Eight years ago I sat between two coworkers, one Black, one Hispanic, to watch the inauguration of our first African American president.
It was the middle of a workday. We found a TV, rolled it to a corner of the building where we hoped we'd find decent reception, and took our lunch breaks early to watch.
It was an unplanned celebration. I remember we stood to our feet at the moment of the swearing-in, then cheered with the crowds in the moments after.
Then wiped the tears from the corners of our eyes, hugged each other, rolled the TV back to its closet and went back to work, the other two to their tasks as custodians in our large suburban church, me to the youth ministry office and my preparations for Sunday.
I'm not a Democrat.
I'm not sure their political affiliations.
What we were celebrating was a leap toward a long-held dream, a dream Martin Luther King Jr. shared when we were all kids, hoping for a seat at the table.
We've heard the words of King's dream.
In my own mind, it goes like this:
I have a dream of a world where every child, of every color, every gender, has good doctors from birth, good teachers from the earliest years, access to libraries, books, music, parks, beauty.
I have a dream of a world which believes that we all do best when we all do best. A world that ensures every child has what's needed, that every child has an even chance to learn and thrive and use his or her gifts wisely.
I have a dream of joyful interchange between people of different backgrounds and cultures, a world where difference is seen as rich opportunity rather than threat, offense or danger.
I have a dream of a world that makes room: for unexpected voices, for unsuspected contributions.
I believe it's a dream rooted deeply in the scriptures King quoted in so many of his speeches: a prophetic dream, spoken by God's messengers across the ages, from Samuel, to Daniel, to Isaiah, Micah, Christ himself.
I've been working toward that dream all my life, in ways small and large, often behind the scenes, often without well-defined role, job title or mission statement.
Reading excerpts from King's writing again this week, I was struck that he didn't plan to become a prophetic voice, had no ambition of becoming a legendary force for change.
He was 25 when he was hired to be pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. His plan was to be a "rational" pastor: to preach, teach, visit the sick, do what good he could.
He was 26 when he met with city officials to ask for change of the rules regarding bus seating. Still 26 when Claudette Colvin, then Mary Louise Smith, then Rosa Parks werearrested for refusing to give up their seats to white passengers boarding after them.
He was 27 when his home was bombed. 27 when he was arrested for conspiracy in leading the bus boycott. Still 27 when the US Supreme Court ruled bus segregation unconstitutional.
In several sermons and other writing, King told of an important point of decision. He'd become the focus of attention, had begun getting receiving threats. He was just turning 27, still new to his first church. His first child was just months old.
One night, after his wife and child were asleep, his telephone rang:
I picked it up. On the other end was an ugly voice. That voice said to me, in substance, “Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”
In fear and grief and weariness and indecision, King began to pray in a way he'd never prayed.
I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right; I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage.) And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.” I wanted tomorrow morning to be able to go before the executive board with a smile on my face. And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”
That experience and a growing reality of prayer and knowledge of God's presence carried King forward. A decade later, just months before he died, he spoke of the difficult path toward justice:
I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted.
We are in one of those rocky places. Our president has ignored concerns about Russian influence in our most recent election and lashed out instead at John Lewis, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the original Freedom Riders, a tireless activist on behalf of civil rights. Lewis was badly beaten on at least three occasions, jailed repeatedly for his non-violent protest. Since his youth he's been working toward the dream King described, serving in public office as city councilman, representative in Congress and for the past nineteen years as senator from Georgia.
On Tuesday, protestors were removed from confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump's pick to be Attorney General. 1424 law professors from180 law schools in 49 states have urged Congress to Sessions' nomination, calling attention to his prejudicial statements against African Americans, his promotion of the myth of voter-impersonation fraud, his opposition to the Voting Rights Act, "his robust support for regressive drug policies that have fueled mass incarceration."
As President Obama reminded his audience in his eloquent farewell address:
America is no fragile thing.But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured. . . .
It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy . ..
Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try to talk with one in real life. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere.
Some of my friends will be marching in protest this week, in Philly and DC.
Many are making calls: asking Congress to block nominations that that threaten our schools, our national safety, the long journey toward justice.
Some are sitting outside legislators' offices.
Some are exploring a run for office. Starting advocacy groups. Learning all they can about how our systems work, where they're broken, what needs to change.
My own work on redistricting reform continues.
I'll be hosting a conversation Tuesday night on Berks County TV about inclusive democracy and the way our current redistricting process undermines real representation.
I'll be talking Wednesday afternoon on a conference call to a group of advocates committed to systemic change, meeting Wednesday evening with a community group eager to learn more about how our electoral process.
I'll be networking Thursday at a town hall meeting, joining other organizers in Harrisburg on Saturday to focus on areas of injustice in our state and look for ways to work together to keep the dream of justice alive.
On Friday? No, I won't be watching the inauguration, the swearing in, the smiles and cheers. I'll be spending the day in fasting and prayer. Lamenting this setback on the road to justice.
And I'll be reading the prophets, as King did so often.
Sinking my heart deeper into the dream God offers those who hear.
A dream of justice rolling down like water. Dream that dream with me.