We went to the MLK Holiday Breakfast this past Monday. This was the 20th year of the event, and this year’s speaker was the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery. The 88-year-old Dr. Lowery has been a pillar in the civil rights movement, a friend of Dr. King, and he delivered the Benediction at President Obama’s Inauguration.
I enjoyed hearing him speak. He was funny. He was direct. He was challenging. But more inspiring than his rhetoric, was his personal presence. His story is compelling. He has given his life to fighting against injustice. He has fought for the oppressed, and done his best to seek out the voiceless in our society and speak on their behalf. He has spoken on behalf of the poor, the sick, those marginalized for their sexual orientation, people of color, and people stuck in schools and neighbors where the educational system fails to educate. The primary challenge of his message was for us to see these people. These are the people that MLK fought for, and he challenged us not to celebrate Dr. King while we forget the people he spoke for. He urged, even scolded us, not to embrace the missionary but forget his message.
It was an inspiring event. Dr. Lowery is an impressive figure. I’m glad I went. But I’m also a little bit disappointed. The whole thing was entirely too palatable. General Mills was the sponsor, and the first half of the breakfast felt a bit like one long advertisement for how great they were for hosting this breakfast. I got the feeling like part of the reason they host this breakfast is for the positive PR they get out of it. Also, the response that the organizers called for was very weak. The push was for everyone to engage in service, to volunteer. There was a card on our table that said something like, “I pledge to volunteer….” and then a number of volunteer opportunities were available to be checked off. They were just ambiguous suggestions like, “rake leaves” or “visit a nursing home.” While these are good things to do, they aren’t really in the spirit of living the dream of MLK. These seem like weak applications when you have 2000 people gathered to celebrate the legacy of MLK. I think it would have been more helpful to promote organizations doing the work of bringing MLK’s dream to fruition in Minneapolis. If just 10 organizations would have been highlighted, they could have received countless new volunteers. Plus there were all the people viewing the program on TV that would have been connect to these organizations.
Because of the large scale, corporate feel, and the vague call for “volunteering,” I came away from the event feeling a little bit let down. Part of this probably also has to do with my belief that so much of our hope for racial reconciliation will take place in the context of the church. Really powerful racial reconciliation happens in more intimate spaces where people are allowed to tell stories, confess sins, and empathize with the other. This is hard to accomplish at a breakfast with 2000 attendees.
I still appreciated the event, and I would consider attending again next year. The event adequately celebrated Dr. King, and his non-violent methods of civil disobedience. I left reminded of how radical non-violence is, and how it was first exhibited in the person of Jesus. He defeated evil not through retaliation to it, but by absorbing it by dying on the cross. This is the same thing Dr. King did, and that’s why the civil rights movement was so effective. The event was a great reminder and celebration of him.