Worship Resources: Letter From Birmingham Jail

~ Angie Wright, Associate Director

LITURGICAL RESOURCES INSPIRED BY LETTER FROM A BIRMINGHAM JAIL
BY DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

Introduction

In April 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march in Birmingham in support of African-Americans whose civil rights had been denied in the laws of Alabama. Because the marchers had been denied a permit to hold a march, they were arrested and jailed. While he was in jail Dr. King wrote a letter to eight Birmingham clergymen explaining why he and his colleagues had been willing to break the law in order to carry forward the work of acquiring civil rights for all Americans. Since 1963 the letter, which is about 7000 words long, has been published, studied, read, and quoted countless times. It is one of the principal documents from a movement that may well be the most morally luminous in American history. The Letter is written in language so eloquent and inspiring that we at Greater Birmingham Ministries decided to mine it for materials that might be incorporated into worship services. We offer these liturgical resources as a gift to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities who support the work of GBM and to others who may wish to utilize them. We are sending them out a few days in advance of the fiftieth anniversary of the Letter which falls on April 16, 2013. Throughout these resources we have paraphrased Dr. King’s Letter. When we have quoted it, we have employed quotation marks. Because the quotations are so brief, there is no violation of copyright. You are free to use what we have written as it stands or to adapt it as you like.

Gathering in God’s Name

One: Lord God, we give thanks this day for our brother Martin and his prophetic witness,
All: Who believed in the power of dialogue to help persons “rise to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood,”
One: Who lamented the absence of voices of support from people of faith
All: When “bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest,”
One: Who gave thanks to You for the “noble souls” from the churches and synagogues
All: Who “broke loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined as active partners in the struggle for freedom,”
One: Who trusted You with a faith that would move mountains, professing “We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham”
All: Because “The sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

A Confession

One: Merciful God, for failing to love persons because of the color of their skin,
All: Forgive our city, O God.
One: For “the appalling silence of the good people,”
All: Forgive our city, O God.
One: For the pain, suffering and death that many endured because of the hardness of our hearts,
All: Forgive our city, O God.
One: For failing to “respect the dignity and worth of all persons,”
All: Forgive our city, O God.
One: For failing to understand that you require justice, mercy, and humility,
All: Forgive our city, O God.
One: For failing to hear the cries of our neighbors who continue to hurt,
All: Forgive our city, O God.
All: Gracious God, Free us from “the dark depths of prejudice and racism” that prevent persons in our city from living fully, and through the guidance of your spirit, help us learn to live as sisters and brothers of the family of God, in loving community, one with another. Amen.

A Meditation

In the spring of 1963, Dr. King was challenged to explain why he, an outsider, had come to Birmingham. He responded to this question in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, and outlined his ties to the city and the invitation he received from the Birmingham Affiliate of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to engage in a nonviolent direction action program. “But more basically,” he emphasized, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here . . . and I am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.”

Our faith compels us, as it did Dr. King, to move beyond familiar territory and to witness boldly in places that yearn for healing. At this time in the life of our city, where might God be calling you to carry “the gospel of freedom”?

A Prayer for the Promised Land of Racial Justice

One: “The time is always ripe to do right.”
All: Help us, O God, to imagine the “promised land of racial justice.”
One: “The time is always ripe to do right.”
All: Teach us, O God, to be “willing co-workers” with you.
One: “The time is always ripe to do right.”
All: Give us courage, O God, to search ourselves.
One: “The time is always ripe to do right.”
All: Help us, O God, to move “with a sense of great urgency,” for the right time is now. Amen.

A Responsive Reading

One: The Lord your God is one Lord
All: Let us love our God.
One: We are all caught in a “network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
All: Let us love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
One: We are discouraged when we consider how little we understand each other.
All: Let us learn to speak in dialogue rather than in monologue.
One: When we remembered our failures, “a shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us.”
All: Let us set aside cynicism and despair. Let us put our hope in God. Amen.

A Prayer for God’s Mercy

O God, You have sent your prophets, those great nonconformists, and they called us to be just, but too often we have failed. Too often our laws are unjust, our societies are unjust, our lives are unjust. Too often we have remained silent in the face of injustice. Too often we have tolerated injustice for generations because it was not convenient to establish justice in our own generation. Injustice is here among us. Have mercy upon us, O God.

You have sent your prophets, those great nonconformists, and they called us to be kind, but too often we have failed. Too often we have not heard the cries of those who suffer because they are poor. Too often we have disrespected those of races other than our own. Too often we have been too timid to show kindness to those who are different from ourselves. Unkindness is here among us. Have mercy upon us, O God.

A Prayer for Communities of Faith

Eternal God, who gathers us together in our communities of faith, help us to hear clearly the concerns of all our brothers and sisters. Show us how to join together in solidarity and how, together, we can move toward “the promised land of racial justice.” We ask for courage to live out our faith in ways that are pleasing to you, and for strength to engage in “strong, persistent, and determined” action. May we take bold stands against injustice. Keep us, O God, on the path that Dr. King and the foot soldiers blazed until we “reach our goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation.” Amen.

A Prayer for God’s Help

God of all the peoples of the earth, we who are your children ask you to help us all to live as brothers and sisters rather than as enemies.
We ask you to lead us all from “the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest.”
We ask you to lift us all from “the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
We ask you to free us all from “the paralyzing chains of conformity” and make us “active partners in the struggle for freedom.”
We ask you to direct us all from “the dark mountain of disappointment” into “the tunnel of hope.”
We ask you to remove “the dark clouds of racial prejudice” and “the deep fog of misunderstanding” so that we all may view “the radiant stars of love and brotherhood shining in all their scintillating beauty.”
We ask you to lead us to a “substantive and positive peace” in which we all respect the dignity and worth of all people.
We ask you to show us how to become “creative extremists” for love, for justice, and for freedom. Amen.

Sending Forth
With all communities of faith, let us join together in one earnest hope that “the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love . . . will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” Amen.