Spirit Quest

‘You don’t have to be religious to have a sense of that. It is a human experience.’

On remembering the assassination of Martin Luther King

By The Reverend Hanns F. Skoutajan

Last Friday, April 4, was the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee. Some friends and I were talking about how we remember intimately where we were when we first heard of important, world-shaking events such as the murder of this famous civil rights leader.

Forty years ago I was visiting Prague while attending the Christian Peace Conference. This beautiful city straddling the banks of the Moldau River was an exciting place to be. It was the “Prague Spring”, that time during the communist era when Alexander Dubcek was seeking to liberalize the hard line communist regime. The city was alive, people were open and friendly and there were pictures of Tomas  Masaryk, the founding president of Czechoslovakia, in many of the store windows. On Sunday I was allowed to preach at St. Martins in the Wall, one of their many old churches in the inner city. It seemed as though a heavy pall had been lifted from this country. 

After the conference I, along with a group of American church leaders, were to leave for Moscow but before that, on April 5, I had decided to go to the Canadian Embassy. As I arrived in front of the beautiful wrought iron gates of the embassy I met a woman I knew from Toronto.  As I approached her I was surprised to find her looking very serious.  She immediately said to me, “ Hanns, have you heard the news?”  

“No” I replied.

“Martin Luther King has been assassinated,” she blurted out.

I was dumfounded. I couldn’t believe it. Then, rather than going into the embassy, Peg and I went back to the hotel. The group of Americans with whom I was travelling were “in a state.” The phones were busy as they tried to reach their families back home. One had gone out to buy a short-wave radio in order to get reports that he felt he could trust.

That afternoon we flew to Moscow where the news of the death of the great civil rights leader was everywhere. We discovered that there was a good deal of respect for this Christian leader in this “atheist” country.

As I chatted with my friends about these momentous events we recalled where we were when we heard the news about 9/11, I was in a coffee shop here in Ottawa; the death of Princess Diana, I was at a campground at Mazinaw Lake; the assassination of President Kennedy; I was doing some hospital visiting when I was struck by the fact that the corridors were empty, no one was at the nursing station . And then I found the entire staff scattered to the rooms of the patients that had television sets. I am sure that each of us can add to this list of earth shattering events.

Getting back to the Martin Luther King assassination, when we arrived in Moscow our group decided that we needed to have a kind of a memorial service. We got a room at the Moscow Baptist Church. Twenty-eight of us gathered around a large table. We read the Bible and we prayed.  Several of our group had known King personally, others had been with him at Selma, Alabama, and two had been to the mall at Washington and heard first hand that unforgettable speech: “ I have a dream.....” We shared our experiences and thoughts. 

We had run into a couple of American kids visiting the USSR. They had of course guitars with them and came along and led us in the singing of some of those famous civil rights songs and finally: “Deep in my heart I do believe, we shall overcome some day”.

We sang it over and over. There were tears in our eyes but by the time we left the tears of sorrow had melted away. I sensed a new spirit in our group. I could imagine that this is what those disciples of Jesus felt after his crucifixion, a deep sorrow changing into a determination to carry on what their leader had begun and against all odds.

Had it not been for the death of King and the sacrifices of many, blacks and whites alike, there would not be a black man in the running for the presidency of the United States today.

I generally end my Spirit Quest article with the words: the Spirit is a’ movin’!  I believe that there is a spirit that is alive and able to work through tragedy and sorrow, transforming darkness into light, death into new life. You don’t have to be religious to have a sense of that. It is a human experience. 

There is no doubt that there is a spirit that is “a’ movin’ among us!