by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
These words of Dr. Martin Luther King are etched on the west side of the granite pedestal upon which rests “The Angel of Harmony” sculpture located in the cathedral basilica gardens in St. Louis. This statue is an apt symbol of the dream that motivated and inspired Dr. King in his heroic and successful efforts to break down the walls of segregation in America.
When I resided at the cathedral rectory in my final years in St. Louis, I was impressed and gratified to witness many people every day gazing upon this sculpture that provides an artistic glimpse of God’s dream for humanity.
This striking image features three children of distinct ethnic and racial heritages playing different musical instruments surrounded by the wind-chime wings of an angel with African-American facial features.
All God’s children playing together; all God’s children in harmony; all God’s children celebrating both their common humanity and their diversity of gifts! Is this not God’s dream for humanity?
Coming of age in the 1960s, I was inspired by the life and ministry of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. I remember being mesmerized by Dr. King’s famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. It was an oratorical masterpiece that has become an American literary treasure.
Dr. King would be the first to admit that his dream was not a dream of his own making. His dream was a fruit of his Christian faith. Martin Luther King, before he was a civil rights leader, was a Christian, a disciple of Jesus and a minister of the Gospel.
Dr. King’s understanding of himself and others was derived from years of reflecting upon and praying over the Gospel of Jesus. Thus, Jesus’ dream became King’s dream as well.
Dr. King challenged the injustices of racial bigotry and discrimination that were both prevalent in our culture and systemic in our public policies. He was unafraid to confront injustice and to suffer in order to advance the cause of human dignity and freedom.
Dr. King took to heart the words from the First Letter of St. Peter: “Beloved: Even if you should suffer because of righteousness, blessed are you. Do not be afraid or terrified with fear of them, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts” (3: 14-15a).
What was most remarkable about Dr. King was that he was an agent for social change and, in some ways, a social revolutionary, all the while holding true to principles of nonviolence.
He sought to expose and eradicate injustice — not by taking up arms, but by allowing himself to be the victim of unjust laws. He compelled America to look at the ugliness of racial segregation and discrimination by permitting himself to be placed in jail cells.
From behind the bars of prison, he issued the call for setting free the truth by confronting our societal sin.
Thanks to the heroic leadership of Dr. King and so many others who shared God’s dream of respect for the inherent dignity of every human being, much has changed for the good in the past 70 years. A modern-day Rip Van Winkle who had fallen asleep in 1950 and awakened in 2020 would be stunned by what was then and what is today.
Court decisions and changes in the law have transformed public policies that supported racial segregation into public policies that prohibit it. Seventy years ago, no one could have imagined people of color: 1) being celebrated in the world of athletics and entertainment; 2) being CEOs and members of boards for major corporations; 3) serving as mayors of major cities, governors of states, members of Congress, cabinet officers, justices of the Supreme Court, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and even president of the United States.
At the same time, we know so much more needs to be done. We are painfully aware how lingering racial polarization continues to scar our communities. Racial fears result in segregating ourselves into nondiverse and, in some cases, gated communities.
The consequences of historic racism impacting current culture with persistent though subtler forms of bigotry are evidenced by significantly higher percentages of African-Americans living in poverty, dropping out of school and residing in prison.
In 1957, Martin Luther King spoke to an integrated crowd of 8,000 at a Freedom Rally in the old Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. In his talk that night, he counseled against both extreme optimism and extreme pessimism regarding the state of race relations in our nation.
Dr. King believed that extreme optimism leads to a false complacency with the status quo. Similarly, he argued that extreme pessimism leads to a hopelessness that change is not possible.
He noted that extreme optimism and extreme pessimism in the area of race relations have one thing in common — they provide justification to those who accept them to do nothing.
Dr. King called for realism that acknowledged major progress had been achieved, but also admitted significant change was still needed. Realism in race relations today challenges us to face the hard reality that much more needs to be done before God’s dream for humanity is realized.
This is why the Catholic bishops of the United States in November 2018 promulgated a pastoral letter against racism entitled: “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.” We state: “Racism still profoundly affects our culture, and it has no place in the Christian heart. This evil causes great harm to its victims. . . . The persistence of the evil of racism is why we are writing this letter now. People are still being harmed, so action is still needed.”
I encourage you to read or reread “Open Wide Our Hearts” and ask yourself both what can you do personally as well as what your parish can do to liberate our society from the lingering menace of racism.
I was given the opportunity for 10 years to serve in predominantly African-American parish communities. I am a better priest and person for my time in these remarkable and beautiful communities of faith.
I have great respect and admiration for African-American Catholics, many of whom persevered in living their Catholic faith despite enduring bigotry and racism within the church. Their belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist motivated them to remain resolute in their Catholic faith despite the sins and failures of some of the church’s ministers and members.
During February, we observe Black History Month. Let us pray especially during these days for the eradication of racism in America.
I encourage each of us to make a personal commitment: 1) to remove any vestiges of racism from our own hearts; and 2) to strive through concrete ways in speech and in action to promote the dignity of each and every human person, no matter race or ethnicity.
Together, we can overcome!