“Many Gifts”

January 19, 2014


I Corinthians 12:4-13


Students return—and we’re always glad for that, even though it means we no longer enjoy the abundance of parking spaces that we’ve had in recent weeks—classes start, and as is the custom and calendar at the University, the spring semester begins with the annual Celebration of Human Rights honoring the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. What used to be a week now starts with the interfaith worship service tonight and continues through the end of the month.

It should be a point of pride—not only for the university but for our whole community that the recognition of King’s birthday has been a tradition at the University of Iowa since 1969, and that since its inception in 1986 the national holiday has been observed through human rights programs.

Speaking about human rights recently, our own Sandy Boyd said, “It’s a never-ending frontier — we always need to move forward.”

We do.

For a few minutes this morning I want us to think together about how we move forward. And I want us to think about how we move forward together.

The path is rarely straight.

And we walk that path with many others.

In Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 an African American woman got on a Capital Heights bus downtown to ride to her home. She relied on the city's buses. She sat in the middle section. By now everyone knows what was expected. If the bus became so crowded that all the "white seats" in front were filled and a white person was standing, African Americans were supposed to leave these seats and move to the back and stand if needed. When a white woman got on the bus and was standing, the bus driver ordered this woman and two other black passengers to get up and move to the back.

By now, everyone knows what happened next. When the woman refused, she was removed from the bus and arrested by two police officers.

What everyone might not know is that this woman was not Rosa Parks, who was arrested nine months later for the same offense. The first person to be arrested for resisting the segregation of buses in Montgomery was a teenager, Claudette Colvin. She was handcuffed, arrested and forcibly removed from the bus. She shouted that her constitutional rights were being violated.

For some time, the African American leaders in Montgomery didn’t publicize Colvin's pioneering effort because she was a teenager and became pregnant while unmarried. Given the social norms of the time and her youth, the leaders worried about using her to represent their movement.

Someone else was needed. And, yes, that “someone” proved to be Rosa Parks.

Growing up I learned the story that Rosa Parks was coming home from a long day of working as a seamstress in a department store. She was simply too tired to give up her bus seat to a white passenger.

The reality, of course was that she was the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. She had recently attended the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a center for training activists for workers’ rights and racial equality. Civil rights leaders thought that Parks was the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for violating Alabama segregation laws though eventually her case became bogged down in the state courts.

Colvin. Parks.

And then there was E. D. Nixon, the president of the Montgomery chapters of the NAACP. Nixon had been organizing work against segregation before the arrest of Rosa Parks and saw in her the person who would move the African-American community to action. Nixon organized a meeting of local ministers at the church of a young minister who was new to the city, Martin Luther King, Jr. Ultimately King agreed to lead a citywide boycott of public transit.  

In retrospect, their demand seems small: a fixed dividing line for the segregated sections of the buses. Such a line would have meant that if the white section of the bus was oversubscribed, whites would have to stand; blacks would not be forced to give up their seats to whites. This demand was a compromise for the leaders of the boycott, who believed that the city of Montgomery would be more likely to accept it rather than a demand for a full integration of the buses. This was to be supplemented by a requirement that all bus passengers receive courteous treatment by bus operators, be seated on a first-come, first-served basis, and that blacks be employed as bus drivers.

The boycott lasted over a year. And we know how it worked. Leaders organized a system of carpools, with car owners volunteering their vehicles or themselves driving people to various destinations. Some white women also drove their black domestic servants to work. When the city pressured local insurance companies to stop insuring cars used in the carpools, the boycott leaders arranged policies with Lloyds’ of London. Some people biked, walked, or even rode mules or drove horse-drawn buggies. Some hitchhiked.

We know, too, the ferocity of the white response. The houses of King and of Ralph Abernathy were firebombed as were four churches. Boycotters were physically attacked. And yet, when some 300 African-Americans gathered in anger at King’s bombed-out house, he stirred them to stay the nonviolent course they had chosen, saying:

If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus: 'He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword'. We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: 'Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you'. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with the movement. Go home with this glowing faith and this radiant assurance.

“If I am stopped, this movement will not stop.” Something was happening that was greater than one man—even as great a man as King. What began with a teenager on a bus had become a movement of thousands.

King and 89 other boycott leaders and carpool drivers were indicted for conspiring to interfere with a business under a 1921 ordinance. Rather than wait to be arrested, they turned themselves in as an act of defiance.

As the boycott continued so too did the court case of Claudette Colvin and four other women challenging racial segregation on buses. The case ultimately went to the Supreme Court, which declared Alabama’s racial segregation laws unconstitutional in December of 1956, leading to the end of the boycott on December 20.

“There are different gifts,” Paul told the early Christians in Corinth. “There are different gifts, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”

A young woman with the teenage gift of resistance, willing to shout and even to go to court if necessary.

An older woman with the gift of deep commitment to racial equality informed by training in nonviolence.

A persistent leader not only gifted in organizing people but also knowing how to influence clergy to elicit their at first reluctant support.

A young minister with many gifts, including the ability to speak in ways that would galvanize people to keep their eyes on the prize in through difficult and dangerous days.

And thousands of people with the gift of a passion for justice that sustained them during a 381 day boycott.

There are different gifts.

And God activates them in everyone.

The Press-Citizen reported yesterday that three years after the end of the Montgomery bus boycott, the leader of that action visited Iowa City and spoke down the hill at the IMU. That night, Martin Luther King, Jr., told the crowd, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle — the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

It was not one person but dedicated individuals working together, using their various gifts, that won victory in Montgomery. It is dedicated individuals working together that have brought us this far on the path toward full human rights for all people, that sustain us as we dare to move forward into that never-ending frontier.

Equality is not without struggle.

Peace does not come without confrontation.

Justice brings its own requirements for our lives and our world.

King’s goal was to create what he called “a beloved community.” This was not some utopian vision that was unattainable on this earth in this life. Both and inward and an outward transformation were necessary. But King was convinced that if enough people were trained in and committed to nonviolence, just such a community would come into being.

The theme for this year’s human rights celebration comes from King’s statement: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

What are you doing for others?

The participants in the Montgomery bus boycott—the leaders and the followers, the known and honored, the unknown and unacknowledged—all teach us that “doing for others” is not an isolated effort. The gifts of Claudette Colvin were as needed for the success of that action as the gifts of Martin Luther King.  We gain the courage and strength we need to use our gifts from the actions of others even as we give strength to others through what we do.

I like to think that in our own small way, this congregation is part of that great effort to build the beloved community. In this city and for this campus we are a strong witness to God’s acceptance of and love for all people. We do this as a community, as a congregation. We do this by using our various gifts together. And, yes, our witness does require courage, for not everyone agrees with us. But it is one way that we move toward the community that King envisioned. It is one way that we move forward in the pursuit of human rights.

None of this is done by one person alone. We move forward when together we recognize and use the unique and powerful gifts that we have.