The year is 1957. Montgomery is bathed in sunshine. Birds in nearby trees are singing. The street is lined with large-bodied cars. DeSotos, Plymouths, Chevys, and Studebakers. It’s Sunday morning, people are on their way to church.
The Baptist church that sits on the corner of Dexter Avenue and Decatur Street is full. People are filing into their pews.
It has been quite a year. The Soviet Union just launched Sputnik; Vietnam is heating up; Hurricane Audrey tore up the Gulf Coast; nine teenage African American students began attending the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. And just when times couldn’t get any harder, Jackie Robinson retired.
It’s hot inside this building. People are fanning themselves with church bulletins. The room is alive with the chatter of hardworking men and women, dressed in their Sunday finery.
Service begins. Everyone stands. A choir sings a few hymns. People clap in rhythm with the singing. A little boy does his best to clap along with everyone else, but he can’t quite get it.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the church building itself. The faded red bricks, the cathedral windows, the acoustic dome behind the pulpit. You get the feeling that there are lots of stories within these walls.
This building was erected in 1883 on a small lot facing the Alabama State Capitol. The elders bought the land for $270 bucks. The church took six years to construct, but a lifetime to build.
When the music ends, a preacher man takes the pulpit. He is a medium-sized man. Maybe five-seven. Visitors are always a little surprised by how short he is. People always imagine him as being 12 feet tall and made of granite.
The preacher wears a plain black robe with a skinny necktie. He has a full face, sharp eyes, a mustache.
There is nothing small about the clergyman’s voice, it travels throughout the crevices of this old building like a folk song. He speaks in the anvil tones of an ironsmith, using short sentences that hit harder than a Buick.
The crowd offers a response after each of the preacher’s phrases. Newcomers find themselves getting swept up in the excitement of it all. There are a few journalists in the back. Some scribbling on notepads, a few with microphones.
The sermon, however, is nothing like what today’s visitors expected. Many of them were thinking that the preacher would call fire down from the ceiling. But today’s homily is not like that.
The preacher grips the lectern and says in a soft melodic voice: “I want to turn your attention to the subject of loving your enemies…”
People shift in their seats. A middle-aged woman dabs sweat from her forehead with a hanky. A little boy dressed in a blue serge suit becomes fidgety.
The preacher says, “…It is a love that seeks nothing in return, it is an overflowing love, it’s what theologians would call the love of God…”
The sea of faces are nothing but earnest. A few lean forward in their seats. A baby in back begins to cry.
“LOVE!” shouts the preacher. “And when you rise to love on this level you begin to love men, not because they are likable, but because GAWD loves’em!”
More amens from the congregation.
One can’t help but notice how sincere he is. A lot of preachers flail their hands and scream. But he uses no theatrics. The five-foot-seven man is merely talking in the key of E major.
“…Look at every man and love him, because you know God loves him, though he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen…”
Everyone is uttering amens now. And the preacher is just getting warmed up. He stands behind the ornate wooden pulpit, raising his voice to hit notes not found on the musical staff. He’s not so much yelling, he’s serenading the saints.
“There are a lotta people I find difficult to like!” the preacher says. “I don’t like what they do to me! I don’t like what they say about me! I don’t like their attitudes! I don’t like some of the things they’re doing! I don’t like them. But Jesus said to LOVE them…!”
A few rise to their feet. Several are waving hands. The preacher is hitting them where they live now. He works with the same elegant mastery you’d find in a Michelangelo, in a Bach prelude, or when Willie Howard Mays Jr. catches a fly ball.
“Just keep loving people! Keep lovin’em! Even though they’re mistreating you! A person who is a neighbor, or a person who is doing something wrong to you! Just keep being friendly to that person! Keep lovin’em! Don’t do anything to embarrass them, just keep loving them…!”
“And by the power of your love, they will BREAK DOWN UNDER THE LOAD!”
A young woman is crying now. So are choir members, old men, teenagers, and even reporters. It’s not so much what the preacher is saying, it’s what the outside world has been doing lately. People are fighting, some are tearing the fabric of kindness in two.
The preacher lowers his voice. The room gets quiet, with the occasional sniffle from the crowd. Even the preacher wipes his face with his sleeve.
He says, “So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into all the eyes of my brothers in Alabama, and all over America, and all over the world, I say to you, ‘I love you.’
“And I would rather die than hate you.”
Yes. Dr. King sure could preach.