While watching the Rev. Bernice King eulogized her mother, Coretta Scott King, on television, I was reminded how legacies can be either a gift or a curse for those children who have to form their own identities, yet are inextricably connected to their deceased parents.
My experience growing up with well-known parents is no comparison to the legacy of the King siblings live under. It does, however, provide some insight into the difficulties of forming one's own identity with parents who left powerful legacies. In fact, my father had similar difficulties with his popular father growing up as child in Buffalo, N.Y.
In the 1920s, my late grandfather — Bishop John W. Garlington Sr. — was the founder and bishop of an organization called The Church of God and True Holiness. As bishop, he oversaw this organization until his death at age 55.
Being an older man when he married my grandmother, my grandfather left her with five children when he died, ranging in age from unborn to 6 years old. My grandmother was only 27 years old and financially destitute, living in an inner city Buffalo ghetto.
True Holiness, as an organization, was infused with extended and fictive relatives who essentially groomed my father with stories and legends concerning my grandfather's greatness and exploits. Then in 1968, while in his early 30s, my father became the bishop of the organization my grandfather founded — which exists even today in Cleveland, Ohio, still caught in a time warp of rigid religious interpretations and ideologies.
"That's not how your father did things," was a typical response my father heard from church elders. His efforts to move the organization forward out of its rigid interpretations of Scripture — imposed with dictator-like fashion while my grandfather was still alive — were unsuccessful.
Some of the issues that come to mind during my father's tenure at True Holiness were women preachers, wearing head coverings while in the sanctuary and whether Afros or straight hair should be worn. Entrenched patriarchal interpretations of Scripture at the time were sacrosanct to my grandfather but no longer significant to my father, whose education provided him a different lens to interpret sacred Scripture.
My grandfather's legacy no longer held any meaning for my father, who was striving for something he felt passionate about — and knew he wouldn't find it at True Holiness. As a result, he relinquished his role in 1971 and separated from his father's organization, which ultimately spurred his move to Portland. In 1974, he assumed his role as senior pastor of Maranatha Church.
My father's separation from his father's tenets, organization and legacy was so evident that my grandfather would have turned in his grave to learn that his eldest son and namesake had women preachers in his pulpit, had befriended Catholic priests and Rabbis, occasionally went to the movies and had wine with dinner.
Last month, at The Skanner's Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast, I ran into an old friend of my father. He admonished me to carry on my own legacy and that it was not my responsibility to continue the work of my late father. Obviously, I considered his advice, realizing that there are many aspects about me — including my same gender-loving orientation — that make following my father's legacy challenging. But introspection and self-discovery have been constant for me, because I've heard many church and community elders say, "Your father wouldn't approve of what you're doing or who you have become."
I guess that's not a legacy I need to hold on to anymore. In fact, like my father, I have to make a decision about my own calling and trust God to reveal the path that's best suited for me and my destiny. Perhaps my life's journey is to push future discussions and enlightenment in the religious community about same-sex marriage and homosexuality.
Legacies are not your own but belong to your deceased parents. It is up to you to form your own identity and legacy because every generation has its destiny and calling to fulfill. For me, to fully embrace this concept of legacies has been liberating for me, even in the face of forging an identity assumed to be in the counterculture.
Therefore, I wish the King siblings Godspeed on their journeys.
The Rev. John Garlington is the founder and pastor of Agape Fellowship Ministries in Portland.