Monday, January 19, 2015

A Legacy of Love with Courage

Welcome to the first blog post of Love with Courage! 

It is no coincidence that I am launching this blog on Martin Luther King Day. In my eyes, there’s no greater exemplar--at least, no greater American exemplar--of love with courage than Martin Luther King Jr. How was it that in nine short years, Martin Luther King went from an obscure young Baptist minister to the leader of the most effective civil rights movement in American history? 

His civil rights leadership began in Montgomery Alabama when he called for a city-wide boycott of the city’s segregated bus system, lasting nearly 13 months and, within a year, moving the Supreme Court to rule Jim Crow seating unlawful. In Atlanta, King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an alliance of church-affiliated civil rights organizations which supported sit-in demonstrations and freedom rides throughout the South. In 1963, he decided to “dramatize the Negro plight and galvanize the national conscience,” by organizing a mass nonviolent demonstration in the arch-segregationist city of Birmingham, resulting in the arrest of 3300 black men, including King himself. From that Birmingham jail, King wrote a letter appealing to his white colleagues, a letter that resonated with many people of conscience and raised the question for this nation, what does it mean to take a path of integrity. 

What does it mean to take a path of integrity? For me, integrity means being honest, keeping your word, and getting clear on where we are broken, not only as individuals but as a wider community and choosing and embodying the better angels of our nature. Integrity is about how we live our lives, How we choose to allocate our time and resources. Integrity is bringing our actions in accordance with our values, to take risks for what we really believe in. Taking a path of integrity as well learning how to love with courage requires us to ask questions like: “What breaks your heart?” “What causes you despair or sorrow?” then sharing that with others, and standing for and walking with others who are similarly heartbroken.  

So one important way we take a path of integrity is through active, non-violent, loving, firm community organizing, just as King and his colleagues organized the 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom, the march from which this image was taken, the image that hangs in my office, reminding me of the significance of clear, strong leadership, appealing to the conscience of all people. it embodies our second principle as Unitarian Universalists: to promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. It is emblematic of love with courage.

At the heart of our integrity is our humanity, our soul, where we may or may not get clear who we are and what our lives are about. And because the legacy of Martin Luther King often makes him look larger than life, it is easy to overlook King’s humanity, what it was like to be Martin. How he experienced transforming wonder. That he knew great joy and was a man of deep laughter. How he moved and led from that experience of being called to stand for something greater than himself. Whether we call it non-violence, integrity, or God, it doesn’t matter. What matters is cultivating the capacity to move through and beyond the many fears that hold us back.

I am struck how he described his motivation for staying the course by reflecting on the faces of people he met and got to know who struggled, prayed, hoped, marched, and sacrificed. Faces of those who suffered oppression, poverty, and indignity and yet carried on with hope and dignity. 

I have come to believe that King’s contemplative life, where he held close these faces, and the stories behind them, was what, perhaps more than anything else, took him through his fears. For King had much to fear. He suffered threats on his life and the lives of his loved ones. By the beginning of 1965, his house had been bombed 3 times, the hotel room where he had been staying in Birmingham was bombed and several people hurt. And while signing books in 1958, he suffered a near fatal knife attack. And yet, he pleaded for non-violence, especially after the most heinous of events. And he never carried a gun, even though many around him urged him to. His response, “How could I if I am a champion of non-violence?”

How did he stay the course in the face of such hatred and real danger? He suggested his commitment and passion was born out of a recognition of how deeply we are connected, and connected to a transforming love that guides our lives. And as he affirmed in today’s reading referring to Paul’s epistle, “a Christian should rejoice at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believe.” According to his wife Coretta Scott King, he found steadiness and clarity in the depth of his contemplative life. When he prayed, he was reminded of the depth of his connections,. Interestingly, his prayers were very short. Often only a couple sentences, but direct, clear statements of intention and hope for the possibility of better tomorrow. 

He wasn’t one to be serious all the time, especially with family. He even made light of his brush with death. For it had been written in the papers that King’s injury was so critical, he would have died if he had sneezed. And King loved to publicly quote a letter from a girl who wrote, “Dr. King I am so glad that you didn’t sneeze.”

One of his greatest moments of despair was when four young girls lost their lives by a horrific, hate-filled bombing of a Birmingham church. His spirits were lifted only by the witness of over 3,000 unarmed young black women and men who while walking to a prayer meeting faced--with only their bodies and souls--the police dogs, clubs, and hoses of Bull O’Connor, and how they prevailed in their dignity.

And that’s what kept him going: human connections, expressions of hope, of faith in a better tomorrow, of our shared capacity to take a path of integrity and make the world better for everyone. That’s what love with courage is all about.

And this work of making connections, while simple, takes practice. It takes intention. And it takes a sustained commitment. And I experience this practice of making connections as a spiritual practice that hones my own integrity. Getting to know others both in and out of this congregation, learning what motivates others, hearing stories, witnessing the hope, love and sorrow in their faces, in conversations that rarely go more than 40 minutes. This has been the most meaningful and nourishing part of my ministry. And this is what makes possible effective organizing together for change. 

This is a new journey for all of us. I welcome your feedback, comments, and participation.  Please also go to Facebook to like the Love With Courage page and/or twitter to follow me.

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