A powerful, necessary, and provocative gift came into the world on January 15, 1929. Of course, at the time, no one knew it. He was a preacher’s son in Atlanta, Georgia, largely protected by his family, from the destructive power of white supremacy. He went to Morehouse College, where he realized his reading skills were barely up to speed. Then he attended Crozier Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he won preaching awards. He went on to Boston University, thinking he would become an academic, teaching theology in a university or seminary. While at BU, he met a woman he would love for the rest of his life, Coretta Scott. He knew he needed some “on the ground” pastoral experience before looking for a professorship, so he married Coretta Scott, and in the summer of 1955, he took the pulpit at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested on a Montgomery bus for not giving up her seat to a white man and the young, Martin King’s life would never be the same.
As he would later say, “history called.” A few days after Parks’ arrest, Montgomery’s Black ministers formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and chose this young pastor as president. His life changed forever. He would never get that academic job. He let history call him in a new direction.
Many aspects of Dr. King’s life can instruct us and move us. His clear vision of American racism, materialism, and militarism, his commitment to nonviolence, his deep faith in God and in “the religion of Jesus.” This year, I have been thinking of his radical view that saw society from the bottom up, rather than what most of us do, seeing the world from the top down. His view of service as greatness, might be one of the simplest and most transformative ideas he made clear for those who would learn his life and work.
In several sermons, Dr. King preached that:
“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
Defining greatness as service challenges most of us today. It certainly challenges American culture today. People build lives around the acquisition of power. People raise their children so they will be powerful. People often make choices that bring misery into their own lives just so they can have some element of power. All this is based on misguided thinking, according to Dr. King. Real happiness comes from serving others. Real joy comes from a life turned outward toward those who suffer. Too bad so many of us think the opposite is true.
Besides personal joy which almost always comes from acts of service, a new world view can be accessed by those who serve. When one comes to know those who suffer, when one puts life at the service of those who are abandoned, who have little, one begins to see the world in different ways. The myths and lies of the world are unmasked as just what they are: myths and lies. Money equals happiness. Security brings you joy. Dr. King’s willingness to abandon the plans he had for his life, show us that putting one’s self at the service of others can both bring joy and teach what the world is really like. It is not easy, it might not make you popular, but it will bring a deep sense of meaning and contentment.
In today’s America, where many citizens believe lies about elections, Covid-19, how to build an economy, we are in desperate need of the radical re-ordering that Dr. King’s view of greatness as service can offer. Do we dare listen to him? Do we dare believe him?
I took the photograph of Luis del Valle’s mural on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. and Good Hope Road in Southeast, Washington, D.C. I’m sorry to say that the image of Dr. King is now covered up with plywood.
I took the second and third photographs in early January, 2022 at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C.