In his 90th-birthday sermon, Andrew Young urges the world to ‘fear no evil’
Months ago, when the Rev. Andrew Young chose the theme for his 90th birthday celebration, he didn’t know part of the world would be at war.
But he preached on “peace and reconciliation” anyway in a special March 9 prayer service. He spoke of courage and faith — and even of angels — as the world faces “the trials and tribulations and terrors of our times.”
The Civil Rights leader and former United Nations ambassador urged hope and action amid U.S. political strife and Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine. His remarks came at the start of four days of events marking his milestone birthday.
Held at Atlanta’s First Congregational United Church of Christ, Young’s home church since 1961, the service featured prayers from many faith traditions, greetings from around the world and music in many styles. It was broadcast live over the internet and locally on WSB-TV. A recording is here.
“Loving those who are unlovable is our challenge today,” he said. “Never in my lifetime have I known so much rancor, so much hatred, so much bitterness, so much fear, so much potential calamity.” But he also said he had seen “miracles” in his years of working for peace and justice. These had convinced him that words he heard over the radio as a child — from President Franklin Roosevelt — were true: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” “I give you that message from 80 years back and say it is still powerful and relevant,” Young said.
Civil Rights miracles
Young recalled “the privilege of spending almost 15 of Martin Luther King’s 39 years with him,” during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. There were times when hope seemed lost, Young said. But then something would happen — like a 1956 Supreme Court decision siding with the Montgomery (Ala.) Improvement Association, which had staged a long boycott of segregated city buses. The court finally ruled that the segregation was unconstitutional. Young’s emotions showed as he recalled what happened when a reporter whispered news of the decision to a woman at a Civil Rights gathering. He said she shouted that “great God Almighty” had spoken from Washington.
“Well, that was the kind of miracle I have lived with throughout most of my life,” Young said. “I’ve been in many tough spots — many, many places where life and death were at stake,” including St. Augustine, Fla., where he was physically beaten in a protest in the 1960s. “But I have also learned to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil. So at this moment in our history I call upon you to walk together with us through the valley of the shadow of death across this planet and fear no evil.
“And I say that with a confidence — no not confidence, a faith. A faith which has been spoken of — and whose beliefs we have shared — from many of the faiths through which God Almighty has chosen to reveal almost just as much as we need for us to overcome in our daily lives, and in our lifetimes.”
He mentioned growing up amid “a lot of confusion” and even hatred in New Orleans. A Nazi party headquarters was near his family’s home. He said his father told him, “You know from Sunday school that God created from one blood all the nations of the earth. They don’t want to admit that. But that’s not your problem. That’s their problem. White supremacy is a sickness. You don’t get mad with sick people. You try to help them.”
Young said he took on that attitude as a calling, too — “but I could not have gotten there on my own.” “I liked Jesus. I appreciated Jesus. I loved the stories of Jesus. But the society was too complicated and confused. And nobody seemed to really believe in the Jesus that they preached about.
“Until I met — through (Mahatma) Ghandi, a Hindu — a Jesus that I really could love and appreciate. A Jesus that could set me free without turning me into a hater. A Jesus that, with a power I did not understand, seemed to be able to work miracles,” even in the face of violence.
Many faiths and cultures
Many faiths showed up in prayers throughout the service. A Muslim cantor and an imam chanted and translated from the Quran. A rabbi and a Jewish congregant sang in Hebrew. A Buddhist shared a teaching, rang a bell and invoked silence. A Hindu leader chanted and translated ancient vedas, or verses.
The “Global Prayer Service for Peace and Reconciliation” also included video greetings from Christian leaders from the Ivory Coast and South Korea, and, from South Africa, the daughter of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Young said that, throughout his world travels, “I haven’t been anywhere where I haven’t met religious people … (and) found something of the spirit that we might have in common. The dreams, the goals, the ambitions of spiritual people come in all colors and all rhythms and all dances.”
‘You resembled me’
Testimonies about Young’s life and work stretched from the opening prayer to a laying-on of hands at the conclusion. Among them were comments from Black men who said Young’s visibility — as activist and mayor — had made them believe they, too, could enter public life.
Current Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens described Young as a man “whose shoulders many of us stand on.” “It was you, Mayor Andrew Young, who made a young kid, me, … want to be mayor one day.” Dickens recalled seeing displays in schools and recreation centers of pictures of the U.S. president, Georgia’s governor, and Atlanta’s mayor — “two white men and a Black man.” “You resembled me, and you gave me a lot of hope.”
“When I was 17, I saw a young brother with some overalls and a big Afro, and it was Andrew Young on television,” said the Rev. Dwight Andrews, now Young’s pastor at First Congregational. “And what they were doing, to me, I thought, was a miracle. How could these young men seek to change the whole world? And they were doing it. And so I’m in ministry because of this man that I didn’t know but I did know, because of his spirit.”
‘People who are awakened’
Young said spiritual power is what it will take to overcome today’s urgent crises, ranging from class and race divisions in the U.S. to violence in Ukraine. Pointing to his tie, he said, “I wore the colors of Ukraine because I can’t sleep at night. I worry about how we’re going to come out of this. … For if somehow the insanity is not brought to its senses, we are facing some different times than we’ve ever anticipated.”
Quoting a “kingdom of God” passage from Russian author Leo Tolstoy, Young said, “I hope the kingdom can find its way into the heart of Vladimir Putin.”
“I hope that there are some people who are awakened by the tragedies around them,” Young said, noting that small groups of spirited people can make a difference. Jesus had but 12 disciples, he said, and Martin Luther King never had more than 30.
“What I have seen after these 90 years is time and time and time again we come to the edge of a cliff and an angel comes in our path and rises up and we rise up and find ourselves in a new power, in a new spirit,” Young said. “And that’s where we are now.”
“May that Holy Spirit bring us the peace that passes all understanding and that binds us together as one people under God — on a loving planet that somehow survives all the trials and tribulations and terrors of our time and of every time.”
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