Monday, January 18, 2010

The "Love" That King Inspires

This morning, the Reverend Dr. Joseph E. Lowery recalled in his keynote speech at the Martin Luther King Holiday Breakfast that Dr. King was a visionary, crusader, preacher, and revolutionary who could “illuminate the past, understand the present, and envision the future”. King created a dream – a dream that took shape during a time of great awakening for the United States, also a time when violence silenced forward-looking and prophetic voices.

During my junior and senior high school years in New York City, one assassination followed another: John F. Kennedy; Malcolm X; Martin Luther King; and Robert Kennedy (whose death was the major topic of conversation at my graduation ceremony). Many of us of that generation witnessed events which appalled us, yet intensified our resolve and determination to make a difference in the world.

To fulfill the dream of King, Dr. Lowery admonished us to move from “charity” to “love”. Charity is OK; it’s not a bad thing. However, charity is seasonal; love is everlasting. Charity is selective; love is all inclusive. Charity may or may not embrace justice; love always embraces justice. Borrowing from another metaphor, he equated charity with “giving people a fish so they can eat today”. Love, he equated with “teaching people how to fish”. However, he went even further, to indicate that love entails not just building people’s skills so that they can sustain themselves; it also involves addressing systemic issues – “checking the water to make sure it’s clean enough for fish to thrive”, and preventing pollution from occurring in the first place.

Poverty, pollution, economic decline, disparities – the list of structural issues in our society could continue. For us, what’s important is the understanding that we can and should extend a hand to help people with their immediate needs. However, we need to move beyond that charitable endeavor to change systems, policies, and institutions which constrain people’s initiative, no matter how capable they might be and no matter how hard they might try. We need to understand and improve the social determinants of health and well-being.

At Wilder, we’ve acknowledged that improving our community requires attention to immediate needs (mostly through services that we provide). We have recognized as well that we must attend to larger, systemic conditions (mostly through our research and leadership activities). That’s the complete approach – which acts earnestly to achieve the “love” which Lowery recommends and which Dr. King inspires.

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