04/25/2011

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Keeping the Dream Alive Keynote Address by Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle Bergen County, New Jersey Birthday Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Temple Emeth, Teaneck, NJ January 17, 2011 Have you ever been to a historic site and tried to evoke some sense of the incredible events that took place there, or to imagine standing next to the people who made that history? I’ve been to the train station in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa where Mahatma Gandhi was ejected from the train because of the color of his skin and thereby embarked on his path of nonviolence…but Gandhi was not being ejected that day. I went to the Parliament building a few blocks away where he later protested, but again he was absent. I’ve been to the sacred ground of Hiroshima and Nagasaki….but all was calm except for the tears that flowed without ceasing, mine included, from those who realized the inhumanity of what happened there only 65 years ago. I have stood many times on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King stood and spoke of his dream. But Dr. King was gone and his words were not audible. I received my seminary diploma from the writing desk of 19th-century Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, and wondered if it was the same desk where he kept a pistol to help runaway slaves through the Underground Railroad in the 1840s. But neither the pistol, nor Parker, nor the prophetic words that he penned at that desk were present, and so I could not ask. I have been to so many of the historic sites around the world and in our own country where blood was shed, where freedom was won, where transformational assemblies occurred, where prophetic words were spoken, and where generations were inspired, but there was no one to ask about what had really happened there. Every age has its watershed moments, its messengers, its prophets, its historic events, but they are all gone in this moment. We are now the keepers of their dreams. Dr. King was a modern day prophet who explained his dream time and again and paid the ultimate price for preaching the same message of love and compassion that the prophets before him had preached. His genius was that he carried on the message of his predecessors. Dr. King was particularly fond of using a message by Theodore Parker, whose pistol I mentioned a minute ago. As Congressman Rothman just quoted King would often say, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but I am certain that it bends toward justice.” He was quoting Theodore Parker whose original quote in the 1850s was: I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Dr. never claimed these words as his own. Neither did he ever say, “That great 19th-century Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker once said…” He was simply keeping the dream alive. I was only 6 years old when Dr. King was shot. I don’t remember it well, but did grow up in South Carolina in the 60s and 70s where segregation and de-segregation were front and center. I remember when the first African American students began attending my elementary school in 1969. I remember wondering why the teachers were making it such a big deal. I didn’t grasp the power of racism in South Carolina as a third grader. I simply liked my new friends. Unfortunately, I would understand better in high school when I was attending a Southern Baptist church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina where we were encouraged to witness to and bring our friends to church—but only our white friends. When I asked one of the deacons why I couldn’t bring my black friends to church, he said they had their own churches to go to and would feel uncomfortable in our church. I left the church for many years over that incident. But I’ve realized more recently that what I should have done is to keep Dr. King’s dream alive by inviting my black friends to my southern white church or by attending their churches with them. Instead, I did what too many of us do…I walked away from the dream. Thankfully, a spark of some sort remained with me because I eventually found my way back to the church and into ministry. The first placed I turned in my ministerial studies was Dr. King. As a new seminarian I listened to and read all of his sermons and speeches that I could find. In them, and in his articulation of his call to ministry, I found a way to articulate my own call. Dr. King said, when he was a 21 year old seminarian: My call to the ministry was not a miraculous or supernatural something, on the contrary it was an inner urge calling me to serve humanity…. Even though I have never had an abrupt conversion experience, religion has been real to me and closely knitted to life. In fact the two cannot be separated; religion for me is life. I am no Martin Luther King, Jr., but his call to ministry was identical to mine. I found his sermons to be prophetic and timeless. I also found that I had never heard most of his words. I, like most of the nation, knew his Dream and Mountaintop speeches, but little else. A whole new world was opened to me. I was so impacted that I requested and received permission from the King Center to occasionally preach his sermons in their entirety so that a new generation of Americans could keep the dream alive. Of course, I have never attempted to recreate his style or delivery, which would be both incredibly disrespectful and quite impossible. Rather, I have preached Dr. King’s sermons in my own style, and have found that doing so gives renewed access to his dream to everyone present. What we must be ever mindful of is that we are not keeping Dr. King alive. He is tragically no longer with us. In listening to and reading his work, we are not even keeping his words alive. Nothing is more fleeting than a word. We are keeping the dream alive—not the man, not the words, but the meaning behind his words. Dr. King’s dream was remarkably simple. As he said: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…. I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers…. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. Although we have achieved much in the past 43 years, we have not achieved as much as we could have. We are making progress, but we have not fully realized Dr. King’s dreams. We have seldom ventured to the mountaintop, and have yet to see the promised land. Last week, in Tucson, Arizona, it seemed that dreams, mountaintops and promised lands were completely out of reach as a lone gunmen killed six people and wounded a dozen more. Our dreams are too often shattered and yet we must continue to have faith and hope in the face of such extreme tragedy. Dr. King knew this. His dreams were shattered time and again, but he carried on. In July 1965, he said: About two years ago now, I stood with many of you who stood there in person and all of you who were there in spirit before the Lincoln Monument in Washington. As I came to the end of my speech there, I tried to tell the nation about a dream I had. I must confess to you this morning that since that sweltering August afternoon in 1963, my dream has often turned into a nightmare; I’ve seen it shattered. I saw it shattered one night on Highway 80 in Alabama when Mrs. Viola Liuzzo was shot down. I had a nightmare and saw my dream shattered one night in Marion, Alabama, when Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot down. I saw my dream shattered one night in Selma when Reverend Reeb was clubbed to the ground by a vicious racist and later died... So yes, the dream has been shattered, and I have had my nightmarish experiences, but I tell you this morning once more that I haven’t lost the faith. I still have a dream that one day all of God’s children will have food and clothing and material well-being for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, and freedom for their spirits. In response to the shooting last week in Arizona, President Obama gave us some additional insight into how we might keep our faith in the face of such tragedy. He said: I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here - they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us. Friends, we reach the mountaintop by climbing it, each of us must make the journey, but we must make it together. From the mountaintop, what one can see is the next valley, and the next mountain beyond that and so on. From the mountaintop one sees communities building lives together. Dr. King was clear that his work was that of building a beloved community. He was always exalting valleys, and lowering mountains, and making crooked places straight, and bringing neighbors together. We cannot reach the mountaintop alone, we cannot see the promised land by ourselves, we must do it together, lest it remain simply a dream. Martin Luther King Jr. had the same dreams as so many before him. What made him great was that he had the courage to keep the dream alive when it was his turn. The most remarkable aspect of his mortal life was that he risked it, without turning to violence, for a dream of a better life for all people. We have to be willing to risk our lives on the journey, as Dr. King did in Memphis in 1968, as Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb did in Alabama in 1965, as Gabriella Giffords did in Arizona a little over a week ago as she stood outside a grocery store to meet and listen to those whom she served. When you find yourself in a historic place looking for the specters of those who came before you or listening for some whisper of words spoken in times past, take what courage and inspiration you need from them, but move on. They are not there. You are now making history, you are keeping the dream alive. It is our turn and our task. It is our time, but the hour is late. And the clock of destiny is ticking out. We must act now before it is too late…. we are the keepers of the dream. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, Namaste.

Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle

Rev. Matt is a Unitarian Universalist minister and author.

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