Redeeming the Soul of a Nation

I was on a field trip to a nature center outside of Chicago on that April day. My fourth-grade class at Gresham Elementary School had escaped our urban neighborhood of dark, red brick bungaloes set on little patches of green and gone to a nature center in the suburbs. We saw flowers blooming and learned how to speak about them in Latin.

Mr. Smith, our teacher, was a dreamy, chocolatey brown man who smiled all the time, a smile as bright as his highly shined shoes. Even when scolding rowdy tweens, his eyes kept the smile going. So when his face was crumpled, his eyes swollen, we knew something was wrong before he spoke to us.

On April 4, 1968, at about 6:00p, Mr. Smith gathered us together just before we boarded the bus home and said, “Children, I have terrible news for you. Dr. Martin Luther King has been shot. He was standing on the balcony of his motel with his friends when a gunman took his life.” Dr. King was dead, our teacher was weeping, and we were stunned into grief.

That night, Chicago was on fire. Even our pleasant South Side neighborhood erupted in violence. We could hear people shouting in the streets; some were shooting guns. My sister and I hid under out beds for a while, and I imagined, one month before my 9th birthday, that since Dr. King was dead, I was going to have to pick up his mantle and do his work. This was the beginning of my sense of call. I knew I’d join him in being a drum major for peace, that I’d work so that no matter the color of one’s skin, one could be loved, celebrated, and have enough.

Now, 50 years later, I am the Senior Minister of the church of my dreams, the church of Dr. King’s dream, the church of God’s dreams. In all of our ethnic and cultural diversity, in all of our sexual orientations and genders, in the wide breadth of our ages and the ways we see God through diverse eyes—I am so in love with us, so very called to the work we are doing to heal the nation, to redeem her soul.

And, 50 years after Dr. King’s death, I have a new friend, colleague, and partner in the movement for love and justice. Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee alumna, Civil Rights activist and public theologian Ruby Nell Sales is coming to Middle Church. She will make her home here! Together, her non-profit SpiritHouse Project and Middle Church will form the The Center for Social and Spiritual Restoration. The center will be a national project that offers a common space where people of different social locations come together to address the spiritual and social impediments that stand in the way of up-building a beloved community and a more realized democracy that is both transformative and sustainable.

A few weeks ago, I was with Ruby in Char­lottesville, listening to the way she speaks to people of all ethnicities. She calls them to action  in her gentle voice, her brilliant insights pouring out of her like ginger tea. Strong, brewed with love. Meant for healing people. Meant for redeeming the soul of our nation. 

Ruby has a wonderful spirituality, a deep religious soul, that she calls “black folk religion.” In a conversation with Krista Tippet, Ruby described an experience of realizing that God is always present, healing her, redeeming her soul:

“I was riding down the road one day in Washington, D.C. after having been at a demonstration against the war in Iraq. And suddenly, out of nowhere, I started crying, and I realized that God had been with me even when I hadn’t been with myself. And those moments made me really begin to seek, to go back to really think deeply about black folk religion and to really want to develop, in a very intentional way, an inner life that had to do with how I lived in the world.”

Ruby and I will offer our annual Martin Luther King., Jr. teach-in on January 14, 2017, at 3:00p. We will talk about black folk religion, about completing God’s dream, and about redeeming the soul of America. You won’t want to miss it.

Toward the Love Revolution, and a healed world,


Jacqui Lewis