I was late and I hadn’t done the homework. I had meant to but my retail job and full-time classes thwarted my intentions. Or so I told myself.
Earlier in the week, I had signed my name to the bottom of the “commitment card,” and handed it over to Brother Eduardo, lead organizer of the campus ministry of which I was a part.
While I don’t recall the ten items on that list of promises we had to sign off on in order to participate that night, when I close my eyes today I can see the mimeographed print: REFRAIN FROM THE VIOLENCE OF FIST, TONGUE, AND HEART. I remember it because it was second from the top, right under the promise I had failed to keep – Meditate daily on the life and teachings of Jesus.
Brother Eduardo was a civil rights veteran and a disciple of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had made a covenant, signed on to a faith statement, and up until that night, had no clue how hard it would be for me to keep that pledge of non-violence. To change my retributive worldview. I had only known Dr. King as a political force up until that night; I didn’t know him as a religious leader.
This was my first vigil. I had been in several public political protests against American intervention in Central America, but this was a profoundly new and life-changing experience. It was at the Virginia State Penitentiary, or State Penn as we called it back then. The structure was built before the Civil War, and it felt downright medieval. It has since been demolished. When we got there we all assembled on the sidewalk. We had no protest signs, bull horns, or chants; only candles.
We were there to witness and mourn a black man being put to death. Across the street, among our “opponents,” there was so much hate and vitriol. I’ll never forget this sign that just said, “Fry him!” I started to weep. I guess I did my homework in that moment. Somebody started singing “Amazing Grace.” Except for the silence, that was the only sound that came from our little group. It changed my life.
Brother Eduardo was a Cuban-born Catholic priest. He taught me that King was shaped by the church, and that King led the church membership to understand that they had to learn new skills in order to affect this liberation struggle that wasn’t just about them, it was about “redeeming the soul of America.”
Recalling these experiences, I wonder what this new movement to #reclaimMLK intends to reclaim? His covenantal ethic? That’s hard to do. Reclaiming MLK means reclaiming the reality that the Southern Freedom Struggle was deeply rooted in religious practice. King was first and foremost a pastor, and everything that he taught publicly was grounded in the Gospel.
So now, what is the role of the church in a #reclaimMLK movement? How can our congregations model this covenantal ethic of beloved community to the surrounding community?
Here are Dr. King’s Ten Commandments from his book Why We Can’t Wait, which he required each of the participants in the Birmingham protests to abide by.
- Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
- Remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory.
- Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is Love.
- Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
- Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
- Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
- Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
- Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
- Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
- Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.
Food for thought as we explore reclaiming Dr. King’s legacy.