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Commentary: An encounter with truth on MLK Day

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The Rev. Kenneth H. Carter Jr.
Jan. 17, 2006

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Kenneth H. Carter Jr.*

Three years ago, in January 2003, I was at the Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville, Tenn., for a conference of United Methodist leaders. The meeting would take place on the Monday on which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered. For many people this was and is a holiday. I arrived at the school late on Sunday evening; we would begin our work the next day at noon. The dorms were plain, austere and cold!

The next morning, I woke up and made my way to the dining hall. A couple there introduced themselves: James and Eunice Mathews. They asked me to join them, and we shared breakfast together. I offered the blessing, remembering especially on that day the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

The Mathews seemed vaguely familiar to me. He was a retired bishop, and they were known for their commitment to missions (I note this now with an honest embarrassment!). They shared some of their life together that morning. Eunice was the daughter of E. Stanley Jones, who served in India as a missionary/evangelist for 40 years and whose books were translated into 18 languages, selling in the millions. James Mathews had been elected a bishop in 1960, without his knowledge (he was in India at the time) and apart from his ambition.

Eunice told me this story: When Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, a reception was held for him at United Methodist-related Boston University, where he had received his doctorate. James Mathews was the bishop of Boston at the time, and he and Eunice joined in the line of people to congratulate him.

When King met Eunice, he pointed his finger at her and said, “It was your father’s biography of Gandhi that changed my life, and convinced me of the necessity of nonviolence.”

In Jones’ biography of Mahatma Gandhi, the author noted that Gandhi became convinced that nonviolence was a strategy not of the weak but of the strong. In the margin of his copy, King had written, “This is it!”

James and Eunice Mathews gave me a copy of that biography, and I asked them to sign it, which they did. They also underlined the sentence: “Nonviolence is the method of the strong, and the only method of the strong.” If you visit the King Center in Atlanta today, you can see his copy of the biography of Gandhi, opened to page 88, with the words in the margin, “This is it!”

Why did I meet James and Eunice Mathews that Monday morning? Why did we have this conversation? Why did they tell me the story of the book? Why did they give me a copy? Each year at about this time, I remember Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, E. Stanley Jones, and James and Eunice Mathews. And then as I pray for strength and peace, I am drawn once again to these questions, and to the truth of that single sentence that so inspired a movement.

*Carter is senior pastor of Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., and book editor of Circuit Rider magazine, published by the United Methodist Publishing House.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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