Monday, January 19, 2009

The Most Durable Power in the World

When I was a little girl, my father sat the family down one night to watch the Chicago Sunday Evening Club, a weekly religious broadcast from Orchestra Hall in downtown Chicago. My parents often watched that program on Sunday nights, but this was the only time they insisted that we watch it with them. I remember my dad said it was important; there was an earnestness in his voice. That was the first time I ever saw Martin Luther King Jr. on television.

My sister, six years my senior, still remembers what Dr. King spoke about that day and actually found the text of his sermon online: "Paul's Letter to American Christians," what he called "an imaginary letter from the pen of the Apostle Paul." Here are a few excerpts:
There is another thing that disturbs me to no end about the American church. You have a white church and you have a Negro church. You have allowed segregation to creep into the doors of the church. How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ? You must face the tragic fact that when you stand at 11:00 on Sunday morning to sing "All Hail the Power of Jesus Name" and "Dear Lord and Father of all Mankind," you stand in the most segregated hour of Christian America. They tell me that there is more integration in the entertaining world and other secular agencies than there is in the Christian church. How appalling that is. . . .

As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.

In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself. Let him know that the festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well as the Negro. . . .

I still believe that love is the most durable power in the world.
No wonder my sister remembers Dr. King's sermon, and no wonder it was so important to my father that we listen. I was 11 years old when Dr. King was shot, so I could have been anywhere between, oh, say, five and ten or so the night we watched that program. If not for my sister's memory, I wouldn't have the faintest notion of what he spoke about. But I think I still got the message my father was hoping for. It was my dad's sense of urgency that made me pay attention and remember how important it was to him that we listen.

Today my husband, Tom, and I went to the state capitol in downtown Madison to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Observance at noon. My sister was there, sitting among the VIPs, right next to Mayor Dave. We had lunch together afterward, and we talked about the night we watched the Chicago Sunday Evening Club.

I'm so proud of my father for knowing how important it was—and is—to listen to the words of Dr. King. I'm proud of my sister for remembering the sermon we listened to together those many years ago.

Tom and I went to show our support for the Soles (pronounced "So-lays"), a Mexican mariachi trio whose members attend our service in Spanish at Grace Episcopal Church and who were part of the program lineup. We got there early because the Soles told us 11 a.m. instead of noon, which was good, because we had great seats and time to greet my sister beforehand. I hope we go early again next year.

It was a beautiful gathering and celebration, a wonderfully mixed crowd of young and old, of many races and cultures. We sat in the capitol rotunda, under the the portrait of Lady Justice.

We sang "We Shall Overcome" together and did a brief community greeting, during which I met Geraldine Reed, who was sitting in the row in front of me. When she greeted me, she gave me a hug and told me that she had come here from New Orleans three years ago. I could tell that being there meant so much to her. She proudly introduced her grandson and his fiancee (or was it her granddaughter and her fiance?).

It didn't even occur to me until later that Geraldine is black and the young couple she introduced me to are white. I love that it didn't seem strange to me at the time. I'm grateful to Geraldine for her kindness and for her enthusiasm for the occasion. It felt like we were all family, all of us with Katrinas in our past, all of us with a lot to celebrate and a lot to be grateful for.

So now at the end of this beautiful day of remembrance, I'm thinking of how far we have come and how far we have to go. I'm thinking about my father and my sister and Geraldine and the Soles. I'm thinking about Dr. King and St. Paul and what they would say to us today if they could.

I think Dr. King would tell us to continue pressing on for justice with dignity and discipline, to shun segregation and violence, and he would reassure us that love is still the most durable power in the world.