True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.
–from Stride Toward Freedom, 1958, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Most of us have those “before and after” moments. That time when we clearly feel a break with the past, and the beginning of something new. The moment when our lives have changed forever, and we know we’re in new territory now.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
–from ‘Letter from Birmingham, Alabama Jail’, April 16, 1963
My visit to the Gaza Strip (9/2012 – 5/2013) was that moment in my life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but since my return to the U.S. and with some reflection, I see my personal timeline divided — before Gaza and after Gaza.
My understanding of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s impact on the world is a case in point. “Before” — I honored Dr. King’s memory each year knowing his contribution to the civil rights movement intellectually. I could recite most of the great milestones of his life, and I was grateful that America had such leaders. I had read his “I Have a Dream” speech but none of his other speeches.
“After” — something clicked in me. When I learned that April 4, 2017 was the 50th anniversary of his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, I was motivated to read it in its entirety. When he talked about a “revolution of values” and the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” — I knew he was speaking to me, to my world, and to my generation.
The blunt truth of his message was much more than an intellectual respect for a great leader but a heart filled with love and sadness that his truth has not rung deeply within the halls of power. To many Americans, the radical revolution is merely hyberbole, and they can’t be bothered with the difficult struggle required to change our society.
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
–from Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, April 4, 1967, Riverside Church, New York, NY
On April 4, 2017, I spent the afternoon and evening at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC just two blocks from the White House with an amazing group of clergy and lay people from many different faiths. We gathered to remember and celebrate Dr. King, and to send a message to the White House that Dr. King’s message of #LoveThyNeighbor – with no exceptions – is alive and well.
New York Ave Presbyterian Church is a Sanctuary Church that opens its doors to anyone who feels “threatened or vulnerable.”
Some people may feel their spiritual calling requires them to stay above the political fray and partisanship that permeates most discourse in Washington these days. Not these clergy members.
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.
—from King’s 1963 book Strength to Love
We began the afternoon by getting to know each other, standing up, clapping and appreciating each other’s differences. The Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Quakers, the LGBT, the old and the young, the poor and those who had plenty, and from all different parts of the country and the world.
“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. – Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 1958.
Then we broke into groups for workshops on such topics as “Personal healing from Racism to Action” — “Faithful Resistance, Advocacy and Organizing” — “Powerful, Pragmatic and Spirit led Lobbying”, — “Increase Militarism in the Trump Budget” — “Addressing Poverty – Breaking the Silence”.
I joined the Quakers who led the lobbying workshop because I wanted to know how to be more effective on the Hill. We learned about some of the priorities of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (easy to agree with these priorities), and then went through the nuts and bolts of an office visit with our member of Congress. The discussion was both concrete and very encouraging.
The take away message for me was: Come to the meeting with my Senator or Representative with the right spirit, with the goal of building a long-term relationship. Our members of Congress need to hear stories from real life to anchor them as they discuss policy and new laws.
At 5:00 pm we picked up signs from the sanctuary and marched down to Lafayette Square in front of the White House. There were about 30 – 40 people marching, with some drumming and others chanting. Probably the most well-behaved March I’ve ever participated in.
The time is always right to do what is right.
–from Oberlin College Commencement speech, 1965
We stood in a straight line, singing, chanting and then mic-checking to the words of leaders who encouraged us to lift our voices to the White House and the visitors and tourists who were gathered around.
At 7:00 pm some of us reassembled at the church for the 49th observance of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination. Several hundred members of the community joined to listen to people eulogize Dr. King; to hear his words come alive with the reenactments of some of his speeches; and listen to the DC Labor Chorus, the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church Male Chorus, and others fill the church with music. I wish I could have recorded it all.
The highlight for me was second-grader Kiye Bashiri Corbitt who read some passages from Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream Speech”. He stood up straight, and with great composure read his lines on cue in front of an audience of several hundred adults. Dr. King would be very proud of this future generation following in his footsteps.
—from Dr. King’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize (1964).
After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.
Bless you Dr. King.
And thank you to the organizers for planning this very special day.
Rev. Aundreia Alexander, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches
Christine Ashley, Friends Committee on National Legislation
Cherie Brown, director, National Coalition-Building Institute
Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director, NETWORK (“Nuns on the Bus”)
Rev. Richard Fernandez, (In 1967) executive director, Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam
Rev. Roger Gench, New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC
Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, director, Office of Public Witness, Presbyterian Church USA
Rev. Mike Neuroth, Washington Office, United Church of Christ
Jacqueline Patterson, Director, Environmental Justice, NAACP
Bishop Dwayne Royster, political director, PICO National Network
Imam Talib Shareef, Masjid Muhammad, Washington, DC
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Shalom Center