Yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Our school district used to have this day off, but then switched it to Yom Kippur. One of the reasons they gave was that students could actually learn more about MLK by being in school than having the day off. (I think that’s generally true, except that Eldest said the MLK Day learning at the high school was limited to the principal reading five quotes after morning announcements.) I also think it’s appropriate for the district to take Yom Kippur off because there is a larger Jewish population than African American population. Therefore, it more accurately reflects the community. Also, we continue to have Good Friday off, which I appreciate. Anyway, it’s not whether the kids have the day off or not that I’ve been thinking about.
Approaching this particular MLK holiday I began to think that we should do something as a family more substantial for my kids’ learning. I thought about looking into some programs in Milwaukee (MPS had the day off) and pulling the kids out of school. I didn’t do my homework soon enough, so they stayed in school. We did, however, watch the Vernon John’s Story. Rev. Dr. John was the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1948. He was fired because he was too controversial. One of his sermon trials was “It’s Safe to Murder Negroes.” This was the one that got him fired. (My boys thought that I should borrow some of his sermon titles. I told them I didn’t think that I had the experience or credentials to preach a sermon with those titles). Johns was too controversial but guess who their next pastor was: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I recommend this movie to everyone. But this isn’t what I’ve been thinking about either.
What I have been thinking about is an MLK Day several years ago. I was on staff at my church, and we wanted to serve outside the church together. After some research on volunteer needs in Milwaukee, we decided to serve at a church that was hosting a MLK Day program. We were excited to do this. Not only were we going to serve together, but we were able to support an African American church celebrate MLK Day.
On Monday morning, we met at our church and drove down together. The event included a lunch and then several activities for adults and kids. When we got there, they didn’t really need much help. They already had another group working in the kitchen and the food was almost prepared. There were probably a dozen of us, so it was a large group to parcel out. Also, a few of us had brought our kids (because they were off school). Several of us served lunch and helped to clean up, and we kept asking where we could help serve (since that’s what we came for).
But they didn’t really need our help.
Finally our contact asked us to just participate in the program. A speaker came into talk about MLK, which was very interesting. Then there were workshops and activities to go to. I think there were some speakers from other organizations, yoga meditation, and games in the gym. I was in a room where the kids were coloring mandala. They didn’t need me to help there, either. Really, I could just sit and make a mandala with everyone else. We weren’t there as long as we had planned, since they didn’t need us to help. We went out to have a late lunch together and talk about the day.
I haven’t thought much about that MLK Day since, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot the last few days.
And what I’ve been thinking hasn’t been good.
First, let me say that we went to serve with the purest of intentions. However, I think our intentions were misguided. I don’t think it ever crossed our minds – it certainly didn’t cross mine until this weekend – that we could have “served” better by just going and participating in their program. What if, instead of coming in from the suburbs to help them honor and remember Martin Luther King, we would have joined them in doing so. What if we would have let them serve us lunch and we would have participated fully in the workshops and activities? What if we would have just talked with people and found out a little more about them and even shared a little about ourselves?
I’m part of a large, suburban, almost all-white congregation. Most are college educated and have professional careers. Most of us have rarely been in a situation where we didn’t have a hefty amount of power. Really, even the kids have power – they don’t worry about where their meals are going to come from, whether they or their friends may be shot, that their teachers won’t teach them, or that they won’t be able to get a prescription medication if they need it. PTO’s and educational foundations in our communities help to pay staff salaries, provide Smartboards in every classroom, and make capital contributions to build playgrounds. There is power in this.
We don’t recognize this power. I don’t recognize the power that I have when I walk into Mayfair Mall in the evenings and the security guards won’t give me a second look. I don’t recognize the power I have when I drive through certain parts of the city knowing I’m not going to get pulled over for not “belonging.” Actually, I don’t even have to think about it. I don’t recognize the power of the ease I go about my daily life because of the education I’ve received. For many of us, I imagine this power is invisible.
But that’s because we have it.When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.” “No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!” Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.” – John 13:6-8 (CEB)
When we read this lovely story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, we tend to focus on Jesus’ willingness to perform this humble act. We hear Jesus’ call to love others as Jesus has loved us. And we should.
But sometimes the most humble act we can do is to allow someone else to serve us, because there is power in serving.
When I allow someone to do something for me, I am admitting that I can’t do it all, that I need some help. When I allow someone to wash my feet, I am exposing myself and making myself vulnerable. I am not in control. And if I am always the one who is serving, it can be a way I try to maintain control and power. I think Jesus was teaching us two very important lessons with that simple act of foot washing.
In retrospect, though our intentions were good, I think we missed an opportunity to live into the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. And we may also have missed an opportunity to live into Jesus’ command.
To anyone who went out to serve yesterday (or any day, including those I served with on MLK Day several years ago), God bless you. You are living out Jesus’ call that we love one another.
To anyone who made themselves vulnerable and allowed another to truly help them – even if only to realize the power they have by virtue of birth, education, gender, age or ethicality – praise God. You may have loved someone in the humblest way possible.