Preach It, Reverend King!

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Convivium, 5 April 2018

Father Raymond de Souza, Convivium’s editor in chief, reflects on the influence of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on North America, and on his own call to priestly life. 

A few weeks back I wrote here about Archbishop Oscar Romero, the late archbishop of San Salvador memorialized on Westminster Abbey as one of the martyrs of the twentieth century. So too in that illustrious white-robed army is Martin Luther King, Jr. The 50th anniversary of his martyrdom was observed on Wednesday of this week, April 4.

We have read much in these days about Martin Luther King. Perhaps I might share some reflections about a man who had a major impact on my life.

While in junior high school – an Alberta classification as I discovered later – I was enrolled in a public-speaking class. My mother thought it would be good for me; she turned out to be right about that. The sessions were one-on-one with the instructor, but at the end of the year there was a recital of all her students. We had to choose a famous speech and deliver it from memory. She gave us a book of historic speeches from which to choose and I selected MLK’s 1963 speech from the March on Washington, I Have a Dream.

I don’t remember how well I recited it, but memorizing it meant that I had to study it carefully. And the content of the speech made a deep impact on me, teaching me the power of the preached word – for it is more of a sermon than a speech – to confront evil.

Later, during an academic fair in high school, I would make a presentation on MLK and the civil rights movement, about which I had studied a great deal more. It was the 1980s, and when I began to look around for contemporary struggles of a similar nature, I recognized the same dynamics at work in Poland’s Solidarity movement. From civil rights to Solidarity to St. John Paul II to the seminary – it is not exactly a straight line, but there are dots there to be connected.

So I remain grateful to a preacher for my own vocation to be a preacher too. A Baptist preacher at a black church in Atlanta is rather different than being a Catholic priest in a country parish on an island in the St. Lawrence River, but every preacher needs to be convinced that the Gospel has not lost its power, and MLK was an influential witness of just that.

MLK was, like Oscar Romero, not killed in specific hatred for the Christian faith. Yet he remains a martyr because it was his Christian faith that animated his fight for justice. Indeed, like Romero after him, it would be impossible to understand his fight – and the nonviolent way that he fought – apart from his Christian faith.

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