In 1964, US President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. This act ended racial segregation in public places, theatres, churches, hotels and hospitals and granted whites and Afro-Americans equal rights to employment. This article is dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the adoption of this act and to the person who served as the beacon for the civil rights movement.
Our airplane took off from Tbilisi airport with a swoosh. The sky was clear. Looking out of the window, one could see the sun-scorched landscape below and patches of fluffy clouds above.
Haj Faigh Nabiyev, Namik Gajiyev and I were sitting on the one side of the aisle whilst Bishop Ilia Osepaishvili and Gela Guniava on the other. Our delegation was heading for Iran and Iraq. The airplane belonged to Iranian airlines.
Once the airplane leveled out at its cruising altitude, the Iranian stewardesses got down to their jobs. First, they distributed soft drinks and then a delicious dinner. For a person accustomed to the menus of European airlines, the food on the tray seemed unusual: fried fish with rice prepared in the oriental method and eggplant – almost the same as my mother used to cook in summer – with tomato and egg; a colorful salad sprinkled with dill; yoghurt, dried fruits and sweets. Before I rolled up my sleeves and tackled the food with knife and fork, I observed everything with pleasure. Another stewardess passed by distributing bottles to passengers. I could hardly believe my eyes when I looked at the bottle before me – a bottle of beer on an Iranian airplane!!! It had a logo that looked like that of Budweiser, though its inscriptions were in Persian.Sitting next to me, Haj Faigh noticed my surprise.
"Bishop, do not confuse this with beer," he said, smiling.
"What is it, then?" I wondered.
"It is a non-alcoholic drink, but it tastes like Bavarian beer."
"Wow!" I expressed my sincere surprise and opened up the bottle. It was pleasant to have a cold drink. Suddenly a tricky idea struck my mind.
"But how do you, a Muslim, know how Bavarian beer tastes?" I asked, refraining from suggesting that he might have been drinking secretly for fear that he might misunderstand my joke.
"No, Bishop," replied Haj Faigh in a manner suggesting that he was attempting to find an excuse, "I have never tried beer or any other alcoholic beverage, but have heard from those who have tried both."
Haj Faigh's explanations seemed credible because the drink in the imitation beer bottle did not taste like Bavarian or any other type of beer. Had he ever tasted beer before, he would not have said that.
A Georgian man from Fereydan, Akbar Moghadasi, met us at Tehran airport. He hired two taxis and we set off towards Qom. The road crossed a semi-desert. The ground had such a strange color and such strange volcanic formations could be seen alongside the road that had we been unaware of where we were, we might have thought that we were on an unknown planet.
The strange thing was that along this dusty road, where the ground was scorched by the sun, cars were parked here and there. A little deeper from the roadside families were having dinner. Some even had samovars and were drinking tea. I felt as if I were looking at surrealist pictures. "They might think that they are having a picnic in nature," I thought to myself, but did not utter a word.
Finally, we reached Qom. There we were met by Desorkhi, whom I had first met in Tbilisi. Back then he had been clad in a suit, now he was wearing a religious vestment: a black robe and a black turban neatly wound around his head. A black turban is the headdress of only those who are regarded to be biological heirs of the Prophet Muhammad. Society, of course, treats those wearing black turbans with a higher degree of respect and awe. Had Jesus Christ had a wife and children, His heirs would have been treated with a similar level of respect.
Desorkhi took us to a five-room apartment. "This will be your residence until the end of your stay in Iran," he told us.Having looked around the rooms, we brought in our baggage. In the large living room with low tables arranged in a line, a nicely decorated New Year tree stood conspicuously in a corner. "What could this mean?" I thought to myself, unable to figure it out. Finally, I could not resist asking Akbar:
"The Christmas tree, why is it standing here?"
"Why?" Akbar rejoined, even more surprised than me. "Desorkhi had it put up as a token of respect to you." I had never thought before that a Christmas tree could be a symbol of Christianity for Muslims. Had it been December, it would have been understandable, but it was September. Desorkhi's gesture pleased me very much and I thanked him sincerely for the Christmas tree. If, in general, dialogue implies healing the hearts and wounds of the participants, then this Christmas tree must be perceived as Desorkhi's symbolic gesture of reconciliation between Muslims and Christians.
That evening Akbar took us to his house. A table of sweets and fruits was laid out for us.
"Do you not want to go and visit the house of prayer built to honor Khizr?" Akbar asked us. It was 10 p.m.
"Who is Khizr?" Bishop Ilia asked, looking at me.
I shrugged my shoulders. "I have heard the name, but do not remember who he is."
"You do not know Khizr? He is yours and ours too!" said Akbar, with a surprised expression on his face. However, that told us nothing. It is not necessary for the stories about the same people to be similar in the Bible and the Quran. We tried to figure out who Khizr of the Muslims could be for us. Akbar recounted various stories from Khizr's life, but we still failed to guess.... Finally Akbar made a phone call to Tbilisi and asked his friend, an expert of the Arabic language who Khizri was. In that way we found out that they thought Khizr was Elijah!!! (Later on I found out that it was a wrong presumption).
As we adults were trying to guess the Judeo-Christian equivalent of Khizr, the children, at the end of the long room, were glued to a TV set watching the fourth Harry Potter film in Persian.We got up and prepared to visit the Khizr prayer house and the kids did not pay any attention to us. Gela proposed taking a group picture and the children were called to join us. The calls all seemed in vain until Akbar shouted at them:
"Do you not want to have your picture taken with Dumbledore?" Hearing the name Dumbledore, the children abandoned the movie and shyly stood next to me.
The next morning we had a meeting with our great host. This host was Grand Ayatollah Shahristani. He was born in Iraq. During our trip to Iraq we accidentally met his brother in the city of Najaf, who told us the story of their family. Shahristani was still a teenager when Saddam Hussein arrested and tortured him. Thereafter, he fled with his family to Iran and settled in the city of Qom, which is a huge center of Shia education. Some 120,000 clergymen live, learn and teach in this city.
"They, Mr. Malkhaz and Mr. Ilia," Akbar Muqadasi told the Ayatollah, gesturing towards me and Bishop Ilia, "are Martin Luther King's men, the Baptists."
"I know Martin Luther King was a great man," the Ayatollah responded enthusiastically.
Just as had been the case with Desorkhi's Christmas tree, when I had never before thought that the tree could be a symbol of Christianity, I had never before perceived myself to be one of "Martin Luther King's men." Once that had been said, Akbar thereafter introduced us to everyone as "Martin Luther King's men" wherever we went. Neither I nor Bishop Ilia had any objections to being introduced as King's men. Quite the contrary, we were happy that the Iranian ayatollahs and achunds (clergymen) knew and respected Martin Luther King Jr.
That is how I started thinking about the spiritual legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. It had taken a trip to Iran for me to discover that I was one of his men.
While looking through his texts and biographies, I developed a desire to share with you, dear readers, a portrait of Martin Luther King as seen through my eyes.
I realized that Martin Luther King and my father were almost of the same age. One may say that King would have suited me as a father. King was 63 days older than my father. Both were Baptist pastors, though they lived in starkly different conditions. My father performed his service under the conditions of communist persecution, whereas King worked under the conditions of racial inequality. Both lived long enough to see the beginnings of the demise of their respective oppressing systems and both were happy about that.
Apart from all that, there is yet another circumstance that links me personally with the activity of Martin Luther King. My spiritual and intellectual mentor, American Professor Roger Crook, was actively involved in the movement led by King. We met when an American religious magazine called Commission published a large article about a Georgian Biblical scholar in 1988. The following year, Roger and his wife Mary Ruth arrived in Tbilisi and found me. Oh yes, I should have mentioned that I was the young Biblical scholar.
I vividly remember coming home late and seeing that there was this foreign couple waiting for me. To tell the truth, I was a bit concerned. That was a time when the KGB were chasing me and a visit from some Americans would add fuel to the fire. Fortunately, that did not prove to be the case. From that point on, Roger became my mentor. We used to talk for hours about theology and church policies – be it in the United States or in Georgia, at the shores of the Pacific Ocean or in the Caucasus mountains.... At present, I do not communicate with Roger as extensively as I did before. He is already quite elderly and is busy taking care of his rather feeble wife with great devotion. Nevertheless, he continues his scholarly work. When taking any important decision I make an effort to talk with him and listen to his opinion. If I do not talk, I always think about how Roger would behave if he were in my shoes.
When Martin Luther King led the struggle for civil rights, Roger was among his supporters locally, in North Carolina. In the early 1960s, he was a minister of a local Baptist church and was simultaneously teaching in college.
Roger has sheltered various students at his house who are unable to cover the costs of living on campus. In recent times, such people have included two perfect Georgian students – Nino Topuridze and Eka Lomidze. Much earlier than that, in the 1960s, an age of severe segregation, Roger took African students from Nigeria into his house. This was an open challenge to the then dominant culture.
At that time, such behavior angered many from both his church and broader society. After a long dispute, Roger posed a question to his church – he asked whether the congregation was ready to accept black people. When Roger received a negative answer, he left his position as the pastor of the church and dedicated the rest of his life to educating the youth. He was unable to be a leader in a church which sided with injustice. I think I am very lucky to have had such a mentor.
The Baptist legacy played a decisive role in the formation of Martin Luther King's mindset. Like him, his father and grandfather were both Baptist ministers. The Baptist denomination originated in the Christian Church, the Church of England. After the reformation undertaken by Henry VIII, the monarch became the head of the Church of England and the line between the state and the Church was erased. The things distinguishing the Baptist Church from other Christian denominations was that they demanded a separation of the Church from the state and that people be baptized as adults – a so-called "believer's baptism" in religious vernacular. That is why the followers of this Church are called Baptists, i.e. the "baptizers" of professing believers.
From England the Baptist Church first spread to the United States and then to Europe. Johann Gerhard Oncken (1800-1844) is believed to be the pioneer of the Baptist movement in Europe. The first Baptist Church in continental Europe was founded in Hamburg in 1834. As a result of the efforts of Oncken, the Baptist Church then spread to France, Romania... the Russian Empire.The first Baptist Church in the Russian Empire was established in Tbilisi. The date of its establishment is believed to be 20 August 1867, when the first Baptist was baptized in the Mtkvari River close to St. Nicholas Church. The first professional Baptist minister from Tbilisi was sent to Oncken's seminary for his education and he returned from there ordained by Oncken himself.
In 1934, there was the 100th anniversary of the continental Baptist movement. To mark this date, the Fifth Baptist World Alliance Congress was summoned in Berlin.
Delegates from 60 countries arrived in Berlin to attend the congress, including from those countries in which Baptist churches had been established owing to Oncken's efforts. The only exceptions were delegates from Tbilisi and the rest of the Soviet Union. They did not receive comrade Stalin's "blessing" to attend the congress.
Before arriving in Berlin, the delegates attended the "Passion Play," as performed once a decade in the German village of Oberammergau. This village was celebrating the 300th anniversary of staging Jesus' passion, a play in which only the inhabitants of the village are allowed to participate in. This performance is still considered a highly popular religious and cultural event.
The delegates of the conference were impressed by Germany and could have hardly imagined back then what the Nazi regime would do to the country. Hitler did not address the Baptist congress, but sent a cable. Several Baptists in the congress even developed sympathies towards Hitler. One American Baptist delegate wrote:
"It was a great relief to be in a country where salacious sex literature cannot be sold; where putrid motion pictures and gangster films cannot be shown. The new Germany has burned great masses of corrupting books and magazines along with its bonfires of Jewish and communist libraries."
One could hardly imagine back then that one of the most evil ideologies in mankind's history lay behind the Nazi asceticism, franticly preparing to commit the worst atrocities. This brings to mind a recent statement made by Franklin Graham, an American Baptist evangelist, in which he called on President Obama to follow Putin's example and crackdown on the LGBT community. As if Obama needs to take lessons from Putin!
Among the numerous delegates that arrived for the Baptist congress in Berlin was an Afro-American Baptist pastor from Atlanta, Georgia named Michael King (1899-1984). Back home he had a wife, Alberta, and three children: seven-year-old Willie Christine, five-year-old Michael (junior) and four-year old Alfred. Germany, as the country of famous reformer Martin Luther, impressed Michael King so greatly that upon returning home he not only changed his own name in honor of Martin Luther but also that of his son, Martin. From then on both were called Martin Luther – one Sr., the other Jr.
Back then, Michael King Sr. could have hardly imagined that his middle child, whose name he had changed in honor of the German reformer, would follow in his namesake's footsteps and also become a reformer – not of the religious world, but of all of human civilization.
Pastor Martin Luther King Jr. was no ordinary political activist. He became the leader and martyr of the civil rights movement in America. He, as a Baptist minister, always based his leadership on Biblical belief; it formed the main pillar of his mindset. His Biblical prototype was Moses, who had released his people from the slavery of Egypt but died before he could get to the Promised Land. Being inspired by the story of Moses he said:
"And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."
The writings of Martin Luther King clearly show a mature Biblical faith rooted in early Christian tradition and life experience.
Path of life
Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, the state capital of Georgia, in 1929. Faith and religion had an immense importance in his life. Both his father and grandfather were Baptist ministers.
King distinguished himself as a gifted student in a segregated school. He then went on to study theology for three years at the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania before moving to Boston to continue his education. There he met his future wife, Coretta Scott, and the couple were married in a ceremony conducted by his father. Coretta Scott and King became the parents of four children: Yolanda Denise, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott, and Bernice Albertine.
Having received his Ph.D., King and his family settled in Montgomery, Alabama. There he became the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
Martin Luther King Jr. became the leader of his church at a time when racial segregation was deep rooted in the United States: black people were prohibited from drinking from the same water fountain used by white people; from using the same toilets; from praying in the same churches .... Black people were also prohibited from taking the front seats in public buses.
In 1955, a black woman called Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white woman. This incident triggered the civil rights movement. Because of his experience, his love of freedom and his oratory talents, King soon found himself at the head of this movement. He led a 381-day-long boycott of the Montgomery bus system. On 20 December 1956, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled segregation on buses to be unconstitutional. That was the first great victory of the civil rights movement – King's policy of non-violence had worked and brought about that result.
That story made King one of the most popular persons in the United States. The victory of the bus boycott turned King into the commander-in-chief of the non-violent struggle for civil rights. Because of his brave struggle, King was arrested more than 20 times; he was stabbed in the chest with a knife; a bomb was thrown into his house; and was the target of attacks, abuse, surveillance and eavesdropping throughout his whole life.
Despite the unbearable pressure, threats and intimidation, King was not broken. He would not be forced to drop the struggle for the cause he believed in and for which he served. King once said: "If a man hasn't discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live." He had discovered such a thing – the fight for people's freedom.
His courage inspired thousands of people and made them part of this movement.
King's diligence was unbelievable. As his biographers have noted, during the period from 1957 to 1968, he walked six million miles, made 2,500 public speeches, published five books and thousands of articles. His activity bore fruit – he was listened to not only by his congregation and supporters, but by the top officials of the country. US Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson both met with him personally.
The most famous among King's 2,500 public speeches is the "I have a Dream" speech that he delivered at the most symbolic place in the US – in front of Lincoln Memorial – to 250,000 people in 1963. Participants included both Afro-Americans and white people.
In the same year, Time magazine named him Person of the Year. His national and international recognition thus began. All of his previous awards and recognition would be outweighed when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1964. He was the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize Winner. King was 34 at the time.
(To be continued in the next issue)