How Martin Luther King Jr. inspired this boy growing up with racial wounds

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his 'I Have a Dream' speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in this Aug. 28, 1963, file photo.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his 'I Have a Dream' speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in this Aug. 28, 1963, file photo. | REUTERS/Rowland Scherman/U.S. Information Agency/US National Archives

For many of us, January is a time in which we pursue the goals and resolutions we have set for ourselves with renewed energy and intention. It is a time to self-reflect, get focused, and ask ourselves important questions about what we really want out of life. And because January is a month in which we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is appropriate that the number one question on my mind right now comes straight from the hero himself:

"Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?''

This quote from Martin Luther King Jr. has truly marked my life. As a young boy, I incurred all kinds of wounds related to racism. Because I grew up in a racially diverse family, I never fell comfortably into any one racial category in the eyes of others. To make matters somewhat more complicated, the school I attended was 100% white, and the neighborhood I lived in was 95% black. I didn’t truly “fit” into either environment, and I experienced all kinds of racial tension as a result.

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I remember looking up to Martin Luther King as a hero. I remember thinking that he could truly help bring reconciliation to our divided nation. And then, when I was eight years old, I remember my hero being killed. All I could think about at the time was how unfair it was. I felt the weight of injustice, and I wondered, “what can we do?” Eventually, as I continued to reflect on the division in our world, my question began to shift. I realized that we all had to start somewhere if we wanted to see earth look more like heaven. So I began to ask myself, “what can I do?” And following Dr. King’s lead, I began to ask myself “what am I doing – right now – for others?”

This question has been a guiding force for my life throughout each new season. It inspired me as I played football with diverse teammates that all considered each other family – all while the world around me was incredibly racially divided. Instead of giving into frustration or hopelessness as I witnessed these racial divisions, I asked myself what I could do each day to impact the people who were right in front of me. I asked myself how I could serve my teammates. Regardless of what was happening in the world around me, I knew that I could make an impact by working to show the tangible love of Christ to the people around me through my actions.

The question “what am I doing for others?” also burned on my heart as I helped start Rock Church in 2000 and watched it develop into one of the most beautifully racially diverse churches in the country. I never planned to be a pastor, but my desire to live a life that points people toward Jesus and helps them find community was far more compelling than my personal goals and ambitions. As I focused on serving others, I watched God take the few loaves and fishes I had to offer and multiply them beyond my expectations (Matthew 14:13-21).

Finally, the question “what am I doing for others?” motivated me as I decided to write the book The Third Option and ultimately launch our similarity training course. Because of my background, I know that so much racial division is caused because we do not understand or focus on what we have in common. Rather than having an “us vs. them” mentality, we must come to understand that as human beings we are far more alike than we are different.

“What am I doing for others?” It is a simple question, but it has profound implications. Listen, friends. It can be incredibly easy in a world full of threats to retreat inward in order to stay protected. But Philippians 2:4 says, “Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.” This is exactly what Martin Luther King Jr. did. In moments of extreme division and controversy, he was courageous enough to put his life on the line for the benefit of others.

And Dr. King didn’t just live courageously on behalf of others for one day or one moment. Many people don’t know this, but King was also imprisoned 29 times for either civil obedience or exaggerated charges as a result of his message. Though it wasn’t an easy road, he dedicated his entire life to helping others. And his legacy will not be forgotten.

As we approach MLK day this year, I want to encourage everyone to really lean into the message he preached. This isn’t just about getting a day off from school or work. It isn’t even about posting our favorite MLK quote to inspire others. The best way we can honor MLK’s life and legacy is to put into practice the principles that he ultimately gave his life for.

So let’s truly ask ourselves, “what am I doing to help others today?” Let’s celebrate this day by doing something – one thing – to help others. And let’s allow that question to shape the way that we approach 2022. If we do, I believe wholeheartedly that we will see the fruit of it for years to come.

Miles McPherson is the Senior Pastor of the Rock Church in San Diego. He is also a motivational speaker and author. McPherson's latest book “The Third Option” speaks out about the pervasive racial divisions in today’s culture and argues that we must learn to see people not by the color of their skin, but as God sees them—humans created in the image of God.


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