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(Not) Celebrating MLK Day

January 22, 2008 by

This is an open question to local churches everywhere, specifically predominantly-white congregations: Where were the MLK Day celebrations?

Firsthand, I heard of none*. A news search led me to the celebration of Willow Creek Community Church and Salem Baptist Church. The largely white Willow Creek and the largely black Salem Baptist joined together to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to promote unity.

This seems like a wonderful day to move towards breaking the “white church/black church” stereotype, and I’m not quite sure why more historically-white churches didn’t follow suit with Willow Creek.

It provides great occasion to ask ourselves, what message are we sending to others not like ourselves?


The hardest place to market is people unlike you. But people unlike you need Christ just as much as you do. It’s a fundamental problem in marketing, “How do I reach people unlike myself?”

What a wonderful opportunity to transcend race. Dr. King was not only a symbol of civil rights, but a symbol of freedom. He died for the freedom of those to follow him. It’s an incredible example for us all—red, yellow, black and white—to follow. White congregations, however, seem to shy away from celebrating Dr. King, for whatever reason. I’m not here to speculate on those reasons or psychoanalyze anyone, but I am here to propose something. Take this great occasion to reach out to your community, and seize every opportunity to cross the gap of marketing to people unlike you.

Here’s a quote from the article regarding Willow and Salem that sums things up far better than I could:

“It starts with small relationships. It starts with being able to talk to the guy who works in the cubicle next to you and doesn’t look like you or maybe has an accent,” Kevin Belton, 43, said after the service at Willow Creek. “You realize you have more similarities than differences.”

*I do live in an area still permeated by racial tension and feelings of supremacy (although most would deny it). So maybe in other places, lots of these services went on. A cursory news search doesn’t reveal too many demographically “white churches” celebrating a historically “black holiday.” I use quotations because neither one of these terms is a reality. Neither churches nor holidays have races.

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Joshua Cody


Josh Cody served as our associate editor for several years before moving on to bigger things. Like Texas. These days he lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, and you can find him online or on Twitter when he's not wrestling code.
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19 Responses to “(Not) Celebrating MLK Day”

  • Kevin D. Hendricks
    January 22, 2008

    Amen, Josh!
    My church service went by without a mention of MLK, and it wasn’t until Monday that I realized it. Doh.
    I did, however, notice a news article about two Twin Cities congregations getting together to overcome the racial divide–and they’ve been doing it for 17 years!


  • Anjuan
    January 22, 2008

    I am an African American Christian who works in the technology industry. My church (which is predominately black) had an annual MLK celebration on MLK Day. None of the white churches in my area mentioned or recognized MLK Day. I also had to go to the MLK celebration late because my company does not recognize the holiday.
    As a person who probably could not work at the job I have or live in the my neighborhood without the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, this is frustrating. However, I came to realization: Most white people live their lives in a world without black people; and they like it that way. Open oppression of black people is no longer permitted in this country. So, we don’t have Jim Crow laws and lynchings. However, covert racism is alive and well, and one of the worst ways to hurt a person is to make him invisible. Invisibility means no access to jobs, education, etc. I think this desire for Black invisibility, to subconsciously wish African Americans out of existence (at least white existence) explains the actions of your church and many other white churches.
    We have the the ultimate message of unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Despite this, race continues to dramatically divide us. Until we honestly admit and address this problem, it will continue to do so.


  • Jason Wells
    January 22, 2008

    Great question! I work in a predominantly white church in New Hampshire. We are about the only state that didn’t recognize MLK Day until only 2005 or so. Previously it was “Civil Rights Day” and a minor holiday only.
    Our (Episcopal) church did nothing during worship to commemorate the day. But we did have about 15% of the congregation join the local interfaith council for a viewing of the film “At the River I Stand.” The film is a partial biography of MLK and his activity in Memphis. There was a discussion afterward.
    Just thought I’d pass along the data point!


  • jason
    January 22, 2008

    I get so tired of this argument and and the perspective whites get nailed with.
    I will get pinged as a racist after this, because we’re all extra sensitive when a white guy says ANYTHING about blacks (or other races)…so be it, but it’s not true. I’m simply challenging the statements to see the other side.
    Know, I do agree churches–black, white, hispanic, and asian–don’t sync up enough, if at all, on any occasion, holiday, or event to unite the “great race divide.”
    What exhausts me the most is it always seems white people, white churches, white businesses, and white whatever else can’t ever seem to do enough to reach out to other races to give them a fair shake at life!
    What holiday do black churches use to reach out to different communities? Cinco De Mayo?
    I guess whites bare all the responsibility cause we’re the “supreme race” and the prime reason all oppression exists in America. (that’s a sarcastic statement by the way).
    I guess if ALL churches wanted to reach people “unlike myself” we would march with gays at Disney Land!


  • Jay
    January 22, 2008

    our basically white church, joined with a basically black sister church that is using the upstairs of our building, to hold services together and the preacher from our sister church gave the talk. it was a great change up in style and method and was nice to feel like we were making real attempts to become more multi ethnic. The preacher talked about the sin of partiality (using james) and then led that into the sin of racism (peter rebuking paul). It was a great message and I think it was a great experience for both churches. It’s something we plan to continue doing in the future.


  • jt
    January 22, 2008

    Actually our church did, I was really proud of that. The Sunday sermon was all about Martin Luther King Jr and his influences and then our congregation met with a predominantly black congregation and celebrated and sang on Monday.


  • Anjuan
    January 22, 2008

    Jason,
    I do not think you are racist, nor do I think that white people are responsible for all of the oppression in the world. However, I do think that it is telling that one of the most influential Americans of the last century is ignored by many white churches on the day set apart to honor his legacy.
    Dr. King was not only a crusader for the rights of black people. He wanted equality for all disadvantaged people, especially the poor. I can only assume, Jason, that you have not spent much time with black or poor people. I think if you were able to do so then you would understand the level of respect that should be given for someone who worked so hard to help them.
    It is not the poor who need to know about poverty. The privileged are the ones who need to be educated about what it means to be poor. So , that is why man people feel the need inform white people about the less fortunate (though I know this exhausts you). Like it or not, fair or not, white people are the privileged racial group in this country. And just as Jesus Christ left the ultimate privileged existence in heaven to help us who lived in despicable spiritual poverty, I think that there is a responsibility for us to do the same as much as possible. I say “us” because I work in the information technology industry and am married to a college professor. I try to use my privileged status to help those less fortunate than I am (black, white, or other) whenever I can. I hope that you are doing the same, Jason.


  • charles
    January 22, 2008

    Our church did an entire service devoted to racial and other equalities, including an interview with an African-American church pastor on steps toward reconciliation…
    “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” MLK Jr.
    Just so you know that a few “white churches “refused to be silent about it…


  • Eric Wakeling
    January 23, 2008

    This is hard because I work at a predominantly “white church” that didn’t talk about MLK day in services, but I personally wrote about him on my blog. But I also know that we don’t really think of our worship services as an opportunity to “celebrate a holiday” as you put it. We see our worship services as an opportunity to worship the Almighty God. I think that Dr. King could have and should have been mentioned in some way in the sermon, but to have a full celebration seems outside of our purpose – to worship God. Also, how many “holidays” would be appropriate to celebrate? How many different cultures? I also think that we are trying to serve our community and the minorities represented in ways that go far beyond a superficial celebration.


  • jh
    January 23, 2008

    A majority of churches don’t aknowledge the multitude of those who gave thier lives fighting for our freedom (Memorial Day) let alone honoring this great one man who did the same (MLK).


  • Lex
    January 23, 2008

    Our church didn’t mention MLK at all and I’m sorry to say I still don’t see why it’s a big deal. (And about 1/3 of our congregation is black.)
    Our worship service focused on Jesus, because we’re part of the Church. Since when is the Church obligated to recognize political holidays? The largest minority in our community is Hispanic, but we don’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo either. We have a noticeable Polish community too, but Kashmir Pulaski Day isn’t on our church calendar.
    It’s not because we “refuse to be silent about it,” or because we “desire Black invisibility.” It’s because we come together for two hours a week to celebrate Christ, and He is our focus.
    Our congregation serves the poor (black, white, Hispanic …) with free rides, free groceries, etc. I’m all for church marketing, but I’m not all for making a gimmick out of a holiday to get people’s attention. We need to walk the walk.
    Rather than highlight division, the Church needs to get back to her first love.


  • Don
    January 23, 2008

    Are churches obliged to celebrate national holidays?
    We didn’t officially celebrate MLK, Jr. day but we don’t celebrate Independence Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day or Thanksgiving Day either. (For that matter, we don’t celebrate Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day.)
    MLK, Jr. is someone to celebrate for almost all aspects of his life and especially for his work but it should be more in how the church lives out her calling to promote mercy and call the nation to justice rather than a checklist to see who “celebrated”.


  • brad
    January 23, 2008

    I get the point(s) about church purpose. And I appreciate that we don’t want to turn said recognition into a marketing gimmick. But when people listing all the things they don’t celebrate to make a point, my opinion is that we take a hit on the relevant score (not to mention fun factor — no Mother’s Day? Seriously?).
    When it concerns a person that has as noble a history and reputation as Martin Luther King Jr., it does seem rather gratuitous. Acknowledging him in some way in the course of a service seems less likely to cause harm/offense than ignoring him. After all, the church exists in the midst of politics, history and social justice just like everything else. Doesn’t it make sense to come to terms with it?


  • Jason
    January 23, 2008

    @ Anjuan
    I appreciate your point of view and the automatic “privileged” status you label me with because I’m white.
    There’s no doubt MLK was an important historical figure who made great strides (with success) to overcome racial inequality and to bring justice to all.
    White presidents who founded this free country did great things too. What black church celebrates that?
    More than anything, I’m exhausted with the double standard placed on all races–it always be (atleast in my point of view) blacks support blacks, whites support whites, hispanics for hispanics…
    How do you fix that?


  • Steve
    January 28, 2008

    I don’t know if this is celebrating it, but I certainly addressed it from the pulpit and even tied it right in to Sanctity of Life Sunday which was the day right before it.
    Did you know Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s “dream” of eliminating “inferior races – blacks and hispanics” through “forced sterilization and abortion” is killing Dr. King’s dream. She called blacks “human weeds.” Abortion is the #1 killer of blacks – more black babies are aborted than being born. Check it out yourself… http://www.blackgenocide.com
    I bet that didn’t come forth in too many pulpits this year… we think we are ok with God just preaching the “gospel.” But the gospel is more than mere forgiveness for sin, it’s a kingdom message of freedom for the captive, justice for the oppressed and concern for the “least of these.”


  • Bill Walker
    January 30, 2008

    The unfortunate truth is that Dr. King, while a great man fighting for great ideals, denied the literal truth of the virgin birth, deity of Christ, and the resurrection. He was also widely known as an adulterer.
    Does this detract from his service as a civil-rights leader? No, I don’t think so. But I don’t think that as the church, we can claim him as “one of ours” any more than we can claim Ghandi as a Christian hero.
    Tough words, I know.


  • Caleb
    January 30, 2008

    Well, I go to a very mixed church. And yes, we did not celebrate MLK Day. But we also don’t celebrate Washington’s B-Day, Columbus Day, or even Cinco de Mayo. So what does that mean? Do we need to recognize these days also, or not?


  • Kevin D. Hendricks
    February 15, 2008

    I’m not sure what you’re talking about, Bill Walker. I would think a Baptist minister is one of our own, warts and all.
    And reading over these responses I think it’s kind of funny that a lot of people are seeing this as a burden. Oh no, they want us to talk about MLK. Well what about Colombus Day and Ground Hog’s Day and Secretary’s Day?
    Nobody is suggesting a burden. It’s not like your church has to put on an MLK pageant. What we have here is an opportunity. Here’s an incredible story of a Christian battling injustice. Let’s celebrate that story in whatever way makes sense. Maybe it is a full blown celebration, but maybe it’s just a comment in the sermon.
    Same goes for other holidays or figures you think present an opportunity. Talk about St. Patrick or Washington or whoever. They’re opportunities. MLK Day is a chance to overcome racial barriers that exist in the church.


  • RDL
    January 20, 2009

    The founding fathers’ were child-molesting, slave-holding, indian-land stealing and killing, money and power worshippers.
    Its because they were not christians that we needed a MLK and why B. Obama’s win means so much.
    Its also part of the reason we will never reconcile.



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