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Leighton Ford: I have been at Selma: a Valentine’s Day reflection

A few days ago I was in Selma, Ala. Or at least felt as if I had been.

A retired pastor friend and I went to see “Selma,” the movie about the marches Martin Luther King Jr. led from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965.

It was a powerful depiction of what led to the marches, demanding voting rights for all people, and especially black people in Alabama. The conscience of the nation had been stirred by the death of four girls when their church was bombed and the beatings of nonviolent protesters.

David Oyelowo, the actor who plays King, gives a strong performance. He depicts the growth of King’s vision and the violent opposition from white racists. He shows his internal struggles with other civil rights leaders, and the worries of his wife about what all this was doing to their children. There are hints of his own fears and flaws.

None of that stopped him. Those fears and doubts he overcame. The march did take place. A voting act was passed by Congress.

When we left the movie, my friend and I could hardly speak. He sighed, “I wish I had not been so blind back then.”

Later in 1965 I was in Montgomery for a Billy Graham crusade. Tens of thousands, black and white, sat together, another pointer to reconciliation. On the Sunday morning, I was assigned to preach at a local church. After the service I was appalled to learn that an African-American airman, soon to go to Vietnam, was turned away.

I made a public statement that I would never preach in a segregated church, found the name of the airman, and had a friend who was going to Vietnam deliver a letter of apology to him.

The new law opened voting booths. Clearly they didn’t open all the church doors. But they had an effect. I have since been back to that church, and their policies have changed – late in the game, but now open to all people.

What moved me about “Selma” was not only the film, but how it started for Oyelowo – as a whisper. When he read the script, he felt God tell him he was going to play this role. “That may sound odd to people who aren’t people of faith,” he says, “but I knew that deeply in my spirit. It kept me going.”

Why these thoughts on Valentine’s Day? Because the day is named for St. Valentine, a Roman priest, executed in 269 because of his stand for Christian marriage, which was forbidden by the emperor. His final note, it is said, was to a young blind woman, signed “From your Valentine,” – the forgotten inspiration behind our romantic notes.

It reminds me that God did not send a card to tell us he loves us. He sent his Son to die for us, and to inspire us to love as he loved.

Toward the end of “Selma,” a government official pleads with King not to march in the open, to ride in a closed car. King pauses, then says, “Today is not about what I want. It is about what God wants.”

Many of us may wish we had been at Selma 50 years ago. But there are many Selmas in our world, many roads to Montgomery, many reconciliations, in many areas of our lives, that still need to happen. I wonder what God wants from us today, beyond the flowers and candy for those we love?

Which roads, I wonder, is God asking you and me to walk?