“In our world today there are some prophets like John the baptizer, who are spectacular. They prepare our hearts to see Jesus. . . Yesterday, as today, John the Baptizer is calling people to be attentive to the presence of Jesus .”
~ Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche communities for developmentally disabled persons
Ten days before a bullet cut short the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said of King: “Where in America do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King, Jr. is a voice, a vision and a way. The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King.”
Like John the Baptist pointing to the Lamb of God at Jesus’ baptism (Jn 1:29-34), Rabbi Heschel could not have known just how prophetic his words about King would prove to be, especially in the wake of King’s martyrdom. Like lightning from heaven, both beautiful and dangerous, King’s legacy continues to call our attention to the Christ who hides in every mother’s child, especially the poor and imprisoned, the marginalized and hopeless.
Though they came from very different backgrounds—King, a gifted intellectual and preacher nurtured in the black Baptist church of the American south; Heschel, a mystic and brilliant scholar torn from the womb of the European Hasidic community (his mothers and sisters would perish in the Holocaust)—the two became close friends, partners in the conviction that racism in all its forms is the highest form of blasphemy.
The word “martyr” means “witness.” For both King and Heschel, the struggle for human dignity and civil rights, no matter how high the cost, is a moral and theological imperative, no less than a political one. After marching arm in arm with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery, Rabbi Heschel famously said of the experience, “I felt my feet were praying.”
As readers of my book, Hope Sings, So Beautiful will know, there was a long period in my life—some 30 years—when I would have had to say of African Americans, and of my fellow black Catholics, “I did not know them.” Less than three miles from the parish of my youth in Lexington, Kentucky, there was and still is a thriving black Catholic church. I had no idea there was such a thing. There are some four million Catholics of African descent in the United States. I did not know them. Nor was I ever taught the remarkable history of black Catholic sisters, priests, and lay parishioners across the country, who kept the faith so often in the face of breathtaking racism and discrimination.
The veil of my ignorance began to be lifted some 25 years ago when my family joined a black Catholic community in Denver. The relationships we formed there transformed my sense of being Catholic. How often in black Catholic churches since then, I have felt the Spirit rising and descending on the community like a dove, and something deep in my heart stirring, as if to say, here are my beloved children on whom my favor rests. Can you see them? Do you know them? Will you share their joys and sorrows?
It is a crucial opening, to be sure, when a child of privilege begins to recognize Christ in the stranger, Christ alive, Christ joyful, Christ suffering. But is it enough? At a moment in our social history when the crosses of debilitating poverty, underemployment, egregious health and wealth disparities, failing schools, mass incarceration, gun violence and so many other symptoms of social dysfunction bear down so disproportionately on peoples of color, is it enough to profess my indebtedness to the black community for all it has taught me about the life of faith?
I see, I feel, I pray. I teach classes. I write articles and books. But my gaze, I fear, is still an outsider’s gaze. I have not yet learned how to pray with my feet, as Heschel prayed, with my whole self on the line. And here, in the silent womb of prayer, I imagine St. John the Baptist in all of his wildness staring me square in the face, loving me, and asking, What will you do? Can you see him? Will you follow?
“Religion begins,” says Heschel, “with the consciousness that something is asked of us.” Where once our hearts were closed, our minds rigid, our imaginations paved over with fear, apathy, or cynicism, the saints and prophets break them open, and show us that there are still many more beautiful pages to be written.
In this week of thanksgiving for the extraordinary life and witness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let us pray for one another, each with our own beautiful gifts to share. Let us pray for the grace to discover Christ in the world, above all, Christ in the suffering stranger. And let us pray for the courage to follow.
Note: this post is adapted from a post first published several years ago in remembrance of the King holiday.