At the River

The Mississippi is a wide, muddy
river. Any kid from Memphis
knows, you do not want to be in
that dangerous swirl. It is much
better to see the deep river roll from the
city’s high bluffs. Until 2013, you could view
the Mississippi at “Confederate Park” or
from “Jefferson Davis Park.” But the city
changed the names of these parks, as part
of the ongoing debate about Confederate
Just as deep as the Mississippi, the racial
legacy of the city has a murky undertow.
Evidence of this is readily visible in the
tourist contours of downtown and in
the dilapidated neighborhoods hugging
major throughways. A history of black
disenfranchisement and exploitation
brought Martin Luther King Jr. to
Memphis in 1968 to address striking
sanitation workers. The unrest of the
workers came to a head when a faulty,
outdated garbage truck bed crushed two
workers as they sought shelter from a fierce
summer rain. Echol Cole and Robert
Walker died on Feb. 1.
On a stormy April 3 night, King
delivered his electrifying Mountaintop
speech at Mason Temple Church of God
in Christ to strikers and their supporters.
The next morning, he stood on the balcony
of the Lorraine Motel with his team, two
blocks from the bluffs of the Mississippi,
discussing the next gathering they would
have leading up to the scheduled Sanitation
March. One of his last requests was for
“Precious Lord, Take My Hand” to be sung.
King’s stand in Memphis, and the
many he had taken prior, had deadly
consequences for him on April 4. It also had
profound implications for this country. At
the time of his assassination, King and the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference
were preparing a mass demonstration of the
Poor People’s Campaign for Washington,
D.C. By visiting cities like Memphis,
King highlighted the country’s enduring
economic disparities mired in racism.
Fifty years later, the road remains steep
as we look out on the landscape of the U.S.
and its faith communities. The undertow
seems to be trying to get stronger. United
Methodists still have much to address about
our racial inheritance and where God may
yet lead us toward repentance and renewal.
The Baltimore-Washington Conference,
through the Northeastern Jurisdiction’s
Call to Action on Racial Justice, has invited
congregations “to engage in conversations
and experiences that help them take the
next step toward becoming racial justice
change agents.” In a spirit of sacred
remembrance and call to action, I will be
helping to head a BWC lay and clergy
pilgrimage to Memphis April 3-7, 2018.

I am poised to be a bridge to the
Memphis bluffs. My parents migrated
to Memphis from Mississippi to engage
in urban ministry in 1971. I was born at
Methodist Hospital in 1981 and moved
across the city growing up as a preacher’s
kid. I went to the Midwest for college
and graduate studies, but was ordained in
the Memphis Conference of The United
Methodist Church. Now, as an Elder in
the BWC, I keep in touch with my native
city. For better and worse, the mighty
Mississippi courses through me.
We will begin our Sojourn at the River.
Each day will begin and end in worship.
We will speak to locals, visit historic sites,
and learn about the city as it was in 1968
and about its current landscape. We will
participate in commemoration activities,
but also find ourselves off the beaten path
connecting with less publicized landmarks
and community organizers at work today.
King never made it to the 1968 Poor
People’s Campaign national demonstration
or what became “Resurrection City,”
but we anticipate returning to D.C. in
Eastertide more equipped to live out the
imperatives of his legacy. Our hearts will
be full of the lessons that can only come in
pilgrimage, ready to address the ongoing
issues we face throughout the BWC and
our local churches. I invite lay and clergy
to come along and experience my muddy,
remarkable, still-in-need-of-redeeming city.
Rev. Claire Mathenyblur-river-blurred-background.jpg