I’ll say it. Muhammad Ali scared me as a kid growing up in Ohio. He was unorthodox and ominous, as he bragged about his greatness and banged his opponents into submission. He was brash and, yes, black, and seemed dangerous to the comfort of the white status quo in which I’d been raised.
Then he became a Muslim, which from my Baptist world view was akin to becoming a Martian. Fearing the unknown, as we are all prone to do, I made a place for him in an unambiguous category: stranger, which, in the parlance of my culture, meant enemy.
In 1978, while in seminary, I was a temporary employee at the Ford LTD plant in Louisville, Ky., when Ali fought Leon Spinks. Radios were snuck into the plant for the event, and the place was electric with excitement. Although I’m not a boxing fan, I joined the animated crowd in cheering for the hometown favorite “Louisville Lip”–that is, until a fear welled up: what if Ali’s victory somehow empowered these black people I was surrounded by, and caused them to rise up and riot? In essence, could Ali’s boxing victory somehow destabilize the balance (or lack thereof) of power?
I own up to these memories because I suspect they represent the sentiments of a generation of people, not only then, but now. People like Ali scare us. They scare us because they are strong, both physically and psychologically. They scare us because their ways are strange to us. They scare us because they threaten to tip the balance of power currently tilted in our favor.
And because they scare us, we categorize them–(“Ali is only a big-mouth boxer”)–and miss the larger context and truth of their lives.
It is understandable to be frightened by a bold barrier-breaker like Ali. But in time, one must find the courage and strength to examine the fears, gain comfort with differences and celebrate the beauty found in the foreign.
This is why, as a Baptist minister in Louisville, I look forward to the opening of the Ali Center.
Ali’s new center in our city is a kind of training gym to help people cultivate courage and strength. It invites growth. It provides us with sparring partners with which to hone our skills in identifying and attacking the real problems of this world. It trains people like me to fight against fears and phobias, which are the real enemies, in which are found the seeds of prejudice, polarization, provincialism, and war.
The center will stretch people like me beyond our usual boundaries. It will invite us to discover that people (like Ali) are complex and multidimensional; that strangers are not de facto enemies; that God is bigger than our categories; that all truth is of God no matter its origin; that the biggest battle of all time was not Ali versus Frazier, but Love versus Fear.
If Ali’s Center can help each of our faith traditions identify the subtle fears that may be latent even in our sacred texts; if it can be a catalyst for seeing a God’s-eye view of the world; if it can generate some new initiatives on behalf of all of God’s children; then the Muhammad Ali Center will not only be a beautiful addition to Louisville’s skyline; it will be a beautiful addition to its community’s soul.
Joseph Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.