Unforgettable: A Pastor’s Interaction with Martin Luther King Jr.
By Carl Stagner
Editor’s note—One of the most inspirational interviews we’ve conducted over the years was a late-2011 conversation with Rev. John Foster who, at the time, served the Meadville, Pennsylvania, congregation on Boynton Street. Published originally in January 2012, much of our contemporary readership may have then missed the opportunity to read the story of his personal interaction with the late civil rights icon, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Eleven years removed from original publication, the time seemed right to feature it once again. Enjoy!
As a small church nestled in the heart of Meadville, Pennsylvania, Boynton Street Church of God may not seem like the most fascinating of locations. But stop by 181 Boynton Street on a Sunday morning, chat with Pastor John Foster, and you’ll hear an emotionally gripping story of influence, impact, historical consequence, and life change. For within the heart of Rev. Foster, you’ll find a man of God touched by the Holy Spirit, fueled by his love for the Lord and God’s kingdom, and inspired by his personal experience with the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
John Foster was a music student at Alabama State University in Montgomery in the mid-1950s. Martin Luther King Jr. was the new minister in town, and bus boycotts were on the rise. Initially, Martin Luther King did not express interest in leading the boycotts, but he agreed after much encouragement from the masses. Juggling his ministerial responsibilities with his new leadership of the boycotts required his presence at a variety of appointments, meetings, and events. To help manage his busy schedule, Martin Luther King hired three drivers.
One of Martin Luther King’s drivers was King’s former roommate from his days at Morehouse College. Dr. King’s roommate had gone on to be one of Foster’s music instructors. This connection landed Foster a job as a volunteer chauffeur for Martin Luther King Jr. when his instructor had too many assignments to handle.
Foster remembers some influential moments of his experience with Martin Luther King. One particular night while Foster was at school, there was a loud explosion. People poured into the streets to find that Dr. King’s house had been targeted. Part of his house was destroyed, but no one was hurt. Foster recalls that Dr. King approached every circumstance with a calm demeanor and a consistent peace about him. Dr. King came out of his home that evening proclaiming, “You must love your enemies.” Foster reflects, “This was the same spirit in which Christ came to earth…to love us and die for us, even though we were his enemies.”
On one night, several churches were bombed only a few minutes apart. “We had finished a concert, and I was getting ready to go to bed,” Foster recollects. “It was total chaos. The police didn’t even know what to do.” A crowd had gathered at one church, and “the minister of the church was actually a white minister, and we wanted to see if he had been harmed. He was standing out on the lawn when we got there with many others. While standing there, another man crossed in front of him about two feet, and he stumbled and nearly fell. Everyone turned to see what he had stumbled over—it was a reinforcement rod, sticking up above the ground. The police told everybody to freeze! Underneath that rod were fifteen sticks of dynamite that had been buried and were ready to go off. The police explained that if they had gone off, the explosion would have taken out half the block!”
Foster explains that the strategy of the bombers was that an initial explosion would draw crowds, while a secondary explosion (the concealed dynamite) would do maximum damage. “Thank God that it didn’t pan out they way they had hoped,” he observes.
Foster later realized he had much more to thank God for than that one instance. He learned that the Ku Klux Klan had indeed targeted the very car Foster drove for Dr. King. “It never occurred to me that I was in danger like that,” he explains. “Another miracle. Thank God for that.”
One-on-one interaction with Dr. King, coupled with much firsthand observation, influenced Foster. “I loved the way King said we should love. I was a Church of God lad at the time, but I was still a little bitter with so much of the discrimination. After my experience with King, my bitterness melted away.”
“Love fueled Martin Luther King,” Foster continues. “For Dr. King, the whole thing revolved around love. Really do it. Don’t just talk about it.”
After graduation, Foster moved north and discontinued his chauffeur service for Dr. King. And it was many years later that Foster was most amazed at the character of this godly leader. Mrs. King had come to Birmingham, Alabama, to perform a concert. Foster attended this concert and walked backstage on a whim that the Kings would remember him. They did! After all of the dignitaries, members of the media, politicians, and church leaders that the Kings had interacted with, they had not forgotten the volunteer driver that helped Dr. King so many years ago.
Neither will Rev. John Foster forget Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. May none of us ever forget Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of love.
Learn more about the Church of God movement at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.