beware of false peaks: we are not yet to the mountaintop

Finding a new church here in Denver was a process I worried about and prayed over. We loved our church in Little Rock, and I didn’t think we’d find a place I loved so much here. Theologically, we line up most with progressive, mainline churches, but we’re not anchored to one denomination. In the past we have attended Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Methodist churches. We visited two Methodist churches here where we were warmly welcomed, but knew neither felt “right.” We visited a gorgeous Episcopal cathedral, where Etta loudly exclaimed that the communion host “tastes like cotton balls,” and we realized our four year olds are just not ready for high church.

And then we visited Montview Presbyterian. Walking in felt like walking into our beloved Little Rock church. Even the architecture was similar. And the music! That first day, there was brass, timpani, organ, and choir, and the music gave us goosebumps. We noted that the church is led by a man and woman co-pastor team. We were soothed and challenged by the prayers and preaching. We were excited to see the classes, events, and mission opportunities they listed in the bulletin. And to top it off, they were having an ice cream social after church that day, and the girls were totally sold. Plus, when Claire ate too much ice cream too fast in the hot sun outside and barfed, several members helped us deal.

We knew our hunt was over. And then, months later, we learned that in our new church, we actually already had some deep roots. Jon’s dad said, “You know, I think Montview is where my grandfather and grandmother met,” and it turned out to be true.

While we are excited to talk to the church historian and see if we can find any members who were around when Jon’s great grandparents were there, our family history is not the biggest historical event that has happened at Montview.

Today being Martin Luther King Jr. Day, yesterday our pastor Ian preached about the civil rights movement and the struggle for social and racial justice which continues today. He started by saying he was always honored and humbled to preach from a place Martin Luther King Jr. once stood. In 1964, MLK visited Denver, and he actually spoke at Montview. In fact, the story goes that he got stuck in a room of the church (I have heard cloakroom, bathroom, and pastor’s study all mentioned) and had to be rescued with a ladder at a window in order to get out and walk around to the front of the church to go in and speak. To the overflow crowd gathered out front, he was just kind enough to come say hello before his talk, but the truth was, that great man had just climbed out a window and down a ladder!

Martin Luther King Jr. at Montview Presbyterian Church.

Martin Luther King Jr. at Montview Presbyterian Church.

It turns out his choice of Montview was significant. Montview is in a neighborhood near ours called Park Hill. In the 60s, as in much of the country, white flight was happening from the city to the suburbs, as many white people opposed the integration of their neighborhood. In Park Hill, there were many residents and many churches who bucked this trend and decided to stay and fight for a unified, integrated neighborhood. Montview was one of those churches.

I am sure that this longstanding legacy of activism and unity is why I can look in my church bulletin and see, just listed this week, that there was a Peace And Justice Forum with leaders from the Denver Justice Project and Together Colorado “to learn more about important issues in Colorado’s criminal justice system, including prison overcrowding, use of force issues, and current reform efforts.” On Tuesday, at least 100 members of our congregation plan to attend a meeting at a nearby AME church to also learn about these issues. In a couple of weeks, people from the Colorado Faith Communities United to end Gun Violence will come help members learn about the legislative process and how to lobby for reforms that will reduce gun violence. And next month, we are invited to a Presbytery-wide conversation about race and the Denver Presbytery.

I also think this legacy is what enabled Ian to stand where MLK once stood, and preach to a largely white congregation about things like privilege, police accountability, and mass incarceration. Like MLK, Ian chose a metaphor very familiar to a Colorado congregation: mountaintops. He reminded us that climbing a mountain is hard work, and that there are many false peaks. A false peak is when you can look and see a ridge up ahead. You are tired, and yet so excited, and yet you get there only to realize you still have a long way to go to reach the top. This is a point where you have to decide if you want to keep pushing on toward the top, or if you will turn back, or stay where you are.

I think for a lot of our nation, we experienced a false peak with the election of Barack Obama. While the election of our first black president was indeed a milestone and a huge piece of history, it was not the mountain top. We are not “there” yet. We are not past racism or “post-racial” as a society, by any stretch of the imagination. The last year has brought a lot of un-dealt-with injustices into the light– things that black Americans have always known were issues are finally being brought to the attention of a white America that has for too long been too insulated by privilege to see– how many young black men have to be shot down in the street by police, how many hateful comments do we have to hear from our own president-elect and his supporters, before we realize that the civil rights movement was not just then but is now, and we have to keep going, keep pressing on toward the mountaintop?

Ian wrapped up his sermon by reminding us of the words of Jesus to some of John the Baptist’s followers: “Come and see.” We are called to come and see the injustices faced by our neighbors. We are called to show up for tough conversations, and to get uncomfortable with our own privilege. Because to come and see is to follow Jesus into the way of love. When we see, then we realize we have to act.

So, this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I am planning to do more showing up. To the meetings about racial issues and gun violence, to the marches, and the protests. What are you planning to do?

Of course, after his wonderful sermon, Ian got completely upstaged by the choir. They performed “Up to the Mountain” by Patty Griffin, with actual recordings of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking interspersed with the singing. I was moved to tears, as were many in the congregation. I will leave you with a video of Patty performing the song (click through if you can’t see the embedded video):

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