by Peggy C.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Our goal is to create a beloved community, and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
Black History Month has come and gone, but my mind is still full of memories and images of the great civil rights leaders of the past—especially, Martin Luther King, Jr. The movement’s heroes are still calling me to become a better version of myself for the sake of everyone I know today and might know in the future—and, of course, for my own sake.
During Lent, I’m more aware than usual of the temptation to dismiss the humanity of people whose perspectives and actions place them on the other side of the moral line: the hawks, greed-mongers, racists, and philistines, to name the top four on my list. But King reminds me that hating these “others” is tantamount to fueling their immorality (or amorality, which is even more dangerous and repellent to me). King's way was Jesus' way: non-violence rooted in the peace and love of Christ.
What a daunting thing it is to truly embrace non-violence: to embody it and to mean it, especially on a bad day, when outrage and despair choke off my ability to love my fellow humans as myself, not to mention loving and accepting myself, warts and all.
I was in my early teens when I became aware of King as a major force in public life. I’d hear his voice on the radio and on TV, and despite my adolescent self-involvement and my posture of cynicism (it was only a posture), that sonorous voice penetrated deep into my soul, where it lodged and took root. It has never left me.
It was a voice that chimed like an Asian gong, sighed like the bottom of the ocean at midnight, roared like a father announcing the birth of his newborn child. What did I know about the Promised Land or the Beloved Community? And yet these words and the images they evoked moved me in mysterious ways.
And then there were the songs of that era, mostly inherited from earlier times but popularized by the civil rights movement. My favorites were: We Shall Overcome, O Freedom, and We Shall Not Be Moved.
At 16, in 1964, I learned to accompany myself on the guitar and became a local folk singer. Every weekend, you could find me at Through the Gate, a coffeehouse in a church basement in the southeast section of Washington, D.C., the city where I grew up. Every weekend, I sang. And I meant every word of every song I sang.
What did I know about the struggle for freedom? What, exactly, did I want to overcome? Why should a privileged white teenager respond so fervently to the cry of the poor, to King’s message of non-violence, and to the struggle of African-American people (then called “Negroes”) for liberation?
Obviously, I had no connection to actual slavery. I could only imagine it and weep bitterly for its victims. And yet somehow I, too, felt oppressed.
I was outraged by the complacent smiles I saw on the faces of people who shouldn’t be smiling at a time when Jim Crow still ruled much of the country. They should be ashamed to live in such a racist society, I felt. If they were as good and kind as they made themselves out to be, they should put an end to such an unjust, evil system. In 1964, that’s the way the world looked to me.
For mysterious reasons, I, too, felt like a second-class citizen. I felt unseen and unvalued. I was hungry for answers and ripe for a new story of hope and redemption, one that made sense at my time of life and at the time through which I was living.
Martin Luther King stirred me up. But his teachings also gave me hope, and hope calmed me down. The Beloved Community was worth hoping for, singing for, fighting for, and living for, after all. And it still is.
At Trinity, I’ve been given a glimpse of what that community could be. It happens pretty often, actually: during choir practice, during the exchanging of the peace, and when we sing, pray, interact, and celebrate our lives in Christ together: one bread, one body.
Trinity has come to mean so much to me, and I know how many others share my gratitude for the place: for our pastor, for the sacraments we receive, and for each other, in all our richness and diversity. As a community, it is very much in keeping with the dream that King set in motion, a dream that didn’t die with him. It is my honor to help keep it alive at Trinity.