By Dorothy Sanders Wells
Thank you, MIFA, for inviting me to be part of this day on which we celebrate the life and legacy of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and recognize the outstanding young people who are finalists in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Teen Oratorical Contest. I am deeply honored and privileged to be here to share a few thoughts with you today.
Dr. King’s life and legacy give us much to celebrate this day. His commitment to justice for the poor and underserved, his unwavering belief in racial equality, his determination to meet hatred with love, his refusal to resort to the violence that surrounded him on every front, his voice which empowered so many to dare to step out in faith with him continue to be a cause for celebration not only here in our community, but across our country, and throughout the world. It was his commitment to justice that brought him to Memphis not once, but twice, to give aid to striking sanitation workers who rightfully demanded better working conditions, wages and benefits.
Too often, I fear, here in Memphis, Dr. King’s death overshadows his life. Our celebration is overtaken with mourning. I understand those sentiments. I was a very young child when Dr. King was killed, too young to truly understand what he had done, too young to understand what kind of voice had been silenced. What I do remember are the reactions of the adults around me – my parents and family members, including an uncle who had marched alongside Dr. King in Alabama. They wept and grieved and mourned, as did so many in our country. For them, it was a day to believe all hope was lost. For them, it was a day to believe that the dream had died with the dreamer.
I stand before you today not to mourn or lament, but truly to celebrate. I stand before you today to suggest that the dream has not died, but that the dream lives on in each and every one of us gathered here today. I stand before you today to suggest that our city is a better place because of his dream. That dream has inspired and influenced so many who refused to allow hatred to define our community’s existence.
It is one of those stories that I would like to share with you today – a chapter of my church’s story – the Episcopal Church’s story – in the Civil Rights Movement here in Memphis. In 1968, during the sanitation workers’ strike, The Very Rev. William Dimmick, Dean of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral on Poplar Avenue, Downtown, stood firmly in his commitment to support the troubled workers. Dean Dimmick and other Memphis clergy not only tried to offer support to the workers, but labored to mediate a settlement of the strike with then-Mayor Loeb and city leaders; an all-night meeting to attempt to settle the strike was held at St. Mary’s Cathedral, but regrettably, the group’s efforts were not successful.
But Dean Dimmick’s story does not end there. The day after Dr. King died, Dean Dimmick hosted a memorial service for area ministers, priests and rabbis, at the Cathedral. As the group considered what they might do to help end the sanitation workers’ strike and bring peace to the community, they made an impromptu decision to march to City Hall to ask Mayor Loeb to make concessions and to pray for an end to the strike. It was Dean Dimmick, carrying the Cathedral’s procession cross, who led the march.
Dean Dimmick’s decision to lead the march to the mayor’s office was not a popular one, and it came at a cost: I’m told that probably half of the people who worshipped at St. Mary’s Cathedral left the church and never returned. Dean Dimmick was undaunted, and joined an interfaith group of Memphis clergy who gathered together in the wake of the tragedy to try to address poverty and human suffering in the community; Dean Dimmick remained committed to working with this group – which would later be called the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, an organization which continues to be a backbone of support for seniors, families in crisis and youth in our community.
Dean Dimmick and so many others who chose to take a stand with Dr. King were willing to risk being a voice for the voiceless and fighting for justice for all people, notwithstanding the personal, professional and social cost. What separates these heroes in our society was that the dream lived on in them, and in their commitment to our great community. They heard the call to stand for what was right, and they answered it.
On the day before he lost his life in Memphis, the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed a crowd at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, and he drew on a story to which Christians often refer as the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story, which is recounted in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of a man who, as he is traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, is beaten by robbers and left severely wounded on the side of the road. Two holy men come along, see the man, and pass by on the other side of the road, leaving him there. But a third man, a Samaritan, comes along, sees the wounded man, and stops. In the words of Luke’s Gospel, this Samaritan is moved with pity, and cares for the man. He puts the man on his donkey, takes him to an inn, and cares for him, and the next day, the Samaritan pays the innkeeper to continue caring for the man, promising to pay him anything else that he might owe when he returns from his journey.
No explanation is given in Luke’s Gospel for why the two holy men pass the injured man without helping him. In his address, Dr. King offered some possibilities: Perhaps they were in a hurry, with important holy work to do. Perhaps they assumed the injured man to be dead, and didn’t want to risk becoming defiled, or left unclean, by touching him. Perhaps they thought that the attackers might still be around, hiding, waiting on someone to stop, so that they could easily trap their next victim. Perhaps they though the whole thing to be a ruse, the man only pretending to be injured and waiting himself to attack someone who stopped to help. Whatever the reason, the two holy men didn’t stop to help.
And this is a place in which context is important to the story. The man who stopped to help – the Samaritan – was for many reasons the least likely person to stop to render aid. This man who hailed from Samaria was a foreigner in the world of ancient Judea. The Samaritans were hated people. There is no greater irony that the man who stopped perhaps had the most to fear in approaching this stranger on the road. If robbers were still nearby, or if the whole thing were a ruse, his own life could have been in grave jeopardy.
As Dr. King reflected on this parable, he offered that it was possible that, the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the [Good] Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” … The question [before us today] is not, “If I stop to help [our neighbors] in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help [our neighbors in need], what will happen to them?” That’s the question.
That question – that same question that Dr. King asked here in Memphis nearly forty-five years ago – is still the question before us today: If we do not stop to help our sisters and brothers in need here in our community, what will happen to them?
No doubt, Memphis 45 years later is a very different community with much for which to be proud. The work of MIFA certainly stands among our most shining achievements – bringing the inter-faith community together to serve the most vulnerable among us. Memphis is home to several Fortune 500 companies, which bring jobs, talent and worldwide recognition to our city. Memphis is home to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which continues to find cures for children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Memphis is home to medical technology firms which design and develop innovative products that change the face of health care. Memphis is home to tremendous generosity in philanthropy, recognized as one of the most generous urban areas in the country. Memphis is home to colleges and universities, seminaries and a medical school which prepare thousands of students for careers in a rapidly-changing world. Memphis is home to my alma mater, Rhodes College, the college which ranks #1 in most service-minded institutions of higher learning. And Memphis is home to a professional basketball franchise that generously supports area hospitals, schools and children in need.
But we cannot boast our accomplishments without also recognizing that Memphis has room for growth and improvement. Memphis has been named a Hunger Capital of the United States, with 26% of our families reportedly not being able to afford to buy sufficient food. High school graduation rates in Memphis lag behind those in the state of Tennessee as a whole, and not surprisingly, so do median incomes; too many of our families live in poverty. And here, in Zip code 38126, despite great strides have been made to reduce infant deaths, the infant mortality rate is still perilously high, higher than state and national rates.
So where do we go from here? What do we do? We can ask the question that Dr. King asked here in Memphis in 1968: If I do not stop to help our neighbors in need, what will happen to them? And we can go out into the community to serve them. We can – as we will do in just a short while – feed our hungry, shelter our homeless, and make an investment in our community’s future by supporting our schools with our time, talent and treasure. We can stand in solidarity with those who suffer injustice, and demand the transformation of societal systems that promote oppression.
Today in many Christian traditions we recognize St. Agnes. Agnes was believed to have been only a young girl when she was martyred in Rome in the year 304, during a period in which Christians were persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian. For her refusal to worship heathen gods, Agnes was burned at the stake. Today, as we recommit our own lives to serving those around us, we can be inspired by her faithfulness…we can refuse to worship the gods of selfishness and greed, of isolation and separation which will destroy our community. We can, as Dean Dimmick did, lead the procession in the fight for justice. We can, as Dr. King did, meet hatred with love.
After graduating from Rhodes College, Dorothy Wells obtained a J. D. from the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis, and served as an adjunct law professor in addition to her work in legal compliance at FedEx. But as the success of her legal career grew, so did the persistent feeling that her calling was in the church.
Dorothy entered the Episcopal Church’s ordination process and enrolled at Memphis Theological Seminary in 2008. In 2009, she arrived at Collierville’s Church of the Holy Apostles as a seminary intern. Following her graduation from seminary, she was ordained as a deacon, and then as a priest in December 2012. She continues to serve at Holy Apostles, where she helped establish the congregation’s strong partnership with MIFA.