A few days ago I was in Selma, Alabama. Or at least felt as if I had been.
A retired pastor friend and I went to see Selma, the movie about the marches Martin Luther King, Jr. led from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965.
It was a powerful depiction of what led to the marches, demanding voting rights for all people, and especially black people in Alabama. The conscience of the nation had been stirred by the death of four young girls when their church was bombed, and the vicious earlier beatings of non-violent protesters.
David Oyelowo, the British actor who plays King, gives a strong performance. He depicts the growth of King’s vision, and the violent opposition from white racists. He shows his internal struggles with other civil rights leaders, and the worries of his wife about what all this was doing to their children. There are hints of his own fears and flaws.
None of that stopped him. Those fears and doubts he overcame. The march from Selma to Montgomery did take place. And a voting act was passed by Congress.
When we left the movie my pastor friend and I could hardly speak. He sighed, “I wish I had not been so blind back then.”
Later in 1965 I was in Montgomery for a Billy Graham crusade. Tens of thousands, black and white sat together, another pointer to reconciliation.
On the Sunday morning I was assigned to preach at a local church. After the service I was appalled to learn that a young African-American airman, soon to go to Viet Nam, came to that church that morning and was turned away. The ushers claimed he was coming not to worship but to protest, which was not true.
I made a public statement that I would never preach in a segregated church, found the name of the airman, and had a friend who was going to Viet Nam deliver a letter of apology to him.
The new law opened voting booths. Clearly they didn’t open all the church doors. But they had an effect. I have since been back to that church, and their policies have changed – late in the game, but now open to all people.
What moved me about Selma was not only the film, but how it started for David Oyelowo – as a whisper. When he first read the script he felt God tell him that he was going to play this role. “That may sound odd to people who aren’t people of faith,” he says, “but I knew that deeply in my spirit. It kept me going.”
Several years ago, David felt led to call Lee Daniels, the director of the film The Butler, who at the time was scheduled to direct Selma. The day before Daniels was to attend an Academy Awards ceremony, David offered to pray for hm. “I need that,” said Daniels, and later told a friend, “I have found my Dr. King.”
David Oyelowo also found a calling, beyond the movie. One of the byproducts of the film is an initiative called “Hand in Hand.” Black and white churches watch the film together then talk about reconciliation.
Why these thoughts on Valentine’s Day? Because the day is named for St. Valentinus, a Roman priest executed in 269 because of his stand for Christian marriage, which was forbidden by the emperor. His final note, it is said, was to a young blind woman, signed “From your Valentine,” – the forgotten inspiration behind our romantic notes.
It reminds me that God did not send a card to tell us he loves us. He sent his Son to die for us, and to inspire us to love as he loved.
Toward the end of Selma a government official pleads with King not to march in the open, to ride in a closed car. King pauses, then says “Today is not about what I want. It is about what God wants.”
Many of us may wish we had been at Selma fifty years ago. But there are many Selmas in our world, many roads to Montgomery, many reconciliations, in many areas of our lives, that still need to happen. I wonder what God wants from us today, beyond the flowers and candy for those we love?
Which roads, I wonder, is God asking you and me to walk?
February 14, 2015