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FIRST-PERSON: A relevant ‘Whaz up?’ from Bernice King

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–On May 2, hundreds of students from several West Palm Beach-area schools gathered in the gymnasium of King’s Academy to commemorate the National Day of Prayer. They were there also to listen to the day’s keynote speaker, Bernice King.

If the expectations of the students, faculty and other attendees were high, no one could blame them. Some no doubt had come expecting to hear a lofty speech on religion — King is from a prominent southern religious family. Others might have come expecting to hear a still more lofty speech on the historical significance of the life of her famous father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bernice King is the youngest child of the slain civil rights leader.

And no matter what else anyone in the audience expected to hear, all might certainly, rightfully have expected to hear what a wonderfully blazed trail her father’s marvelous, self-denying sacrifices had made for her own now extremely successful life. But none of that is what anyone heard.

Instead, what Ms. King delivered to her rapt audience was a tour de force of crystal-clear transparency and stark personal honesty. “Whaz up?” she began as she spoke plainly about how her life had been shattered by the assassination of her father. She spoke of other family tragedies that occurred before she fully understood her place in any of them, or in the world, and how she resorted to sex and alcohol to dull the pain of troubles that would not seem to end.

Determined and courageous and obviously having discovered her own voice, Ms. King embraced her love and dedication of the church and of Christ. While unveiling the reality of struggling to overcome crippling grief, she also revealed her tremendous struggle to perform at a satisfactory level to succeed in graduate school. Ms. King talked of past despair so deeply ingrained upon her heart that she even had contemplated suicide. Life and circumstances, after all, had provided no crystal staircases for Bernice King.

Was anyone surprised by what Ms. King had to say on the National Day of Prayer? Perhaps. The point to which her honesty led was to tell her predominately teen and pre-teen audience to turn their lives over to Jesus, who teaches all how to pray.

Putting aside politics and church and state, what she had to say was relevant and effective. She said people need Jesus in their lives. She gave an altar call for people to turn their lives over to Jesus, to which at least two dozen students responded.

In an age where image, a perfect one, is everything, Ms. King’s bare knuckles approach to the relevance of this National Day of Prayer was refreshing.
Terriel R. Byrd, Ph.D., is assistant professor of religion and director of urban ministries studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach, Fla.

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  • Terriel Byrd