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Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Day I Shook the Hand which Caressed the Man (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) who Changed the Course of American History, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta

My oldest son started out at Emory and then transferred to Georgetown his sophomore year.  But in late-August, 1994, I flew down to Atlanta to take our first-born to college.

On Sunday morning, K.C. was settled in his new dorm room and it was clear that my services as the Dad were no longer needed.  "I'm all set Dad.  Thanks for coming down with me."  Although my son was still enough of a "little" boy that he tightly clung to his stuffed monkey on the plane ride from Hartford to Georgia, it was clear that he was ready for Daddy to let go.  It was time for me to let K.C. grow up and do the rest of the truly hard work of learning to live on his own for the first time in his life.  I did my best not to betray the fact that inside, it was killing me to let my little boy go.  As I write this now, the feelings return and the tears well up in my eyes.  I was there to hear the borning cry of this now-tall 18-year-old young man and now it was time for me to leave him, without letting him see my leaving-cry as I walked away from my baby.

There are, though, big compensations for these losses.

I knew that Atlanta was the home-base of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  So I headed in my rental car from the rich suburban section of the city where Emory University is located to the poor Sweet Auburn neighborhood where Dr. King made his spiritual home at Ebenezer Baptist Church.  I arrived at Ebenezer just before 11 a.m. and hoped the church service would be over and I'd be able to pay for a tour of the historic church "museum."  I'm used to my old white churches, both the Methodist church of my boyhood and the congregational church I attended from 1976 until last summer, which both had Sunday morning services at 10 a.m.  The black baptist church I now attend, Zion First Baptist Church of Middletown, like Ebenezer, has Sunday services beginning at 11 a.m.

As I walked up the steps of Ebenezer, I saw black women standing outside the church in white dresses, with white gloves.  At that point I figured the service was still going on and I'd have to return a few hours later for the tour.  I asked one of the women when the tours of the church begin, but, to my surprise, and delight, she said, "The service is about to begin.  Come right this way please." She opened the heavy wood door of the church, beckoned me in, and suddenly it dawned on me that I had mistaken the time of the service and I was about to get not a tour but a tasted of a black baptist church service, and not at just ANY baptist church but Dr. King's church!

Ebenezer is a much larger sanctuary than Zion.  That morning, like probably every Sunday at one of THE most famous churches in America, the place was packed.  I didn't think there'd be any room for me in this inn.  But the usherette kept leading me deeper and deeper into the sanctuary, until she finally stopped at a set of pews right at the front of the church, which were situated perpendicular to the main pews, and seated me in the last of these pews, which put me facing directly into the stage-left side of the pulpit.  As the last person into the service, I was seated at the left end of my pew so when I turned to my left I had an unobstructed view of the entire sanctuary.   Here's a link to a photo of the interior of Ebenezer, showing the layout I've described:

Ebenezer is in no way as emotionally and spiritually free-spirited as Zion, my current home church.  There was none of the loud and free clapping and dancing and yelling out which goes on every week at my church.  But I say this only to describe the service at Ebenezer, not to judge it as in any way deficient.  I do remember that the preacher, whoever he was, gave an uplifiting sermon.  And the though most of the people in attendance were black, there were quite a few white visitors, as one would expect at an internationally-prominent church like Ebenezer.

What made this service the most memorable was the woman who caught my eye as I looked over to the audience-left side of the church from my perch on the audience-right side of the church.  If I had not gotten to the church just before the service began, and instead of being seated up near the pulpit had been seated in the regular pews, I might have missed this woman and never have thought to write this story.

Throughout the service I kept looking over at the woman.  She was a very distinguished-looking older woman, wearing a yellow dress and large matching yellow hat. She had very pretty features and held herself with regal bearing.  The two young adults, a man and a woman, to her left appeared to be her children.  I kept saying to myself, "I know that woman.  Who is she?"  Finally, the memories welled up from somewhere deep in my brain, like the tears which welled up in my eyes when I'd left my first-born son that morning in a richer part of Atlanta, and I realized I was sitting just 100 feet away from a Woman of History.  Mrs. Coretta Scott King, Dr. King's widow.  "Oh my God," I whispered to myself, "that's Mrs. King."

At the end of the service, a line began to form in the aisle which led to the pew in which Mrs. King and her children were sitting.  She graciously was holding court, briefly conversing with, and shaking the hands of anyone who wanted patiently to await his or her turn to greet her.  So I moved over to the end of the line.

When I reached Mrs. King, I took her hand, looked directly into her warm, but stoic eyes, and introduced myself.  "Mrs. King, I'm Bob Dutcher, a Connecticut lawyer.  I've just dropped my son off at Emory.  Your husband meant SO much to me, even though I'm a white man.  I recently read that he worked in the tobacco fields north of Hartford during his summer breaks from college and that he liked Hartford because he could go to the movie theaters, which were not segregated."  Mrs. King smiled and said that yes, her husband did like his time in Hartford.  Thank you so much for visiting us here at Ebenezer.  I wish your son well in his new journey in higher education."  And then she greeted the next worshiper.

I felt like Forest Gump, the character Tom Hanks played in the movie, who found himself somehow inserted in Great Moments in History and shaking the hands of famous historical figures.  "My Momma always said, 'Life is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you're going to get,' " said Forest Gump.  At that moment, my life felt like it was overflowing with delicious chocolates.  True, I'd had to separate from my first-born, but new adventures clearly awaited.  And some of them would be delicious.

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