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This Life with Gracie: How Morehouse dean of King chapel found fresh faith

Lawrence Carter was tired.

For 18 years, he had worked to build the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College into a global ministry that teaches and inspires ambassadors of peace. But in all those years, the ministry he founded was nowhere near flourishing. Not the way he had hoped.

By his Baptist yardstick, the chapel should have had a grand choir, the crowds should’ve been so large he’d need the police directing traffic and he should’ve been graduating from one service to two.

And so one day in 1999, Carter went home and announced to his wife, Marva, that he was done. Done teaching courses outside his doctorate and preaching evening vesper services. Done with fundraising and grading papers and writing scores of letters for recommendations for students. Done with taking media calls and having his idol, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., control his schedule from the grave.

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“I felt exhausted,” he said recently.

Carter believed his efforts to grow King’s global vision for justice and peace had failed. Then the Ohio native discovered the work of Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda and has never been the same since.

He lays out his journey from despair to a new self-understanding, renewed hope, and a revitalized faith in a new memoir titled “A Baptist Preacher’s Buddhist Teacher: How My Interfaith Journey With Daisaku Ikeda Made Me a Better Christian.”

Carter will speak and sign copies of the book at 7 p.m. Nov. 13 at Morehouse College, but let me back up.

Dean Lawrence E. Carter Sr. will introduce his memoir, “A Baptist Preacher’s Buddhist Teacher: How My Interfaith Journey With Daisaku Ikeda Made Me a Better Christian,” at 7 p.m. Nov. 13 in the Bank of America Auditorium at Morehouse College. CONTRIBUTED (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

It would take years and journeys to some 38 countries before he fully understood Jesus’ declaration in John 4:4 that despite the disdain Jews and Samaritans held for each other, he “must go through Samaria,” but Carter was sure he was about to embark on his own Abraham experience and that God would lead him back to a place of peace and reconciliation.

RELATED: Martin Luther King Jr.’s final days

The night the preacher shared his despair with his wife, she assured him that he was not a failure. She suggested he call her father.

You’re at the top of your field, the Rev. Marvin Griffin told his son-in-law. Where can you go?

Days later, Carter left for Canada to attend a conference on community building before flying to Los Angeles to preach at a retirement service.

He was still in L.A. when he heard another pastor preach “The Authentic Life” about being true to your calling.

“It really shook me,” he recalled.

Knowing Colgate Rochester Theological Seminary was looking for a new president, Carter flew back to Canada and drove to Rochester, N.Y., to walk the seminary campus, hoping the spirit might speak to him. It wasn’t until he returned to Atlanta and got off the plane.

You’re home, he recalled the spirit saying.

Carter was sure that his work at Morehouse was not done.

Back on campus the next day, he felt different. It felt different. Faculty and students were responding to him in a way they hadn’t before. They were speaking and stopping to shake his hand, offering him compliments.

“It seemed to say to me this is where you’re supposed to be,” he said.

The next Sunday, Carter returned to his pulpit to preach. He had no manuscript. Just two or three words jotted on a small piece of paper. When he finished, Marva handed him a note from one of the congregants.

“Your husband is a spiritual genius,” it said.

Lawrence Carter had evolved to a place he’d never been, a man he barely recognized.

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As the Columbine High School shooting was unfolding on television, Carter took a call from a Morehouse alum wanting to know what he was going to do about it.

Carter didn’t have an answer, but when he hung up the phone that day, the question haunted him. Before he got up from his seat, he’d decided to claim Gandhi’s and King’s nonviolent philosophy not for Morehouse, but for the nation and world.

“That started me in this direction,” he said.

Morehouse College Dean Lawrence E. Carter Sr. has dedicated his life to sharing the teachings of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. CONTRIBUTED (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

In truth, it started when he was just a sophomore at West High School in Columbus, Ohio. Carter had gone to hear King speak for the first time, and in a brief encounter with the civil rights leader that day, King suggested he consider enrolling at Morehouse.

Carter’s church mentors, though, had other plans. For decades, the Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg had been turning out nationally recognized black Baptist pastors. Carter would go there.

In 1960, after graduating from West, Carter headed to Lynchburg. He was still in his freshman year when King arrived there to speak.

“That night changed my life,” Carter said. “I rushed back to school, called my mother and said, ‘I’m transferring to Morehouse.’”

His mother balked at the idea. She was already working three jobs to put him through school. Morehouse, she thought, was too expensive.

If he couldn’t go to Morehouse, Carter decided he’d do the next best thing — enroll at Boston University, where he’d be taught by the same professors who taught King.

He was one month from graduating from Boston when he received news King had been assassinated.

“The words literally stabbed me,” he said.

RELATED: Remembering King: Classmates, colleagues recall influence

Later that evening, Carter with his girlfriend Marva prayed: help me to do something significant for Martin Luther King Jr. before I close my eyes.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Three years later, that prayer was answered when Boston’s president drafted Carter to be the acting head of the MLK Jr. African American Culture Center, a position he held for three years before resigning to finish work on his doctorate. He prayed a similar prayer again in 1979 and was invited by Morehouse’s president to be dean of the King chapel, considered the world’s most prominent religious memorial to the late civil rights leader.

Meanwhile, Carter could see huge divisions brewing. Racial prejudice. Religious and political differences. Gender battles. He was convinced that one couldn’t sit idly by celebrating his identification with Jesus and not be socially active and responsible.

“Religion is responsibility or it is nothing at all,” he said.

By 2000, as he learned more about Daisaku Ikeda, Carter’s memoir was being written in his head and heart. Ikeda, like King and Gandhi, labored for a world without violence. He wanted to do the same.

When he finally put pen to paper, Carter wanted to boldly proclaim the need to co-create the beloved world community and demonstrate to the rest of us that, through Christ, there are no differences we can’t overcome.

“The goal is to be a moral cosmopolitan,” he said. “Not being loyal to a flag but loyal to humanity. Not America first but people first. The goal is being the thing itself.”

But none of us is likely to get there without first traveling through Samaria.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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