullet), or does she say goodbye in order to be with the man she loves?
Another friend of mine, who has lived in the United States for almost two years, tells me she has been sleeping too much during the day. Her arms hurt and she has dark shadows under her eyes. When I ask what is wrong, she shows me pictures of her elderly mother, in her eighties, lying very sick in a hospital across the world. My friend cannot leave America to visit her until she gets US citizenship, which takes five years of residency to attain. Nor will our country give her mother a travel visa. My friend feels trapped, stuck in her apartment, cooking food for her children and her neighbors, going to English class, fighting to start over – all the while mourning the reality that she will not be able to say goodbye to her mother in person.
I sit in my friends’ apartments; they serve me food and try to smile. Then I go home and see Facebook posts from Christian friends and family members gleeful about building border walls and banning entire nations from immigrating based on religion. How can all this energy and passion be spent on drawing lines between which people do and do not belong? Without my neighbors and their stories of anguish and hope, I would never recognize the Jericho Road conditions in my own country. For that, I am grateful. And heartbroken.
A Burning House?
According to the United Nations, in 2016 over 65.2 million people, more than half of them children, were forcibly displaced as a result of violence, conflict, persecution, or lack of human rights. Despite the horror that these statistics represent, the United States is on track to resettle less than half of the lowest proposed number of refugee cases in the history of the refugee resettlement program. This program was created after World War II in part to atone for past sins such as denying visas to Jews looking to escape the Holocaust. Now, as the program dwindles, I fear that we as a country will have to atone for our omission in the eyes of a just and loving God.
The day before he was assassinated, King phoned his church and gave them the title of his sermon: “Why America May Go to Hell.” While we can never know what exactly he planned to preach, the title strikes me as sadly relevant to the American church in 2018. As King so eloquently said, “If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not actively participate in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will.”
Through my work with refugee families, I have been pushed to the limits of compassion and challenged to think about my own role and the role of my community in creating such a broken Jericho Road. I can reach out and touch it with my fingers – the ways my religion and my country have added to the violence in the world. America is built on empire, said King, but Jesus built on love. We have a lot more building to do.
King spent the last years of his life building coalitions between sometimes unlikely groups in the pursuit of a moral revival focused on the issues affecting the poor: black, white, and immigrant: “I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights… when we see that there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” While today’s global refugee crisis was not a challenge he faced, it’s clear where his sympathies lay: he worked with migrants in the United States and even sent Cesar Chavez a telegram saying that their “separate struggles are really one.”
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King wrote about giving thanks that “noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom,” calling these Christians who risked offending the status quo “the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times.” But right up to the end of his life, he struggled with the chasm between the stated values of American Christians and how they actually lived and loved their neighbors. “Are we integrating into a burning house?” he asked himself and others. Sometimes I am tempted to ask the same question. As I ask my fellow Christians to welcome immigrants and refugees, to take care of the sojourner and the widow and the orphan, I long for a new understanding of hospitality in our nation, starting from within our churches.
Loving Tomorrow’s Neighbors
When I was my daughter’s age I wanted to be a missionary. I wanted to do big things for God, and this seemed like the grandest gesture one could make: to leave your family behind, sail off into another world, and save everyone. My life took a few twists and turns, but when I was twenty I found myself in a foreign country for a few months, testing the waters to see if I could make it for the long haul. I loved the experience of being a foreigner – the new food, the new culture, the excitement of difference – but sometimes I would be shocked. Like when one of my beloved hosts made an offhand and derogatory comment about the Roma (“gypsies”) in her city. I protested that it was wrong to put down an entire group of people. My host looked at me calmly and asked, “But what about the way you white Americans treated black people?” I was stunned silent.
This kind of learning, while painful, is vital. Some days I’m undone by the changes that refuse to happen, by the daily impossibilities my nearest neighbors face just to get through each day.
“I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” —Martin Luther King Jr.
I am learning, too, not to be afraid of owning my piece in the story of violence and inhospitality. If the American church stands idly by while our nation closes its doors to the most vulnerable of God’s children, we might well be on our way to becoming that irrelevant country club.
And yet, as I look at my daughter, at the children she goes to school with, the books she reads, and how she makes sense of the world, I have hope. I pray that as she connects the dots – between herself and Martin Luther King, between pioneers like Ruby Bridges and her friends from Somalia, Mexico, and Syria – these connections will continue to build her capacity to love her neighbor, even in the midst of fearful times.
And I have faith in a God who saves us from our sins, the God who wants to redeem everyone: the beaten and battered on life’s highway, the Levites and priests who ignore them, and all of us who are caught up in the structure of suffering and guilt that is the Jericho Road.
Photographs reproduced by permission of Mary Kang