REBECCA ROBERTS, HOST:
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." That's one of 14 quotations engraved in granite at the MLK memorial site. The quote is from a 1967 sermon Martin Luther King Jr. gave at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he was named co-pastor with his father in 1960. Dr. King became a national voice through his sermons given from that church's pulpit.
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ROBERTS: Today, that congregation is led by Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock. And as the current senior pastor at King's spiritual home, Warnock was asked to deliver the benediction at today's dedication ceremony.
REVEREND DR. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: In the days ahead, when our children shall rise up and ask us in the words of scripture what mean ye by these stones, we will tell them about a movement that not only liberated a people, but transformed a nation. When our children shall ask us what mean ye by these stones...
ROBERTS: That's Reverend Raphael Warnock closing today's MLK Memorial dedication, which originally was scheduled for August. The ceremony was postponed due to Hurricane Irene, and when I sat down with the Reverend Warnock yesterday, he told me the delay was a bit of a blessing.
WARNOCK: I was working on that up until the very last minute, so it wasn't finished anyway.
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ROBERTS: Whew. Thank goodness for Hurricane Irene.
WARNOCK: Wow. I had two extra months to think about it.
ROBERTS: Ebenezer Baptist Church, it's not, you know, a finished memorial. It's a living, breathing congregation. How do you balance this extraordinary legacy with keeping the church relevant and progressive and moving forward in the 21st century?
WARNOCK: You're absolutely right. We are a living, breathing, moving community. The church celebrates this year 125 years. And I think it's important to remember that Dr. King himself stood on the shoulders of pastors of that church who had been activists in their own right. So we continue in that legacy. We've been engaged in a number of recent issues, everything from HIV/AIDS, to the death penalty, to the prison industrial complex, to voting rights, and we are encouraged by the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us, Dr. King chief among them.
ROBERTS: Did you set out to follow his example specifically, or does almost anyone who's involved in social justice issues, in the South particularly, find themselves following his legacy?
WARNOCK: People often ask me what is it like to stand in Dr. King's shoes. But I'm very clear that while I serve in the pulpit where he served, it's really not my job to stand in his shoes. I think the best I can do is to try to stand on his shoulders and benefit from the insight and the work that's gone before us. If any of us take off to do anything, it's because somebody before us paved the runway so smooth.
ROBERTS: You were born a year after Dr. King was assassinated, never had the chance to meet him, but you preach in the church where he preached. Do you feel a connection to him? Do you feel like you know him in any way?
WARNOCK: It's a strange thing, but actually, I do. I've always felt a kind of connection. There was always something compelling about Dr. King. For me, he's just the clearest example of what it means to have integrity in your ministry and in your leadership. The depth of his commitment to fight for freedom come what may has always been a compelling story for me.
ROBERTS: And as you look to the future and keep Ebenezer Baptist vital and current, what do you preserve? What is worth keeping and looking back to?
WARNOCK: Certainly, the activism, and the sense that the gospel is about more than personal wellness, that it's also about social transformation, the sense that the world ought to be better. And so that's something that we continue to try to pass on. We can't always sing the same songs, or maybe if we sing the same songs we have to sing them in a different way. But the message is still the same. Of one blood, God has made all nations to dwell upon the face of the Earth. That's the core of who we are.
ROBERTS: That's Reverend Dr. Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Reverend, thank you so much for coming in.
WARNOCK: Great being here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.