Bishop Vincent Mathews Jr., world missions president of the predominantly African American and 5.5 million member Church of God in Christ, called Vice President Mike Pence one of the “most persecuted Christians in America” Sunday.
Mathew’s comments, which Pence alluded to as part of an “overly generous” introduction, came during a visit from the vice president at the Holy City Church of God in Christ in Raleigh, Tennessee. During the visit Pence hailed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as one of the heroes of his youth and highlighted ways in which the Trump administration has been good for African Americans.
Before Pence’s speech, Mathews made it clear to the 800-member congregation that Pence, regardless of what others might think, is his brother in Christ who has suffered for his faith at the hands of the media.
“One thing I love about this man of God, you know if you don’t know anything, is that he is one of the most persecuted Christians in America. The biggest criticism that he gets all over television and everywhere else is that he actually believes the Bible. They hate him for believing the Bible,” the world missions president of America’s largest Pentecostal denomination said.
On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Pence made the focus of his speech about King, his life and his legacy, and highlighted how the Trump administration is seeking to build on King’s legacy by ensuring everyone has access to the American dream.
“Dr. King was one of the heroes of my youth as you’ve already heard. Frankly, to be here in Memphis on this occasion, the city where he spent his last days, is deeply humbling to me. He left this world too soon. April 4th, 1968, at the age of 39,” Pence said.
“On his birthday last Wednesday he would have turned 91. Earlier today, visiting the National Civil Rights Museum, I was deeply moved standing in the parking lot and look up at the very balcony where he fell. Standing there I could not help but think what King David said on the death of Abner. Do you not know that a prince and a great man has fallen this day in Israel,” Pence continued to smattered shouts of “amen.”
“Dr. Martin Luther King was a great man,” he then declared, drawing more affirming applause from the church.
While Mathews said Pence was not at the Tennessee church to campaign, nothing that the vice president said he “just wanted to worship" and "celebrate Martin Luther King," Pence used the opportunity to highlight some of the Trump administration's achievements, including making $250 million in annual funding to historically black colleges and universities permanent under federal law.
“As Dr. King said in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, ‘One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what’s best in the American dream and for the most sacred values of our Judeo-Christian heritage,’” Pence said.
“As I stand before you today, I want to assure you that under this administration we’ve made every effort to open pathways to the American dream for every American and we have stood strong for the values that we hold dear.
“Under the leadership of President Donald Trump we’ve created more than 8,700 opportunity zones, including many here in Tennessee, bringing new investment and jobs to underserved communities across the nation. And I’m proud to say that today, African American unemployment is at the lowest level ever recorded,” Pence continued.
“We’ve stood for the right of parents to choose where their children go to school. And not long ago, surrounded by university leaders, President Trump made the more than $250 million in annual funding to historically black colleges and universities permanent under federal law,” he said.
Pence also highlighted the Trump administration’s work on criminal justice reform, religious freedom, and protecting the sanctity of life.
“We worked with leaders in both political parties to do justice, to enact criminal justice reform to make our justice system more fair. To give those caught up in our criminal justice system a second chance. We’ve defended the religious freedom of every American of every faith. And like Bishop Matthews, we have stood without apology for the sanctity of human life,” the vice president said to applause.
Despite the work the administration had done, he noted that there's still more “progress” to be made as a nation.
“We’ve made great progress as a nation but there’s much to be done. And I can promise you, this president and this administration will always stand for the values we share and the right of every American to live the American dream regardless of race or creed of color, so help us God,” he said to more applause.
As he celebrated King’s life and legacy at the church on Sunday, Pence told the audience that it was King’s faith that helped shape him into “a truly great American leader.”
“History records Dr. King was a civil rights leader. As I said before, he was a truly great American leader. But for my part, I think it was important to remember that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was also a Christian leader.
“Throughout my life, what has inspired me most about his example was that he [was] first and foremost a man of faith. A minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a workman approved rightly able to handle the word of truth.
“In Luke 6, our Lord says the good man brings good things out of the good treasure in his heart, for out of the overflow of his heart a man speaks. And one cannot hear or read the words of this great American without hearing the echoes of the Gospel and biblical truth,” Pence added.
“He said we would not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. He had a dream that one day every valley would be exalted, every hill and mountain would be made low.
"And as he said in his last speech right here in Memphis at the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, the day before he fell, that like Moses on mount Nebo, he had been to the mountain top. He had seen the Promised Land. Those words that echoed into history. He said I may not get there with you but I want you to know that tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And so we did,” Pence said.
“Dr. King could see all that ahead because he had hope and that hope came from his faith in God. As he said during his famous march in 1963, ‘this is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope...’”