Monday, January 18, 2016

How I celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday

I stood in the biting wind with exposed hands. I had been taking photos of the outside of the building, but I wanted to go inside. As I walked toward the steps, I thought of a simple wisdom I must have learned from my mother. When you're outside, she would say, and you want to go inside, ring the doorbell. That is, after all, what a doorbell is for. So I stepped forward and bent my finger at the first joint. My fingertips were too cold at this point and too numb to serve any real purpose. I pushed firmly on the round steel button. It gave way and I could hear an electronic buzz on the other side of the door.

I wanted someone to be in the church. I wanted to go inside.

It occurred to me that I probably looked like many homeless people in Detroit that day, looking for some shelter from the subzero cold. A church is always a likely sanctuary, and I was hoping that churches were opening their doors to the poor people who have no other hope for warmth. But today, my reasons for wanting to enter were different. I was trying to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. by going to see Reinhold Niebuhr.

There was a deafening silence. I rang again.

The sign out front said Mayflower Missionary Baptist, but in an earlier lifetime this had been Bethel Evangelical Church, and the cornerstone said 1921, which meant that Reinhold Niebuhr indeed had preached here, indeed had pastored here.

Niebuhr is a hero to many, a man of conscience and of mind who spoke painfully clearly on the issues of his day and his country and his faith. Barack Obama has cited Niebuhr and none other than King himself in his Letter from Birmingham Jail cites him too. He is what I would call a quiet American, one who shaped our conscience without overwhelming us with his power or status.

Niebuhr wrote Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, a lovely reflection of his time in this church tending to his Detroit flock. It's a paperback book I stole from my father's bookshelf many years ago. The book was my way of proving to myself I was smart, but he himself probably bought it in the late 1950s because the woman he was to marry was the roommate of Niebuhr's daughter. Fifty-five years later, there I stood freezing on a desolate Detroit street, my hands so cold they started to feel warm, hoping to get inside Niebuhr's church. On Martin Luther King's birthday.

No one came to the door. I walked back to the car, the wind pushing so hard against my body in temperatures around zero that I worried for a moment I wouldn't make it back at all. I passed a handsome twenty story apartment building built around the time this was a prospering community only minutes from downtown. That also would have been around the time the church was built, but like so much else in this city, the tall elegant structure had long since been abandoned and now every window is gone.

I made it. The car was warmth. I drove on. Two streets away, I passed a CVS and thought that I should stop and get a few things. I was looking for parking when I noticed people milling in front a building. It was the Motown Museum!

The building with Hitsville U.S.A. across its front is so modest compared to what it produced. The Motown sound! I went in and took the tour. I mean, how could you not?

I was one of three whites in a group of 25 people. We saw a short video about the place and the music it made. About Berry Gordy and his savvy. About the black middle class that he came from, and the tremendous resourcefulness he showed in 1959. As I sat in the back of the theater, I thought that in a small way, today too was a reflection of King's dream. A shared history and a shared music and a shared culture. The actor Alec Baldwin once said to Billy Joel that music is the soundtrack to your life. As I sat there listening to this music I have heard and loved my whole life, and whose impact has followed me all my days, I realized that this was a soundtrack in my life.  Everything from that ode to joy "Dancing in the Streets" by Martha and the Vandellas to the pointedly political "War" by Edwin Starr.

The tour ends in the very modest studio where it all began: The Temptations, The Four Tops, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder.

I thought of other places I've seen in this country, the Stax Museum in Memphis, and the Lorraine Motel and Ebenezer Baptist Church, and I thought, this was the middle class who made creatively do with the resources they had, and when the 1960s came along, they became what they always had been, soldiers in their struggle for freedom.