Tag Archives: Martin Luther King

Pierre Toussaint

Toussaint

We observed a day in honor of Doctor Martin Luther King yesterday. Someone asked Doctor 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, ’’ he said.

That sounds like what Jesus would say, who took the “form of a slave” when he came among us “and  became obedient, even to death, death on a cross.”

That was how Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian slave brought to New York City late in 18th century lived, until his death in 1853. Toussaint was motivated by a profound love of Jesus Christ. When he  died, a New York newspaper recognized him “ a man of the warmest and most active benevolence.” His goodness was legendary.

Toussaint came to New York City with his French owners, the Berard family, shortly before the Haitian revolution in 1789. He lived in the city 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.

St. Peter's Church

St. Peter’s Church

His first biographer was Hannah Farnham Sawyer Lee, a Protestant 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

Toussaint made the mind of Jesus his own. 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?

For one thing, Toussaint feared violence would erupt in the United States, like the violence destroying Haiti then.IMG_1851

But he was influenced most of all by the teachings of the gospel and the example of Jesus Christ who insisted on loving God and your neighbor.  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. Doctor Martin Luther King did too. images

 

26th Sunday: A Pope Visits Us

Audio homily here:

I’m always surprised at the way our current Mass readings throw light on what’s happening now. Pope Francis is ending his visit to our country. He’s hard to miss, a genuine celebrity, tying up traffic in three major cities and drawing immense crowds and media coverage. If he were running in our presidential elections, he might get elected.

He’s a leader, no doubt. But look at the way leadership is described in today’s readings: a kind of leadership Francis exemplifies. Our reading from the Book of Numbers (Nm 11,25-29) says the Lord blesses Moses with power, but also takes “ some of the spirit that was on Moses and bestows it on the seventy elders.” Then, when two others, not of the seventy, seem to have that same spirit, some tell Moses to stop them. They don’t belong to our group.

But Moses wont stop them. Are you jealous? he asks. “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”

The gospel from Mark (Mk 9, 38-48) offers a similar situation. Some are exercising a power like Jesus and his followers try to stop them. Let them be, Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Whoever is working for the same good cause is working with us.

The lesson, of course, is that a real leader doesn’t want power for himself or herself. Power is meant to serve all. “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!” Moses says. In his strong address to our Congress the other day, Francis called them to be real leaders and work for the common good. Work together, not in a spirit of partisanship, or for your own gain, but for the good of all and for the good of the world, he said. Don’t be afraid to face the big challenges before us.

Of course, we might stop there and say we need better leaders, better politicians; let’s pray for a good president and a good congress that can work together for the good of us all.

But our readings seem to suggest that power is not just in great leaders like Moses and Jesus. We all have power which we’re called to use for the common good. The same partisanship and selfishness, the same lack of vision we complain about in our leaders can also be present in us.

The pope addressed our bishops before he met with congress and he told them too to be good shepherds of the gifts of God. “It’s wrong,” he said to look the other way or to remain silent.” They need to face the many challenges before them.

That challenge is addressed to us too.

Addressing congress, the pope pointed to four Americans who worked for the common good: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Only one of those was a politician, an elected leader. The rest were people who served society using their unique gifts.

So it was not just politicians in Congress or bishops or representatives of the nations at the UN the pope challenged these last few days. He was challenging all of us to face the world today, to confront the issues before us, to work together, to follow the Golden Rule. “Do onto others what you would have them do to you.” That’s what God wants us all to do.

“I have a dream”

Some commentators on television yesterday were asking where President-elect Obama got his oratorical gifts. Spike Lee said he got it  from listening to black preachers, like Doctor Martin Luther King.

Probably true. He’s  listened to some good preachers in his lifetime, as so many other great political orators have. It’s a connection you don’t hear much about, but the preached word can finds its way into many places, into political speeches and political discourse, even into ordinary human conversations and people’s private thoughts.

An article in the New York Times today indicates that Barack Obama reads widely from classics like the Bible, Shakespeare, St. Augustine and from modern poets and novelists as well. He obviously appreciates the power of words.

Today we honor Doctor Martin Luther King, who also knew the power of words. A new book “King’s Dream”  reviewed in The Times yesterday analyzes his famous “I have a dream” speech which he gave at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1963.

The “I have a dream” part of the speech was extemporized. It repeated a theme that ran through many of his sermons before, but was not in his written text that day.

Yet today it’s what most people remember  and the words are etched into our national consciousness. King’s  wife Coretta thought it ” flowed from higher places.”

Sermons, homelies, words. They’re so important. At their best, they make the Word known and call for his kingdom to come.

Barack Obama’s  inaugural address tomorrow will be the nearest thing we have in politics to a sermon.