Stated Clerk of the PC(USA)’s General Assembly celebrates the life and legacy of MLK with a rousing and prophetic talk

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II says it’s time for the nation to embrace a ‘love ethic’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, left, poses with Ruling Elder Dianne White and the Rev. Dr. John Odom before speaking Saturday during a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Brunch in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Emily Enders Odom)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II noted that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebrated his final birthday on Jan. 15, 1968, helping to plan the Poor People’s March that he would not live to see. Meeting in the basement of the historic Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King’s staff presented the civil rights leader with a birthday cake and a few gag gifts. “They cut his birthday cake and they laughed for a while,” said Nelson, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), “and then he said, ‘Let’s get back to work.’ On his last birthday he reminded us there is still work to be done.”

On Saturday, Nelson spoke to more than 160 people gathered in the cafeteria at Newburg Middle School in Louisville for the 26th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Brunch. The men of Peace Presbyterian Church in Louisville sponsored the event, which has been hiatus since the Covid pandemic began in 2020. Accompanied by Sheila O’Bannon, the men paused their serving duties long enough to sing a pair of gospel songs.

Nelson’s spouse, the Rev. Gail Porter Nelson, introduced him, telling stories that included the time her husband, while still a student, came upon what looked like a serious auto accident near where he studied at Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. He stopped their car, ran to where a wrecked car was wrapped around a utilty pole, and climbed atop the prone vehicle to make sure everyone inside was going to be OK. “I thought to myself, who does this?” she said, also describing her husband as a hard-working, compassionate, funny family man.

Nelson, who was elected Stated Clerk in 2016 and re-elected in 2020, called the current era “some of the worst of times in the United States of America.”

“I say that sincerely and honestly, with the understanding we have moved into a place quite frankly placing us years behind the possibility we had in front of us,” Nelson said. “The United States is a great nation, and I wouldn’t have my personal residence anyplace else. But if I am honest, we are finding ourselves as a nation in decline,” particularly in the realm of human rights “and our understanding of being ‘one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’”

“These days, we find ourselves in a quagmire over what it truly means to have a love ethic,” which Nelson defined as “loving God and God’s people and embracing all individuals in the human family.”

“We are here celebrating and remembering,” Nelson told the crowd, which frequently applauded what the Stated Clerk had to say. “Others have not yet heard the words that they are free,” especially those waiting at the nation’s southern border for their asylum hearing. “They find themselves entering illegally, and right now they have nowhere to go,” because too many people “have forgotten the words on the Statue of Liberty: ‘Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …’”

Nelson said King was one who “stood for individuals who were poor, who struggled on the vine,” although King himself did not come from an impoverished background. “He gave his life for the least and the last, to those who had been broken by the winds of injustice in our society.”

The nation’s recent decline has impacted children significantly, according to the PC(USA)’s top ecclesial officer, who before being elected Stated Clerk directed the Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C.

“It begins [with children] because they are the most vulnerable individuals we have,” Nelson said. “They are the ones being left behind, poor and impoverished, having their dreams deferred, and through all that finding themselves with a debt to pay over and over and over again.” Many “end up in the places we hoped they never would,” including in the justice system and on street corners, protecting their turf by arming themselves. “What turf? Nelson asked. “They don’t have turf. They’re children.”

While the U.S. “is still a great nation,” Nelson said he grows concerned when he thinks about his daughter, a teacher who has students “who struggled even to get to school and get home in the afternoon.”

“If we don’t figure out how to change these dynamics, we will struggle going forward,” Nelson said. Many in the U.S. continue to use race “as a way of saying who’s in and who’s out, who has the opportunity to succeed and who has the opportunity to have wealth and power.” Those who are at the border “are desperate to find freedom. It’s not about race; it’s about freedom and opportunity … I’m convinced the way to rectify [the border situation] is not to continue doing what we’re doing, but to find a different way of doing right. That’s the challenge of this century.”

Celebrants joined hands to sing “We Shall Overcome” near the end of Saturday’s brunch. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

“I believe in what God can do in the midst of us,” Nelson said, “but I am troubled by what humans in high places are doing,” citing the recent protracted election of a new speaker in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Did you stop and listen to our legislators in Washington, D.C.?” Nelson asked. “I was a television junkie during that period. I really wanted to see where this thing would go. When they went on recess, I went on recess,” he said to laughter. “I’d get a soda or something to eat. I hate to say this in front of Presbyterians, but I didn’t get much work done that week.”

“I’m watching this, and I took my pill too early,” Nelson said, again eliciting laughter. “America is a great nation, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

“That’s what Dr. King was working for: holding people in a place where they could gain a life and live and say thank you for what God has done and for what we can become,” Nelson said. “We have to learn to live in community with people we don’t know much about and who don’t speak the language. We are on an experiment about what the love ethic can do.”

“Dr. King is not dead,” Nelson said. “His legacy is living” as are “the possibilities he put in front of us, the challenges, and yes, even the willingness to give his own life for the sake of people he did not even know … It’s not until we learn to love the least of these that we can love ourselves. It’s not until we learn to love these people and see them as our people who need help from us that we will find ourselves in a new place and a new space.”

“Love your enemy. Love the one who doesn’t love you,” Nelson said. “That sounds upside-down in our society, but that’s what Jesus did.”

It was King who “demonstrated how sick the nation was,” according to Nelson. “He was saying, ‘How dare you decide you are better than someone else because their life is not like yours? How dare you believe you got where you are all by yourself?’ That’s foolishness, and it’s a sickness.”

“Everyone is here today,” Nelson said, “because of people who brought us to a place we never thought we’d get to. That’s really what love is all about.”

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