Martin Luther King Jr.
This week, I was reminded, I don’t know how to convey the largesse of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s spirit to my kids. I try. Since they were little, I played a copy of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech on his birthday, had my children listen, as they wanted to anything but sit and listen to a speech on their day off. Plus, this was a speech by someone who had been dead nearly as long as their mother had been alive, a speech delivered months after their mother was born.
“Why?” I was asked.
“He’s a hero. He’s amazing. He’s influenced so many people, he was so brave.” I wanted them to know about this great man. At least they knew Dr. King was one of my heroes, they’d heard his eloquence with their own ears. My daughter did an extra credit poster on Dr. King last year, which hangs in our attic stairway now.
The older I get, the more I admire Dr. King in all his humanness. When I traveled to Haiti this year, despite myriad State Department warnings of a cholera epidemic, infrastructure problems, outbreaks of riots and violence, I thought of Dr. King as a father. He was willing to work for justice, even when that meant he’d go to jail, face dogs and firehoses, violence, and ultimately death. What he risked was great, and he was aware of the risks he was taking, the risks to his family as well. I can’t imagine. To have those sorts of threats looming on your daily horizon must have been staggering. He proclaimed, “I just want to do God’s will,” which must have burned within him, because it’s something he could have run from, something he could have stuffed down deep when the stakes got higher. But, Dr. King felt God was calling him as a leader to usher in change, serious costly change that would not come without a fight.
There was a bomb threat on the plane Dr. King took the day before his assassination. Life and death, faith and violence became that closely entwined and intermingled. To face your own mortality and threats against your life, and still get up every morning and be about the arduous work of changing systems? Who can face that kind of pressure? He was thirty-nine when he died, not even into middle age yet, when he died in that decade of assassinations. “I have a dream” delivered in the year Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy were slain; then in 1968, Dr. King and Robert Kennedy were killed, along with other assassinations occurring in that decade.
One cost of his leadership, Dr. King knows, as does every strong leader, is that the fruits of your efforts may not be seen in your lifetime. He’s working towards something that is not about his own personal agenda, and positive results may not occur within the scope of his lifetime, and still he works diligently. This work for justice makes me think of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. This cathedral that has been under construction since 1882, and is still not finished, although what is finished is unusual, engaging, and in places strikingly beautiful. Antoni Gaudi worked on the basilica much of his life and said of the cathedral, “The expiatory church of La Sagrada Família is made by the people and is mirrored in them. It is a work that is in the hands of God and the will of the people.”
Justice on earth is always a work in progress, there’s always something undone about it. Of the leaders I’ve known, who have helped make huge strides towards justice in their communities, they’ve said to me, “Yes, but….” Meaning, they’ve looked at what they’ve been able to accomplish, and they’ve also held that in balance with what has remained undone. I think of Bibi Russell, a high fashion model who started “fashion for development,” became an employer of weavers in Bangladesh, helping over 30,000 people out of poverty there, and moving her efforts on to Cambodia, and Colombia. She sees what is still “undone.” My friend Peter Hesse, has worked to get training for over 1,000 teachers in Haiti, to set up micro-businesses there, has moved on to the Ivory Coast, and still he sees what more could be done.
Dr. King reminds us, “It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.” This is what we have to do, all these years later, …we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end.”
Then when Dr. King closes his speech, on the night before his death, with, “Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord!” we believe him. This, all this, is God’s work. It’s scary because it’s done by humans and it doesn’t always end well here on earth, think John the Baptist, think Jesus, think Father Damien of Molokai, think Dr. King. To have that sort of intimacy with God, to believe you are doing what God would have you do, to give yourself to “this struggle until the end?” Serious business. Which of course begs this question: What is God calling You to, which may not get finished, which may remain as unfinished business, but which God is calling you to nevertheless?