Friday, May 4, 2018

Open-Mindedness / Prayer / "... ready to face anything ..."

This morning my thoughts return to April 4, 1968, when the news arrived in our college dorm at University of California, Irvine, that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated.  We were 18 years old and, for the most part, white middle class, some of us the first women and men in our families to attend college.  I can only speak for myself. I was and wasn't surprised by this assassination, and I remember experiencing the startling and profound silence that has filled my mind upon shocking news of only a few deaths in my lifetime, before thoughts and feelings rush in.  That I was growing up in a world with a long history of violence was becoming increasing apparent. Among too many others who had died recently in violent deaths in the United States only were Medgar Evers in 1963, followed by John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, the eight murdered student nurses in Chicago, and the University of Texas tower shootings which resulted in 16 gun deaths. Two months after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s violent death, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.  With the Tet Offensive, 1968 was the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War.  Exactly a year before, Martin Luther King, Jr., had spoken out against the war in Vietnam.  

The American Indian Movement was founded in July 1968:

"Indian people were never intended to survive the settlement of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere, our Turtle Island.  With the strength of a spiritual base, AIM has been able to clearly articulate the claims of Native Nations and has had the will and intellect to put forth those claims."

Although I agreed with Martin Luther King, Jr., on everything else, I was baffled by his belief in God.  Although I agreed with what I understood of the American Indian Movement, I was baffled by their talk of a spiritual base.  Nothing in my experience of going to church throughout my life until just months earlier had fostered in me a foundation in Christianity.  I had stopped going to church.  My parents stopped going to church soon after I stopped. Most of my Jewish friends were atheists.  A high school classmate told me she was going to convert to Islam.   A close friend identified as a Buddhist.  My Catholic friends left the Catholic church within the next few years.   For me, all religious and spiritual traditions were suspect.

And yet, there it was, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many in the Civil Rights Movement found strength and inspiration from Christianity. Curiously, it was through Martin Luther King, Jr., that I was introduced to the Vietnamese Zen Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh. Although I didn't become a Buddhist, I realized that there was a sacred way of being in the world that did not include the concept of a traditional god or gods.  I began to see, too, that many of the people I respected, including the poet, Robinson Jeffers, had a firm foundation in their sense of awe and gratitude as they looked around at the natural world.  I have been moved by the power of the spiritual foundation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and throughout the world as well as the thoughts of a Native American atheist I found just now through some quick Googling.  There are too many spiritual and religious, as well as skeptical, traditions to mention here.  They play a major part in the history of human beings.

Martin Luther King, Jr., had an open mind.  He was a Christian in the best sense of the word, one who respected the beliefs of his friends, not all of them Christian, including A. Philip Randolph, who were ready to face anything.

Prayer was a wellspring of strength and inspiration during the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the movement, we prayed for greater human understanding. We prayed for the safety of our compatriots in the freedom struggle. We prayed for victory in our nonviolent protests, for brotherhood and sisterhood among people of all races, for reconciliation and the fulfillment of the Beloved Community.

For my husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. prayer was a daily source of courage and strength that gave him the ability to carry on in even the darkest hours of our struggle.

Protesters kneel in prayer and reflection during non-violent protest
Non-violence in action. US Library of Congress
I remember one very difficult day when he came home bone-weary from the stress that came with his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In the middle of that night, he was awakened by a threatening and abusive phone call, one of many we received throughout the movement. On this particular occasion, however, Martin had had enough.

After the call, he got up from bed and made himself some coffee. He began to worry about his family, and all of the burdens that came with our movement weighed heavily on his soul. With his head in his hands, Martin bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud to God: “Lord, I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

Later he told me, “At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear a voice saying: ‘Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth; and God will be at our side forever.'” When Martin stood up from the table, he was imbued with a new sense of confidence, and he was ready to face anything (am's italics)


37paddington said...

Thank you for this wonderful open hearted post. I embrace all spiritual traditions that are rooted in Love. To my mind the words God and Love are synonymous.

Tara said...

even though I do not believe in a Christian God, I still find myself praying. To whom? My views are more aligned with Buddhist thought and Pantheistic reverence for nature and the universal connection that is everywhere. I could never 'get' MLK's message when it came to Christianity, but his good works on earth were all I needed.

Sabine said...

Thank you for this. Last night I finished watching the four part documentary "Bobby Kennedy for president" and once again was struck by the fervent catholicism of the Kennedy family - which resonates in so many of my Irish relatives. At time it gets mixed up with rightfulness, sadly.
Yet, with RFK it appears to have sparked a sense of justice. And this in turn made me remember the inspiring representatives of liberation theology of my student years (Helder Camara, Oscar Romero), both catholic bishops no less).
There is love and there is justice and there is love of justice.