Today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I wish to honor Dr. King’s spirit by sharing with you a personal story I’ve never told publicly about the day he died. Vulnerability, grief and even shame about who I was when that day began were just too much for me – until now.
As many of you know, I was raised in the narrow, privileged, very white world of San Francisco’s upper crust. Though I dearly loved the black women who, actually, were the mothers who raised me, I had absolutely no consciousness of the racism my life was soaking in. I was 18 in 1968, and I sang along to civil rights tunes like “If I Had a Hammer” with Peter, Paul and Mary on the radio, completely oblivious to the yawning internal contradictions in my world view.
And so it was that on that April day in 1968 when the news came that Martin Luther King had died, I remember my exact thought. It was: “Good. He was a troublemaker.”
I was a freshman at the University of San Francisco that year. The school was Catholic (which my family was not) and heavily Democratic (which my family certainly was not). USF had been chosen for me by my parents because I was not yet allowed to move away from home.
When the announcement of Dr. King’s death came, the outbreak of open grieving and sudden confusion immediately overwhelmed everything else. I had never witnessed anything like it.
Classes immediately just… stopped. Bells rang out in St. Ignatius Cathedral as Mass was spontaneously called.
Everyone poured out the classrooms and buildings into the central quad on campus. Everywhere knots of weeping students formed, strangers embracing and holding each other, weaving slowly towards the cathedral together. I was carried along by the wave of human bodies.
Suddenly I wanted more than anything in the world to be part of it.
I moved towards one of the swaying, sobbing circles of students and was instantly pulled in and embraced. Black, white, Latino and Asian students were clinging to one another as though there was no one dearer to them in all the world. And I was among them. I was one of them. I was holding and being held. My heart was melting into their hearts.
I felt the love radiating from everyone to everyone, and suddenly I was sobbing too. Eighteen years of being forbidden the expression of any remotely negative emotion – living under the unyielding, viselike demand of always “being pleasant” – all of it erupted out of me, and I wept as I had never wept in all my life.
All of the pain was mingling inside me. My pain, their pain, the pain of the people of color that Dr. King had borne witness to and given his life for naming and opposing, the stubborn blindness of frightened racists – all of it pierced me. All of it tore me open.
Suddenly my “apartness” – my unnamed sense of some indefinable but absolute “otherness” between me and people of different races melted and dissolved in a wave of sorrow, shame and crystalline clarity. Suddenly I saw that everything I had always believed about how inescapably different we were from each other was just so… wrong.
If I had been on the Road to Damascus, I would’ve been knocked off my horse.
Hundreds of people were packing wall-to-wall into the cathedral. Some were still embracing and wailing. Some were fallen on their knees, rocking in prayer. I fell on my knees and prayed too, still doubled over in the tears I could not contain.
But I did not pray to Jesus. I prayed to the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for forgiveness. I prayed for his spirit to know that his death had opened my eyes and transformed me. I pledged that I would forge my life around that moment and that I would never be again as I had been. I vowed that from that day forward I would live and act to heal the wounds and divides created by the lies and distortions of racism, as best as I was able. I prayed that his spirit would always guide me.
I can only say that in that moment I felt that my prayer was answered.
I truly felt as though I was being personally seen and forgiven by the spirit of Dr. King and held with compassion and understanding for who I had been taught, until that moment, to be. I asked that his spirit would be with me as I learned how to fulfill the vows that I had made.
The day that Martin Luther King Jr. died changed me forever. Though I didn’t know it then, that day was the beginning of my ministry.
Countless times since I have prayed to the spirit of Dr. King as I prayed that day, asking for guidance, asking for courage when I was afraid, asking for forgiveness when I have fallen short. And every time that I have prayed, I have felted answered.
In the year that I entered the Unitarian Universalist ministry, I visited Dr. King’s jail cell and listened to the recording of his voice reading his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It brought me to tears of humility and gratitude all over again. Over the years, the depth of my commitment to walk in the light of service to his vision of compassionate non-violence as the path to the profoundest change has only grown. From Dr. King I have learned again and again to work for justice by, first, expanding my heart to a greater capacity to love and then acting from there.
No one has ever embodied the words of another great teacher of non-violence (to whose spirit I also have been known to pray), better than Dr. King: “Love your enemy.” Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27-36
I aim every day to walk in those footsteps.
Because of what happened to me on the day Dr. King died, I can never give up hope for humanity. I can never give up hope that any life can be transformed. Awakenings can happen, and we can begin again as the people we never dreamed that we could be.
And I will never give up striving to fulfill my part in bringing about that change.
I hope you will take time today to reflect on what dreams of peace, justice and loving human community call to you and open your heart to how you are moved to fulfill them.
What is your call to contribute to the healing of this broken world that it was too much for you to bring yourself to answer – until now?
With You on the Path,