"We shall overcome"
- Daybreak at the Desert Retreat House -
Today is a national holiday in the United States, a celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
My guess is that many people will hardly give a thought to the memory of Dr. King today, many will spend this “holiday” as a day-off from work, perhaps catching up on some neglected household chores; and yet, I like to think of today as a “holy day” rather than a “holiday.” Today offers an opportunity for believers as well as non-believers throughout this country to do some deep soul searching into the nature of our common life. This “holy day” provides us with a “Dr. King Lens” for looking at ourselves and it invites us all to work toward building a just and compassionate society.
In the course of my life I have enjoyed the great blessing of visiting many holy shrines and sacred places. I have stood in Buddhist temples in Asia, visited noble cathedrals and renowned mosques in Europe and the Middle East. I have been to the places where Jesus preached and stood on the hill where he was crucified.
There is one shrine, however that holds a special place in my heart - the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis Tennessee. It is located in a building that once was a dingy little traveler’s lodge known as the Lorraine Motel and it was on the balcony of this motel that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on an April day in 1968.
Several years ago I was in Memphis and visited the Civil Rights Museum. I expected that, like any ordinary museum, it would be a place filled with artifacts and stories commemorating all the many events of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Little did I know I would actually be going to a sacred shrine.
A visit to the Civil Rights Museum follows along a very specific path. You are led though a variety of exhibit halls commemorating key events like the March on Selma. There are pictures and film clips of the “Freedom Riders” and artifacts from the Montgomery Prison where Dr. King wrote his renowned letters. The visit to the “museum” ends on a second floor balcony directly in front of what was once Room 306, the actual spot where Martin Luther King Jr. was so brutally assassinated on that fateful day in April.
I vividly remember standing there on that balcony of the “Lorraine Motel,” it was such a “thin space” where a veil was pulled away from my consciousness as I was drawn into an experience of transcendence, a place where the holy and the ordinary almost perfectly coincided. I remember looking around me, noticing how everyone on that balcony with me stood in reverent silence, some people knelt, some sobbed, others wept openly. It was such a holy place and I remember it well on this “Holy Day.”
Today, as we celebrate “Martin Luther King Day,” we are a nation and a world that has been brutally torn apart by our culture wars, we are a society in which blatant racism and unvarnished disrespect for human dignity have once again raised an ugly head on our city streets and in the halls of our most hallowed institutions. More than ever we need to turn to the life and teaching of Martin King Jr., to remember what he said and emulate what he did. The future of the nation may well depend upon how willing we are to honor this “Holy Day.”
During my visit to the Civil Rights Museum, I picked up a brochure that collected some of the most salient and memorable teachings of Dr. King and every year I look at those teachings when Martin Luther King Day comes along. I hope and pray that all people everywhere might take these words to heart - now more than ever:
Hate causes a person to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful.
Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
In this generation we will have to repent not merely for the vitriolic words
and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.
Those who accept evil without protesting against it are cooperating with it.
But even in the midst of all the chaos, I refuse to believe that humankind is
tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war.
I refuse to believe that the bright daybreak of peace can never become a reality
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.
Yes, I still have the audacity to believe that
we shall overcome!