Martin Luther King and a 'Day of Service'

I awoke yesterday morning listening to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York when he took a public and prophetic stand against the War in Vietnam.

Over the weekend I had heard many replays of his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. And for Interfaith Voices, I recently interviewed the author of a new book on the prayer life of King.

All of these reveal a man steeped in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, a man for whom justice was the beacon that guided his path.

In a deep sense, King resonated with the message of the 1971 Synod of Catholic Bishops who said in their document, Justice in the World:

Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church's mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.

Making MLK Day a “day of service” is appropriate. It brings tens of thousands of volunteers into human contact with those are poor, without employment, downtrodden. King cared about these folks.

But King was about more than service; he was about justice. “Service” does not really capture the full and radical prophetic message to which he gave voice.

In addition to service, perhaps there could be a nationwide movement on King Day to resurrect King’s themes of justice, peace and societal transformation.

After a day working at a soup kitchen or building a home with Habitat for Humanity, for example, volunteers could be invited to sign a petition in favor of legislation that benefits the poor, or seeks to curb violence (gun control comes to mind right now). Or some might spend the day in a public action against the war in Afghanistan (which King would surely have opposed).

Such actions would bring us closer to emulating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


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