Home > Art, Life, Spirituality/Religion > Martin Luther King and I

Martin Luther King and I

Yesterday, I filled out one of those email surveys that a friend from my Bunco group passed on to me. I had to laugh when one of the women responded to the question “What did you want to be when you grew up?” with “Cashier at Kash ‘n’ Karry”, a local grocery store here in Florida. My only slightly facetious answer to the same question had been “Martin Luther King, Jr.” I kidded her for setting her goals pretty low, therefore likely ensuring success. Then I thought about my own answer and realized that my response was rather telling as to why I have a hard time achieving the standards I set for myself.

signs1When I was in 3rd grade, we had to do a book report on any book we chose from the library. Grudgingly, since I was already a lazy reader, I picked a slim biography on MLK Jr. I must have read that book ten times. I was enthralled by the descriptions of his boyhood, especially about the time he bonked his brother on the head with one of those heavy old telephone handsets and then felt so bad that he promised in repentance to never again express his anger through violence. I think that skinny book may have oversimplified his experience somewhat, but I was hooked on the idea.

Lately I’ve been exploring the doctrines of the various denominations of Christianity and find myself increasingly disillusioned the more I read. I got caught up in a blog discussion with a radical Bible-based Christian who is intent on eradicating from the face of the earth all of us whose “chosen lifestyles” represent abominable sin and therefore deserve to die. My lifestyle is one of those condemned also by the Southern Baptists. Martin Luther King was a Southern Baptist. Hmm…..explorer

Last week I participated in a volunteer project at a local institution of lower education in Tampa. This school had received an “F” rating for its test scores and the new principal is working hard to bring the grades up. I looked up the demographics of the school and learned that, of the enrollment of about 700 students, 80% are black, 16% hispanic, and 4% are white. 87% of the students are eligible for free lunch. The teacher turnover rate last year was 50%. The new principal is white.

A small group of us spent our day painting murals in the cafeteria while the other hundred volunteers from the United Way did various projects to spruce up the school building and grounds. As the kids traipsed through the cafeteria shouting their thanks to us (at their principal’s request), we got all charged up at the thought of making a difference for them. We painted a sign that said “REACH HIGH” next to a couple of giraffes and I thought of my Martin Luther King dream. What does such an exhortation mean to them in a situation like theirs? I have every advantage possible and have a hard time achieving the kind of success I was suggesting to them. Was it not hypocritical of me to suggest that any goals they may have are even possible in their situation?lion

Of course, as all things seem to do, these questions came back around to me and my life. As we labored to create some sign of hope for these kids, I was feeling an underlying sense of hopelessness for myself as I painted and contemplated the impossibility of my salvation in light of my “unrepentant sinfulness”. Though I don’t know the demographics of the religiosity of this group of kids, my expectation is that if they do go to church, the ones they attend aren’t terribly liberal or progressive.

I can’t place myself in their shoes — it’s an apples and oranges comparison — but on some level I am feeling something that at least gives me a sense of empathy. jackieI am being told that because of who I am, there is no reason for me to even try to achieve any manner of Christian spiritual enlightenment since I have already blocked off my main pathway to God. Nothing I can do or say, no amount of volunteer work can buy my salvation. For these kids, the message seems to be similar. They are starting with a bunch of strikes against them and for a lot of them, “Reach High” may be an empty epithet. They’d probably do better to aim for “Cashier at Kash’n’Karry”.

These kids seemed pretty happy though. Being amongst peers who are largely in the same boat, they have little to compare with outside of their neighborhood. Unlike so many other kids in Hillsborough County whose parents ferry them around to various charter and magnet schools in hopes of better education, these kids actually go to their neighborhood school. I’m a big fan of neighborhood schools.

In a couple of weeks, history may be made when the first African American is elected to the presidency. Did Martin Luther King even imagine this day when he encouraged people to “Reach High”? Barack Obama helps me to believe that a sinful, middle-aged, middle-class, under-ambitious white woman like me has something useful to offer the world. He practices a progressive Christianity that doesn’t condemn me for who I am but rather lifts me up to engage in the kind of humility and compassion that fits my understanding and seems achievable.

Each of us, regardless of our circumstances in life, will be met with challenges to our ideals and to our very existence. We can choose to be limited by these challenges, or bit by bit, we can set our goals a step at a time from the easily achievable to the very highest of our imaginations even as we are told that success is impossible. The kids at the at this school need to be reminded that each goal is achieved a step at a time — shoot, I could use a little reminding myself…

  1. October 21, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    There is a drama expression, “There are no small parts; only small actors.” I don’t know who said it, and it was meant as consolation. There is an important life lesson in it though. You don’t have to be MLK, Jr. to make a difference. You don’t have to change the world or change our country. You can just change a moment in one person’s life, and you have really made a difference. Think back to things that someone said to you, did for you or to you and you might realize that these things might have dramatically changed your life… some for good, maybe others not so much. By helping to make SSE a better place, you could change the direction of one kid’s life. He or she could be the Barack Obama of the future.

  2. October 21, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    And that, to me, is the definition of Christianity — the cherry picking variety. After all, it’s the life I’m living now and not the one that is “promised” afterwards that I’m concerned about. Nit-picking my way through the Bible does not strike me as a valuable use of my time. Painting with my little pals, does…

  3. Tina
    October 22, 2008 at 10:58 am

    Great post, great murals and I must not be telling you enough lately…you make a huge difference in the life of your neighborly Breede’s! And trust me, it’s more the little things like when I walk out for my mail and see you and the pups out and I’m delighted to laugh and download to re-energize my day. I’m thankful that by coincidence or not, I couldn’t have picked better neighbors or rather – picked better friends to live next to. BTW, if you ever need an extra set of hands on a project like this (with a disclaimer that I can find someone to watch my angels) I would love to be apart of it…even if it’s just a “small part” like washing out brushes! Peace…

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