Monday we had more than 40 volunteers from 4 local congregations turn out to celebrate MLK Day with us in Hillside and Fairfield Court. We had over 300 community residents participate in these celebrations. It was wonderful to see black, white, people of means, people with limited means, urban, suburban, Christian, non-Christian all together celebrating the progress this nation has made toward racial equality as a result of the sacrifice and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I challenged the congregational volunteers who were largely white, middle class, suburbanites to simply be a friend to someone they would otherwise never have a chance to meet. They did not disappoint me.
One group of youth volunteers started a soccer game in the field. A few children from the community joined in but others hung back checking us out. When I came back 30 minutes later, the team had more than doubled in size as more children from the community joined the fun and everyone forgot for just a few hours who lived where.
Inside the building the face painting team was doing something that has never been done before. The children in the community had taken over and were painting the faces of the youth volunteers. As you can imagine some of them came back to the building with some very interesting designs painted on their faces. I loved the laughter, the energy and the willingness to be a little crazy that both the youth and the children shared.
At the tables, community residents and congregational volunteers worked on answering questions about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as they competed with the other tables. I am happy to report my daughter got an A++++ on her portion of the challenge.
We all enjoyed an amazing meal together – fried chicken, cabbage, collard greens, mashed potatoes and biscuits. I was thrilled to see that the residents from the community were spread out and the congregational volunteers were engaged in deep conversations with their new friends.
The highlight of the Hillside celebration was when we all formed a giant circle two people deep around the room and sang “We will overcome” together. The various shades of our skin added to the beauty of that circle of humanity as our voices combined into one clear chorus of praise.
When the congregational volunteers returned to the Embrace building for our debriefing time, I was blessed to hear that until this event many had never celebrated MLK Day but that after this event they will always pause and remember the new friends they made who taught them the importance of Dr. King’s legacy.
I must confess that until I began spending time in largely African American communities, I never fully appreciated the gift and the sacrifice of Dr. King and others who fought to bring this country to the place it is today. However, I am also aware that while Dr. King’s dream of unity is possible today, it is not being fully lived out in our day to day lives. From 11:00am to 1:00pm Hillside Court and Fairfield Court were racially diverse communities. At 1:05 both reverted back to being communities that are 99% African American.
Dr. King’s words still ring true today for too many of our citizens, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity: one hundred years later the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.”
Midst the great blessing of this day, we were reminded of the curse of concentrated poverty. At 1:15, gunfire erupted just outside the building where we stood shoulder to shoulder with our Hillside sisters and brothers. How ironic that on a day in which we celebrate Dr. King’s commitment to non-violent resistance, we are reminded that not all embrace his dream.
I am thankful that the congregational volunteers were safely at our building when the bullets began to fly, but my heart bleeds for my sisters and brothers whom we left behind. As people of means, we have the choice to come and go as we please. Our friends who live in the community, have no choice. For many, their only crime is being poor. Today the drug lord has taken the place of the white man as the chief oppressor. The shooting happened in broad day light with dozens of witnesses. It is likely that fear will silence everyone when the police canvass the neighborhood for witnesses. The residents of these communities are trapped and the only chance of survival is silence.
Dr. King fought against systems of oppression that were visible and blatantly destructive. The enemy no longer wears white hooded robes, burns crosses, or lynches people. Instead he lurks in alley ways and on street corners. He recruits the youth and seduces the desperate with promises of fast money and a good time. He kills instantly with the simple mindless pull of the trigger.
Dr. King won his battle and we are living a fragment of his dream. However, the fullness of the dream will not be realized until all our citizens are free from oppression. It is not enough that little white children can play with little black children. The fullness of the dream is that those little black children will have the same opportunities as those little white children. The dream will be fulfilled when there is equal access to quality education, when all can play safely in the streets of their community, when all have choices that will lead them to a brighter future. I have a dream that one day very soon, the violence will cease and the law abiding citizens of Hillside court will reclaim their streets and we will all cry, “Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty we are free at last!”