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Rev. Dr. Michael E. Haynes Was A National Treasure, A Civil Rights Balm For Boston

By Kevin C. Peterson

The glorious and irrefutable aspects of Haynes’ life are surely evident to we who want to see them: Haynes walked without reticence among black giants in Boston which included people like Melnea Cass, Elma Lewis and Ruth Batson. This generation of blacks feared no evil in the valley of shadows of the social death that surrounded their community. They did not consign themselves to cheap compromise or political expediency on the race question in Boston. Instead, they pushed — sometimes politely and at other times with great verve — for equity, shared responsibility and high ethical and political comportment from within their own community.

Armed with these values as weapons, Haynes managed to transcend local politics and tap into national sentiment about race and justice during the 1960s. His friendship with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave evidence of Haynes’ impact within an enfolding national narrative of racial repair as the country slowly emerged from World War II. When he marched with King to the Boston Common in 1965, Haynes was affriming his affinity to the black social gospels that were embodied by contemporary luminaries in other cities like Boston — including the Rev. Gardner Taylor in Brooklyn, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Harlem, C.L. Franklin in Detroit and Ralph Abernathy in Atlanta.

The Rev. Michael Haynes Looks At A Photo Of Himself And the Rev. Dr. M.L. King Taken In The 1960s. Haynes Was Enmeshed In the Local and National Civil Rights Movement. (JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF/FILE)

Rev. Michael Haynes (left forrground) Marches With Rev. Martin Luther King in Boston.

Haynes practiced an assured, punctilious political and public theology. The intense battle he waged was engaged as much from the pulpit — as he weekly explained that the wages of sin were death — as they were confronted in the streets where where he rallied against the poignant, unrelenting effects of Boston apartheid. Haynes understood the salience of the high ethical expectations rendered in the Bible, and the necessity of applying those values across the city’s neighborhoods. His efforts at improving public education, reducing black poverty in the city and fueling economic developement were among the great marks of his leadership.

Clearly, Haynes’ political theology was not fortified with the manipulative artifices of the con man’s version of civic gamesmanship that we see often these days. Neither was it comprised of any desire for greedy power seeking or control.

Instead, Haynes sought a theology that was grounded in ideals around justice, mercy and human repair which has roots in the Biblical scriptures from which he drew wisdom his entire life. Haynes avoided the niceties and complexities of politics as mere sport. Instead he chose to lift people’s heart and their material conditions with a symmetry of purpose we can call soul power. Haynes’ out-sized and perpendicular efforts at kindness and grace were only matched by the expansive verticle reach of his human tenderness and splendid treatment of others.

The last time I talked with the Rev. Michael Haynes was in the pastor’s study at the Eliot Congregational Church in Roxbury moments before I preached for the first time. While I had personally invited Haynes to my inaugural sermon, I was surprised to see him. I was exhilarated and intimidated by his looming presence.

Haynes was in good spirits that day, but looking more diminutive and slightly less vivacious than when I last saw him at that church in Dorchester. As he stood with me and the Rev. Dr. Evan Hines, who is the senior pastor at Eliot, we made small talk about church music, local politics in the black community and the ever present prospects for a revived black church mobilization in Boston. He spoke about his relationship with families who lived in the area. And he commented his displeasure about how Christian evangelicals had fallen to the sway of President Trump’s political influence.

Rev. Michael Haynes Representing the Boy’s Club In Boston. Haynes Was A Youth Pastor At Roxbury’s 12th Baptist Church(Photo Credit: Northeastern University)

Haynes presence was iconic as he stood — dapper and confident— in the preacher’s parlor. His posture suggested hints of what we can sometimes detect as natural royalty and wisdom and grace. He gesticulated with nuanced and magnificent flare as he spoke in quiet, dulcet tones that were dipped in pure and cognizant elegance.

Everyone who stood in Rev. Haynes’ luminous presence felt the passion of an extraordinary man who lived a life balanced with boundless generosity and acceptance.

Haynes’ human longevity was shaped as much by truth-telling as it was by unvarnished diffidence. He was fearless in the field of life, never cautious about his capacity to love. He was an incarnation of the answers that we, who are sensitive, often pose as questions about the very nature of our humanity.

The theologian Howard Thurman — who lived in Boston as Haynes was rising to public and preacherly prominence — has said: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive,”

Haynes embodied this attitude over the course of nine decades of tireless travail and Boston and the nation are better because of him. He came alive for us. We are obligated to use his life as an example for ours moving forward.

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MAYOR WALSH