During the week preceding Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, Fresno Pacific University welcomed King colleague and representative Calvin Morris to center stage for its annual Staley Lecture Series. From January 9-11, Morris spoke about Martin Luther King, Jr. and related themes.
Morris is the executive director of Community Renewal Society, a faith-based organization geared towards empowering the disadvantaged by eliminating racism and poverty, and has a roster of involvement in other religious, educational and civil rights organizations that fight racial, social and economic injustices. These include serving as executive vice president for academic services and academic dean at Interdenominational Theological Center, teaching and administration at Howard University School of Divinity, directing the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change in Atlanta, working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Jr.
Equipped with historical and ministerial training (Ph. D. and M.A. in history, B.A.s in sacred theology and history and ordination as a minister in the United Methodist Church), Morris was primed to bring his audience moving messages. Grasping the podium as if it was a pulpit, he came to preach.
Wednesday's College Hour lecture centered around John 3, the story of how Christians are reborn. Morris focused on how society categorizes people. "Who's who?" he asked. "The whoness question is basic to our society....The way we're defined by our culture can be injurious."
Categorizing people is not a recent phenomenon. Jesus, said Morris, was defined as "just a Jew" by Roman authorities. Almost 2000 years later, fingers point at the gay community. "We denigrate them because of their sexuality," said Morris. The unity demonstrated in John 3:16, what Morris calls the essence of the Christian gospel, should be our focal point: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."
Thursday's lecture addressed the context of King's social movement. "Events do not occur in vacuums," said Morris. He focused on a series of turning points in America's social change: desegregating the armed forces, Jackie Robinson's admittance in major league baseball, the monumental cases of Plessy vs. Ferguson and Brown vs. Board of Education and Rosa Park's refusal to give up her bus seat.
America's social history towards racial minorities has been anything but noble. "The contours of American history are such that we ebb and flow," said Morris. "Ours is a history of the continuation of a struggle." The struggle, said Morris, is for one great sisterhood and brotherhood. America has been involved in a great paradox when addressing social freedoms. Our nation has been more concerned, said Morris, with freedoms outside of its borders than within.
The church as a whole has not been blameless, either. "Much of the Christian Church has not been a leader in the pursuit of freedom," said Morris. Instead, acquiescence in slavery, segregation and Jim Crow laws made up much of the church's stance in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries.
In closing, Morris challenged the church. "It's easy to be a Christian if you're on top," referring to skin color and preferential treatment. His final words were on unity. Morris reminded the audience of students and faculty of King's belief in the wholeness of the gospel. "Our unity's in Him [Jesus Christ]." And with the commanding words only a preacher can deliver, Morris ended with a lasting thought. "We don't get to the crown without the cross."