We’re observing a day in honor of Doctor Martin Luther King today.
The US Catholic Catechism for Adults, which you can get online, introduces various parts of Christian belief with the life of a saint or holy person to illustrate that belief. It introduces us to Jesus Christ with the life of Pierre Toussaint, born a Haitian slave in 1766 and brought to New York City where he lived an extraordinary Christian life until his death in 1853.
“Toussaint was motivated by a profound love of Jesus Christ, and his inspiring story leads us to a prayerful study of our Blessed Lord.”
Why not a better known saint like St. Francis or St. Paul or Mary, his mother? Toussaint was a slave, a rank society saw as humanity’s lowest. But when he died, New York’s newspapers recognized him “ a man of the warmest and most active benevolence.” His goodness was legendary.
When Jesus, God’s Son, came among us “he took the form of a slave,” St. Paul says. “He became obedient, even to death, death on a cross.”
Toussaint came to New York City with his French owners, the Berard family, shortly before the Haitian revolution in 1789. He lived in New York almost 66 years. A successful hair-dresser, confidant to some of New York’s most prestigious Protestant families, extraordinarily generous and faithful to the poor, a devout parishioner of St. Peter’s church on Barley Street, at Mass each morning at 6 AM. At his death in 1853 he was acclaimed one of New York’s finest citizens.
His body now lies in the crypt under the main altar of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral and his cause for canonization has begun.
Some question why Toussaint wasn’t more aggressive in the struggle against slavery. He could have easily won his own freedom well before 1807, when Madame Berard emancipated him before her death. Why didn’t he? Why wasn’t he active in the abolitionist movement against slavery then? Some call him an “Uncle Tom,” a subservient black man afraid to confront powerful interests in society .
But Toussaint was influenced by a higher reason, suggested in the Letter to the Romans and the Gospel of Luke that are filled with “slave language.” Paul begins his letter to the Romans, “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ,” and goes on to describe humanity enslaved either to sin or to righteousness. If you’re a slave to righteousness you’re on your way to freedom.
A parable in Luke’s gospel (Luke 12, 39-48) also speaks of slaves. The steward “placed by his master to distribute the food allowance at the proper time” is a slave. His job, the main duty he has, is to give food to other slaves. If he decides against that, if he says “I’m going to take care of myself. I’m finished with all this,” and loses respect for the other slaves, he’s going to be punished when his Master returns. (Luke 12,39-48)
You can hear the insistence of Jesus on serving others in the parable. Loving and serving others is his great commandment, more important than the color of your skin, or your status in life or even fighting for a cause.
Toussaint understood that. His first biographer was Hannah Farnham Sawyer Lee, a Protestant woman who wrote about him shortly after his death. It’s a lovely biography, of memories she and others had of him. She admired his character, his good deeds, his genuine love for people, black or white:
“He never felt degraded by being a black man, or even a slave…he was to serve God and his fellow men, and so fulfill the duties of the situation in which he was placed…. He was deeply impressed with the character of Christ; he heard a sermon from Dr. Channing, which he often quoted. “My friends,” said Channing, “Jesus can give you nothing so precious as himself, as his own mind. May this mind be in you.”
Those last words, of course, come from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: “Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.*
Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.…Philippians 2, 6-9
I find Toussaint an interesting figure today, in the light of the present movement for human rights, which some say has become the new religion. The movement for human rights can become edgy and loud, sometimes violent, even unjust. Some say it needs to interact more with the message of the gospel.
A homilist awhile ago spoke about the need for love in the difficult situations we face in our world and quoted Martin Luther King. “Someone asked Martin Luke King, ‘What will we do if the whites continue to discriminate and mistreat us?’ ‘We will continue to love them to the point that they can’t do anything else but love in return.’”
That sounds like Toussaint, and Jesus.