The KKK, The Annunciation, and Hope in the Midst of It All

Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38a).

Some years ago, when I was a pastor in Middlesboro, Kentucky, an African-American man shot and killed his white girlfriend’s seven year-old boy, Jeremy. He said it was an accident, that they’d just been playing around when his pistol fell and discharged, hitting the boy in the back. He was charged with murder.

At his arraignment the judge set bail—which someone put up the money for—and he was released. Unusual in a murder trial, to be sure. I don’t remember now what reason the judge gave for setting bail, but the Ku Klux Klan up in Indiana got wind of it. They were outraged that the man was out walking the streets. They made a big fuss—said they were going to stage a big rally in the parking lot at city hall—said they were going to fight for “Justice for Jeremy.”

The announcement of a rally drew a great deal of media attention. So, the ministerial association got together and decided that we had to respond somehow. It was tough. What could we do? We were only about ten ministers. As we sat there contemplating a response, someone said, “What can we do that nobody else can?”

Not much.

“Wrong answer. We can worship. Why don’t we have a worship service of reconciliation and healing at the arts auditorium at the same time the Klan is doing their white-hooded sheet dance down at city hall? What if we could draw people away from their hate-filled bull-horn rally, and convince them to come pray?”

So, that’s what we did. We had speakers come in, people from all over the state came down to join us to proclaim that things were different in Middlesboro, Kentucky, that the heart of Appalachia, beaten down by so many other things—joblessness, poverty, illiteracy, drugs—was at least not a place where hate could find a home.

The town was tense—ready for some kind of pyrotechnics. We had our service and they had their rally. We received a great deal of criticism for doing it, but we felt like we had no other choice.

After the prayer service, which about 250 people attended, someone came up to me and said, “There were like 2,500 people downtown at the Klan rally.”[1]

“Seriously?” I thought. “They had ten times as many people as we did? How did that happen?”

And I have to be honest with you. I was angry. I was depressed. Here we’d spent the better part of three weeks trying to get people to stay away from downtown, trying to convince them that the way to answer this threat to the unity of our city was to stay away from the hate group that was going to gather down at city hall. Instead of rubbernecking the yahoos in sheets, we offered a way of responding to the hate through love in a service of prayer.

Now, it’s not like we didn’t get the word out. You’d have had to have been hiding under an extraordinarily large rock not to know that there was an alternative service. The media across the state, for their part, were wonderfully helpful in trying to get the message out that a prayer service was being held at the same time as the Klan rally. We tried as much as humanly possible to get people to understand what we thought was the faithful response in this situation.

Well, when I heard that 10 times as many people thought it was more important for them to get a look at the spectacle down at city hall, I confess: I was upset–and later I was downright discouraged.

But then I did something that I always do; I shared my disappointment with my wife. And in her always wise way she pointed out to me that perhaps all the people God needed to make a difference in this situation were down at the arts center, praying for healing and reconciliation. The implication being that maybe the success or failure of our efforts didn’t rise or fall with my interpretation of the numbers, that maybe God was doing exactly what God needed to do to get God’s work accomplished.

We pleaded and begged, thinking that if we didn’t produce the results no results would be produced. But upon reflection, I think Susan was right. I believe that we had exactly the right number of people there to accomplish God’s purposes. God generally doesn’t call big crowds anyway. Usually, God calls one or two folks. But even in the hands of one willing person, the work of God can set the world on its ear.

That’s the reason I like the annunciation; it’s the story of one unknown teenage girl from out in the sticks who, when told that she’s the centerpiece of God’s plan to become present to a lost and dying world says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And with that, Mary becomes what the Greek Orthodox call, the theotokos, the “God-bearer.”

God extends that same call to us.

Now, we can say no and get on with our lives as we’ve laid them out. We can choose to ignore the messenger, and chances are the messenger will go away.

But if we say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” we become Mary’s people. We become “God-bearers” to a world fueled by hatred and sin.

The great mercy of God proclaimed to us during Advent is that there are still a few folks, a few of Mary’s people out there who are capable of saying, “let it be with me according to your word.”

It doesn’t take much. Just a few people willing to bear God to a world where the poor and the powerless continue to receive the short end of the stick, a few people willing to sit at the bedside of the sick and the addicted and the dying, a few people willing to put their arms around the shoulders of a troubled teen to say, “It’s going to be all right—I promise, it’s going to be all right,” just a few people willing to hold the hands of the aging, a few people to stand by the side of the lost, the unwelcome, the forgotten ones and say, “Welcome. Hate has no home here.”

The good news of the Gospel is that it doesn’t take much, only a teenaged girl from the middle of nowhere willing to say, “let it be with me according to your word,” and the world can never be the same.

  1. The local paper later reported that it was more like 1,000.  ↩