Editor’s note: The following is a reprint of Connie Berry’s Have Faith column from 2021. A reminder that today, the NAACP of Martha’s Vineyard is hosting a membership drive via Zoom at 1 pm. For more details or to sign up, visit bit.ly/3fe66db. General admission tickets are $40 plus a fee, and discounted tickets for those under 21 years old are $20, plus a fee.
I was driving with my friend Nancy the other day, and we were catching up on what we’d been up to when she said something like, “I didn’t make it to church Sunday but I did go to my meditation group, and that’s church for me too.” That reminded me of all the places here that feel like church to me as well — Lucy Vincent Beach in the off-season, the top of the Cliffs in Aquinnah, watching my autistic son Dan laugh with his brother and sister, and hugging our new puppy Scrappy just like a baby every morning when he runs to greet me. Then I thought about other situations that feel like church.
I can’t remember if it was last year or the year before, or the year before that, but I went to the M.V. Hebrew Center for a celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and at that service, we all closed our eyes and listened to a recording of one of Dr. King’s speeches. At that moment, I was definitely at church in my heart. I could barely listen without crying, it was so powerful. If you close your eyes, you can almost take yourself back to the 1960s and feel the turmoil of the times during his speech, but also the powerful conviction in his words.
In his last speech, before he was shot outside that Memphis motel, he tells us he’s been to the mountaintop. He leaves us with the message that no matter how painful, how difficult, how overwhelming the odds, there is still the importance of unity and nonviolent protest in the struggle for justice:
“We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity …”
There’s a lesson in his words. I’d dare to say there are a multitude of lessons in all of MLK’s sermons and speeches. Although the context was the strike of some 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis, those words apply today.
While all these Democratic candidates’ debates continue to be televised, and the contents regurgitated over and over, I see that right now there are 12 candidates. A dozen of them. And on any given day, one may rise to the top, only to have some other soundbite come along and knock him or her back down a bit, while another one has his or her moment on top. And I worry. If a political party can’t unite behind one person, how are the voters supposed to do that?
Then I see President Trump’s rallies, and I see how animated and riled up the crowds get. But you know what, they’re united. And I think that might be what brought him to power, his unified followers. I wish with all my heart that there was someone I felt so strongly about that I’d travel to a city, maybe to Boston or Providence, and feel compelled to stand with the crowds and listen to a candidate’s words and be inspired. But I don’t feel that. Maybe what I feel is my own apathy.
When I listen to MLK, though, I feel like I could march right alongside all those people, with him at the head of the pack. “Now, that was something,” I say to myself. “That action had a clear purpose. They believed in something. They walked the walk.”
There are demonstrations these days, but because footage is played and replayed every hour, it loses its point. It doesn’t stick in my head, like Dr. King’s speeches and the footage of the marches and protests in the 1960s. It just feels like one more news report.
I think now is a good time for me to listen to MLK’s voice. Let it take me back so that I can feel the words. But in the New Testament, John writes, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.” Maybe we shouldn’t just talk or write about justice, but stand with those who fight for it, and work so that we are people who strive more diligently to live in it.
I’ve got no answers. I see and hear and read about trouble all around the world every day, like everyone else does. But I do have something in my arsenal, and that’s faith. In my own life, God seems to give me exactly what I need at the exact time that I need it. I don’t always realize it, and I don’t always welcome it. But it always happens. If you don’t believe in God, then maybe the universe seems to send you what you need when you need it most.
Maybe justice won’t come in the form of a single leader, a single man or woman. Maybe it will come in unity, when each person believes in justice and lives in justice and stands with other people who are doing the same, like Dr. King talked about the slaves and the Pharaoh. Maybe then it will spread across the earth. I don’t know how it will come, but I believe it will come.
You can listen to some of MLK’s words at bit.ly/MLKfromPBS.