"TELL THEM ABOUT
On Wednesday August 28, 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to the podium for The Great March on Washington, believe it or not, never intending to use the phrase “I have a dream”. He had used that same phrase in several other speeches and sermons on various occasions. So they were familiar words to his faithful following. His close advisers, not thinking it would have the same impact at such a huge and national event, as it did before his more religious audiences, discouraged him from using the same theme again. Perhaps they thought it was a bit too “Pie in the sky”, or maybe even too “Churchy”, and “preachy” for the average American listener. Whatever their reasons, they effectively convinced him to go a different route. So, with help from his speech writer, Clarence B. Jones, he drafted a different speech for the big day. However, as he spoke, the iconic gospel singer and close friend of King, Mahalia Jackson, uttered the words that shifted the speech, the civil rights movement and eventually the Nation. She said, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” King immediately abandoned his prepared notes, and improvised the rest of his discourse with, perhaps the most electrifying results of any speech in modern history.
Mahalia Jackson was not only one of the greatest voices to ever grace a stage. On that historic summer day on the Washington mall she was, ironically, the only voice in proximity to that stage that said what Dr. King needed to hear, and he in turn said what America needed to hear. She was the only one who discerned the prophetic weaponry in his spiritual arsenal that was necessary for that moment. That weapon was his dream.
It’s no secret that no one could intellectualize, philosophize, or sermonize better than Dr. King. He was a hermeneutical and homiletical genius. But at this moment in time, as profound a thinker and prolific a speaker as he was, not just any of his prewritten classics, or memorized masterpieces would suffice. It had to fit the moment. And as any preacher worth their salt would attest to, sometimes you don’t know what fits the moment until you’re in the moment. So after he finished delivering, with wotting eloquence, words about racial equality, economic disparity, and the need for change, the weapon he needed now was hope. For the adversary he was up against was not just hatred in wicked hearts, but also hopelessness in hurting hearts. Because of Mahalia Jackson he did not end that speech as the prophet speaking truth to power, but rather he ended it as the poetic preacher prophesying hope to the powerless. He didn’t end his epic oration reminding America of how bad things were, but rather inspiring America to imagine how great things could be.
Certainly everything he had said prior to talking about his dream was profound, thought-provoking, and even heart wrenching. But the Civil rights movement needed King to do more than just speak words that would make America think. Or make America feel bad about the current plight of African Americans. It needed him to strike a match and light a fire. It needed him to start a fire of hope that could shine the light of truth into darkened hearts filled with ignorance, indifference, and despair. That fire needed to burn hotter than what he referred to as “the sweltering summer of the negros legitimate discontent.”
There are those times when wicked men in seats of power need to be confronted. And then there are times when weary men in situations of despair need to be comforted. This speech did just that. It struck the perfect balance between confronting the oppressor and comforting the oppressed. And oh what a fire it started! Not a fire of controversy, but of compassion, that from the White House to the poor house set many white Americans' hearts ablaze with empathy and understanding. And though, obviously that fire of hope was not enough to burn down the frigid forest of our greatest fears, it nevertheless shone a brilliant light that made our nation envision a version of itself it had not previously thought possible. A version of itself where people will be judged no longer by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. A version of itself where freedom can ring from every village, hamlet and mountain side. Where a stone of hope can be hewed out of the mountain of despair, so that justice can roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Yes God used our beloved Sister Jackson on that hot summer day. Had she not said, “Tell them about the dream Martin.”, Dr. King still would have given a really dynamic speech. He was capable of nothing less. But I doubt very seriously that it would have compared to the monumental speech it became. As a preacher for many years now, I have come to realize that there are many times when your listeners need you to give them hard facts and difficult figures. Times when you need to present perspectives that cause such mental provocation that they feel the weight of your sobering words resting on their shoulders, challenging them to rise up and carry their cross. But there are other times when they need you to speak words that impart the grace to lift their heavy burdens and break their dreadful yokes. Yes, there comes a time when we have to tell them about the dream. For the dream is not ours but His that sent us. May all of God’s servants in this hour never forget that.
We must boldly and unapologetically share the dream that God has placed in our hearts. Because truth is not merely a compilation of carefully measured facts and figures presented in a public forum for an audience's consideration. That is an aspect of truth, but not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Truth is the heart of the eternal spoken through the lips of the temporal. It’s when we shout from the rooftops the words He whispered to us in the prayer closet. Truth is not only the message itself, but the spirit behind the message, convicting us of our wickedness and convincing us of God’s goodness. Truth is the courageous declaration of a dream not yet fulfilled. Martin Luther King’s dream was not a fantasy, it was a prophecy. An interesting thing about prophecy is that the prophet has to be bold enough to say it, long before people are brave enough to live it. So Mahalia appealed to that poetic soul that occasionally prophesied about his dream. And she wanted him to declare that dream on the capitol steps in front of 250,000 people, in Washington D.C and millions watching and listening by television and radio.
Sometimes even the best of us need a Mahalia Jackson. Someone who can help us read the proverbial room and discern the precise moment to remind us of our dream. Every voice needs another voice to help give voice to words that yet remain unspoken. So maybe at this moment in time as we’ve come to the end of black history month, we too need to hear the legendary and melodious voice of the Queen of gospel. And as thrilling as it would be to hear her sing “Precious Lord”, and “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.”, maybe the song we need to hear her sing was never put to music, but is still among her greatest hits. For I am certain that when she said, “Tell them about the dream Martin.”, it was music to his ears.
So in 2021, while racial tensions are still high, and the gasoline of partisan politics is continually poured on the ferocious flames of bigotry, let’s tell them about the dream. Not as naive sheep blindly following selfish and sadistic leaders, eager to accept whatever demoralizing and dismissive treatment they deem fit. But rather, let us speak as empowered citizens of an unshakable kingdom ready to aggressively enforce its laws of love, and compassion. Let’s get on our soapbox again, unashamedly and even embarrassingly talk about the dream. Let’s tell our family, our friends, enemies, neighbors, coworkers and even strangers that we have a dream. A dream of a world where high places are brought low, and valleys ascend to mountainous heights. Where the lofty are humbled and the humble are exalted. A dream where we no longer applaud ourselves for not being haters but challenge ourselves to start being healers. Let’s talk about the dream. A dream when love will conquer hate, peace will dispel confusion, and the glorious light of truth will expose the diabolical deeds of deception. A dream where the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will not only sit together at the table of brotherhood, but also share the bread of empathy and understanding. Let’s talk about the dream! Let’s talk about a time when “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all God’s holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:6-9 KJV). Let’s talk about the dream! Even though we don’t see it, let’s say it, and say it, and say it again until we see it come to pass. And if we never see it in this world, let’s keep on proclaiming it, for we will see it in the world to come.
Rohan A. Peart, Senior Pastor