From his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, delivered February 4, 1968, only a few months before his assassination, words to keep me humble and grounded and ever thankful that God invites us to play a part in his story:
Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
I know a man—and I just want to talk about him a minute, and maybe you will discover who I’m talking about as I go down the way because he was a great one. And he just went about serving. He was born in an obscure village, the child of a poor peasant woman. And then he grew up in still another obscure village, where he worked as a carpenter until he was thirty years old. Then for three years, he just got on his feet, and he was an itinerant preacher. And he went about doing some things. He didn’t have much. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never owned a house. He never went to college. He never visited a big city. He never went two hundred miles from where he was born. He did none of the usual things that the world would associate with greatness. He had no credentials but himself.
He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. They called him a rabble-rouser. They called him a troublemaker. They said he was an agitator. He practiced civil disobedience; he broke injunctions. And so he was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. And the irony of it all is that his friends turned him over to them. One of his closest friends denied him. Another of his friends turned him over to his enemies. And while he was dying, the people who killed him gambled for his clothing, the only possession that he had in the world. When he was dead he was buried in a borrowed tomb, through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen centuries have come and gone and today he stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history. All of the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned put together have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one solitary life.
This morning I sat in the Senate Gallery in the U.S. Capitol with about a hundred immigrant youths to show my support for and solidarity with these DREAMers. And sitting with them, hands clasped, heads bowed, lips praying, the reality of their situation hit home to me. These young people, brought to the United States as minors, had known no other home than America and wanted nothing more than to serve and contribute openly for the good of the country. And this morning, that occasion, was more than just a vote for them, more than just the raising or dropping of an index finger to signify approval or disapproval. This morning’s vote was about the very lives and livelihoods of the approximately 800,000 undocumented young people who would benefit from the DREAM Act.
This morning was what I needed: a reminder that the work that we do in seeking to live out the gospel’s demands of justice, of speaking up for the marginalized and voiceless, and of welcoming the stranger, really does matter.
Moving forward, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Theodore Parker echo in my head: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
I have faith that justice will be served for these young people, that they will be afforded the chance to contribute and live lives out of the shadows. I have faith because justice is at the very heart of God, because the defense of those who are marginalized and oppressed is always the right thing to do. I have faith because American progress, though often slow and tortuous, continues to rumble forward, and comprehensive immigration reform–including the DREAM Act–that demolishes and defeats xenophobic rhetoric and anti-immigrant fear mongering will have its day.
And it will come soon. Not as soon as we would like, perhaps. But soon.
While in the UK, I got to read a lot–one of the perks of spending much time on public transportation. One of the books I read was Belief, edited by well-known scientist Francis Collins; and one of the excerpts is from Martin Luther King, Jr. In a sermon about having a tough mind and a tender heart, he said this:
[The tough-minded individual is] characterized by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment. The tough mind is sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false. The tough-minded individual is astute and discerning. He has a strong, austere quality that makes for firmness of purpose and solidness of commitment. (184)
It was that last phrase—“firmness of purpose and solidness of commitment”—that stirred me. Whether because I’m a Third Culture Kid or because I come from a middle class Chinese family or for whatever other reason, my approach to making decisions has always involved more bet-hedging and playing it safe, waiting until the dust has settled before striking out, holding out until I know things will work out.
And it struck me that God wants more than that. God wants more than playing it safe. Being responsible doesn’t equate with playing it safe. Making wise decisions doesn’t always mean going where things are guaranteed. Following God doesn’t always entail knowing how I’ll be taken care of, only that I’ll be taken care of.
So I’m trying to make my decisions based on who I want to become–who I believe God created me to be–rather than just who I’ve always been or what’s safe.
In case you’re wondering, yes, this is related to life decisions that I’ve been making the last few weeks. Which I’ll write about soon.