‘What will we do if the whites continue to discriminate and mistreat us?’ someone once asked Doctor Martin Luther King ‘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.”
It was how Pierre Toussaint lived, a Haitian slave brought to New York City late in 18th century. He died 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, confidante to some of New York’s most prestigious Protestant families, extraordinarily generous and faithful to the poor, a devout parishioner of St. Peter’s Catholic church on Barley Street, at Mass each morning at 6 AM. He was acclaimed one of New York’s finest citizens at his death.
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.
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.
A fellow Passionist, Bishop Norbert Dorsey, CP who died in 2013, wrote his doctoral thesis at the Gregorian University in Rome on Pierre Toussaint. It’s available in digital form, thanks principally to Lynn Ballas, who so competently and generously edited and formatted the bishop’s work. It’s available at