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Old Chester, PA: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Chester Connections: The following article appeared in the "Opinion and Commentary" section of the Delaware County Daily Times on January 16, 1989

King had a mentor in Chester
By Kirk Byron Jones

"That Sunday, I sat in the spacious, sky-blue sanctuary, carefully feeling out the place and the people.  Calvary Baptist Church's search for a new pastor had led to me.  Turning aside from vague observations, I began to listen to the female lay leader who was at the podium.

"Dr. Smith is gone," she said.  "Dr. Barbour is dead, and we must move on."

The resignation of the Rev. Wallace Smith from the church after a 12-year pastorate precipitated the search for a new leader.  Dr. Joseph Pius Barbour had died 12 years earlier.  Why, I thought, did a congregation have to be reminded of a leader who had been dead for over a decade?  My answer came soon after I became pastor of Calvary.

Remembering the death of J. Pius Barbour is just one of the many ways a church keeps fresh the life of a father, friend and preacher who lived and ministered with them for over 40 years.  That Calvary has preserved Rev. Barbour's memory is good, because his was a ministry important not only to a people, but to a person: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

When Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Chester in the fall of 1948 to attend Crozer Seminary, one of his father's "preacher friends" was waiting for him.  Barbour, at the request of Martin Luther King Sr., a fellow Morehouse College graduate, was to provide a home away from home, "watch-care," for the younger King.  By all accounts, Barbour did just that.  During his stellar three-year seminary career, King was a frequent guest in the Barbour home, and he actively participated in Calvary Baptist Church as a Sunday school teacher, preaching on occasion.

In the Calvary parsonage, along with the "soul food" relief of Mrs. Olee Barbour, King participated in many informal dialogues Barbour held with Crozer's black seminarians.  These sessions, according to two other participants, Ed Whitaker and the Rev. William Jones, were more stimulating than the classes at the seminary.  In this regard Barbour, served as a chain of continuity between the intellectual preacher role models of Benjamin Mays and George Kelsey, whom King had encountered at Morehouse, and the rigid academic testing he would face next at Boston University.  Barbour's own Morehouse/Crozer background reaffirmed King's disposition toward religious service that was intellectually as well as spiritually fulfilling.

If the Barbour parsonage was King's home away from home, J. Pius Barbour was King's "father away from father."  The full-faced, barrel-chested Barbour not only paralleled King Sr. in appearance but even more significantly in personality.  Both were direct and forceful, traits learned and unleashed by not a few black men in order to survive with some degree of integrity in a world of racism and segregation.

The young King carried his running debate about religion and life from Atlanta to Chester, where Barbour filled the shoes of Martin Luther King Sr. as the personification of the traditional black preacher/pastor.  That King Sr. was looking over his son's shoulder in the person of J. Pius Barbour further assured that King would not disown his vocal, virile black pastoral lineage, but mix it with his new and satisfying scholarly agenda.

In the Calvary sanctuary, King kept in touch with his black religious tradition, a tradition in which seminary was sometimes pronounced "cemetery."  Too many preachers, it was thought, lost "spirit" in the process of gaining "smarts."  By allowing King to serve among "his" people, Barbour provided him practical church experience balance, at the important time when King was brandishing increasingly impressive skills as a scholar.

Though there is no written evidence to substantiate it, the positive Barbour-Calvary years may have influenced King to wave off academic positions and instead become pastor of a church in Montgomery upon his graduation from Boston University.

Aside the larger religious intellectual influence of Barbour on King is a significant personal encounter that, in no small way, helped chart the course for King's history-making life.  In his Pulitzer Prizewinning book, "Bearing the Cross," David Garrow writes of an early King dilemma and a pastor's advice:

King dated regularly during his Crozer years, but one of his companions, a white girl of German origin whose mother worked for Crozer raised concern in the eyes of Barbour and other friends ... Barbour heard about the couple's serious romantic involvement, and told King in no uncertain terms of the difficulties an interracial relationship would face ... If King wanted to return South to pastor, as he often said, an interracial marriage would create severe problems in the black community as well as the white ... Barbour insisted to King that marrying the young woman would be a tremendous mistake, and urged them to reconsider.

Ironically, King heeded advice that promulgated the racial restrictions he is now famous for condemning.  One cannot help but wonder how King's life might have proceeded had this pastoral counseling session not taken place.

Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader, continued his relationship with his seminary mentor.  Their Paul-Timothy relationship had the elder sending notes, and the younger dropping by whenever he was in the area.  Scholars document that King discussed several vital issues with Barbour, including King's decision to leave Montgomery for Atlanta and King's meteoric, and personally unsettling, rise to global prominence.

Even as King maintained his relationship with Barbour, so does Calvary Church.  Barbour stories abound.  There are no less than three pictures of him in church buildings.  Indeed, he is buried, at his request, near the entrance of the church.  I have joined my congregation's extended salute to our pastor.  I notice often, with pride and gratitude, his pictures and the one of his now-deceased former student minister from Atlanta.

The Rev. Kirk Byron Jones is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Chester."

Martin Luther King Day Commemorative Events

Congratulations to the MLK Jr. Commemorative Committee of Chester & Vicinity for their excellent work in organizing the 2007 14th Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration. It was my pleasure to be in Chester this year for the day's full schedule of events and I thoroughly enjoyed the day and the opportunities to hear a great deal of discussion about this year's theme, "Daring Leadership".

I also had the opportunity to chat briefly with recently-elected Congressman Joe Sestak and invite him to visit us both here on OldChesterPa and at our annual Chester reunion in October. I found him to have a great deal of curiosity and interest in learning more about Chester's rich history.


Click here for a printable Adobe pdf flyer with the detailed listing of the day's events




If you have any information and or pictures that you would like to contribute about this individual's relationship to Chester, please forward it to john@oldchesterpa.com

2000, 2001, 2007 John A. Bullock III.

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This page last updated 02/24/07