Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The history behind the holiday is complex. In addition to being a federal holiday, it is also widely seen as the first day of a week of public service.
Obscured in these observations are spiritual and secular issues with implications for those of all faiths (and none) that are worth touching on.
As a black woman and a first-generation American, I am very aware of the results of the Civil Rights Movement on my life.
My mother was able to come to the United States, as were relatives of many friends and partners, because immigration reform grew out of the Civil Rights Act. Without it, on an economic and professional level, I might not be working at my current job and, religiously, I might not be worshiping in my parish home — at least not on the same level.
King once noted that Sunday mornings were the most segregated time of the week.
Because this national holiday has deep personal and political meaning for me, I challenge readers of this column to look at this day as an opportunity to grow as citizen activists and, if appropriate, as persons of faith.
Although the day is seen as a one of volunteer service, King was both praised and criticized in his own time for incorporating nonviolent civil disobedience, influenced by Hindu Mahatma Ghandi, Buddhist Thich Nhat Hahn and other thinkers and activists of various faiths. (Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Leonard Beerman were memorably prominent in his movement as well.)
So while it is certainly positive to paint a school or work at a soup kitchen, there should also be discussion, education and action on issues of oppression and remaining discriminatory policies and practices in this country.
King worked on classism and oppression of workers, in addition to racism: How does our community treat workers in terms of equal pay, nondiscrimination, etc.? How do we treat formerly incarcerated people? Are we, in our ordinances and day-to-day interactions, treating people with disabilities with a discriminatory “abilist“ or a justice-oriented mind-set?
In terms of faith, King educated our nation on racism through secular and spiritual/moral dialogue.
As people of faith and as spiritual independents, we have a role in addressing issues of racism and other oppressions on a larger level than just the personal or philosophical.
Ceasar Chavez was able to mobilize people’s spiritual energy by including an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe during the United Farm Workers march from Delano to Sacramento, Calif. He did this to show that these actions were not just about financial or workplace conditions but had a moral momentum as well.
In order to do this, we must become aware of the needs of persons throughout our community, and reach out to one another across our similarities and our differences.
In the words of the Dalai Lama, “Each of us must learn to work not just for oneself, one’s family or one’s own nation, but for the benefit of all humankind.”