Wednesday, January 20, 2010

MLK Day March Reflections

I'm going to go ahead and share here a blog entry I wrote for my Contexts of Ministry class earlier this week. The assignment was to attend Abilene's local Martin Luther King, Jr. Day march and to write a reflection on my experience of the event, where people gathered to commemorate the man who has done so much in the fight for justice and equality in our world by walking in solidarity across a bridge bearing his name. To read the reflections of my classmates (and professor) visit our class blog here.

(Photo by Nellie Doneva of the Abilene Reporter News.)

As I reflect on my own experience at the MLK Day March, and as I read about the experiences of my classmates, I struggle to put into words what exactly it is that I saw and felt and thought during the event. I think the main reason I struggle to verbalize it all is that my expectations were not met in the ways I had anticipated they might be. I, too, had never participated in any events to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and ministry. This was new to me. Even though that was the case, however, I still came into the event with expectations—not so much expectations about what would happen, but rather expectations about how I would react to it. In light of the ministry of Dr. King, which I wholeheartedly appreciate and support, how would I act in this situation? How would I be affected? Who would I be?

There were encouraging and inspiring things about the march, to be sure, and I don’t want to forget those or lay them aside too easily. So that is where I begin. People gathered for a purpose, an important purpose. They took time out of their day to make a statement about their beliefs, their hopes, and their goals. The crowd which gathered showed some diversity. Those very important beliefs and dreams are shared by people not only of various skin colors, but also of various ages, economic situations, genders, and educational levels, among other things. The name of God was spoken reverently and in connection with a cause which (I at least believe) God supports and champions. All very good things which deserve more attention that I am going to give them here, but my focus is elsewhere.

Perhaps I allow myself to be too much of a cynic. Perhaps, for that very reason, I should take the time to focus on those kinds of positive aspects above rather lament the fact that the fullness of meaning which could have lay behind the events of the afternoon was conspicuously absent, at least in my own heart. In many ways, I identify most fully with Josh’s and Keith’s descriptions of the march, especially with the sense of purposelessness and even loss which Keith experienced. And I know much of that is of my own doing. My heart was not completely invested. I had an amazing opportunity to be a part of something meaningful, and instead of embracing that opportunity, I mostly squandered it by staying within my own comfort zone of known acquaintances and predictable and (dare I say?) hollow rhetoric and actions.

“Hollow.” Now that that particular word comes to mind, it is a fitting descriptor for experience. “Meaningless” is far too dire a take on the afternoon, for I know that there was meaning there to be found for those who earnestly sought it. “Hollow,” however, seems in many ways appropriate to my own participation. I gathered, but I gathered without purpose. I prayed, but my prayer does not always touch my life. I marched, but I marched without focus and without meaning. I was present, but I was absent. I was hollow.

As I reflect on the march and its purpose, I can’t help but think about the power(lessness) of the march as a symbol. To some, both participants and observers, this event was surely a potent symbol of the good that has been done as well as the long road that is left to traverse in issues of justice and equality. At the same time, I wonder just how much of an effect this statement had on the individuals, the community, the larger culture, and the world as a whole. Was the symbol itself hollow in some ways? It’s wonderful, yes, but was anyone paying attention? Did it really mean anything? Did it change anything?

I wonder, also, how would my experience have been different if my history and my perspective were different? Doubtless, it would be. I am the majority, the person of power, the elite in many ways. True, within my religious culture I have experienced discrimination as a woman, but for the most part, I know only what it is to be privileged. I’m an educated white upper middle class American. That definitely places me among the elite in the world, places me among those who have had little experience with suffering and oppression. And despite my burning internal commitment to the causes of justice and righteousness, sadly, my outward commitment often remains untested or falls short, leaving me with merely theoretical protestations of the abominations I claim to fight against. Surely this is one decisive reason this event was hollow for me?

To finally confront the cynic in me, I have to remind myself that while this event may have regrettably been bereft of much significance for me in the particular way it played out, there is yet another, more redemptive, aspect of the term “hollow.” Something which is hollow is prepared to be filled. So the questions with which I end this reflection are similar to how I began, only looking further toward the future: How will I act? How will I change? Who will I be? I pray that “hollow” is nowhere in the description.

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