For the past two years, I have attended two MLK events on campus: one hosted by the chapel and the other hosted by OIIL (Office for Intercultural and International Life). Last year, I helped plan for both events, and I was struck by the incredibly different ways that the respective leaders approached planning for each. The student giving the sermon wanted to focus on the spiritual side of MLK: change happens when individuals are called to focus on collective goals, bigger than the self. Those planning for the celebration dinner wanted to focus on the constant vigilance required in this work: we must constantly be present and pay attention to what’s around us.
But this year, the two events were on the same wavelength and recognized the emotions of both the audience members and the actors involved in the event. Sure, the exact happenings looked a bit different, but I was glad to see the events express emotion, both anger and hope, and gave us the space to sit with them.
At the chapel service, readings from the Bible dealt with suffering and justice. One of the readings was Job 9:17-20, which says (NIV translation)
He would crush me with a storm and multiply my wounds for no reason.
He would not let me catch by breath but would overwhelm me with misery.
If it is a matter of strength, he is mighty!
And if it is a matter of justice, who can challenge him?
Even if I were innocent, my mouth would condemn me;
If I were blameless, it would pronounce me guilty.
It was an intense reading, one that brought some to tears, but one that validated an all-consuming suffering. The second reading was Luke 18:1-8, which discusses justice coming for those “who cry out to him day and night.” Once again, there is space for the suffering, but it is the persistent vocalization of that suffering that can bring justice. Reverend Oliver White gave a sermon entitled “I Can’t Breathe,” speaking with a hopeful energy that highlighted the numerous people who still can’t breathe. The songs of the service went from “We Shall Overcome” just after the most intense part of the service and ended with “This Little Light of Mine” to try, however hard, to go out with a personal determination to keep our heads up, lights shining.
The Celebration Dinner held similar emotions. A video at the beginning showed photos of Eric Garner, Trayvonn Martin, and others, but ended with Nelson Mandela’s quotation, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” One student gave a spoken word entitled, “I Used to Have a Dream,” and another student’s spoken word declared, ”I’d love to write a poem about how, sometimes, when I inhale, I can feel a little bit of peace.” Hudlin Wagner called for re-dedication to the cause, saying, “We must always ask ourselves, ‘Are we marching with King?’,” reminding us that MLK disrupted and was regarded by the U.S. as a “great purveyor of violence,” but he also provided a roadmap that brought hope. Joy Klutz ended, saying that sometimes we need an ambulance running through red lights because people are bleeding. The dinner had space for anger, but it also pushed us to use that anger for action, action that disrupts.
Unlike last year’s events, which asked for an intellectualized action from us, this year’s events seemed to recognize that we are already emoting and we must use that emotion to “cry out,” to disrupt. There was an awareness of a collective consciousness, and there was a challenge for us to get moving. I only wish that the entire campus were at these events: the emotion is real, and it cannot be ignored.