When I was in seventh grade at Saint James Grade School in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, our teacher Sister Alphonse, a Sister of Loretto, organized a food drive. Rather than just collect food and drop it off at a church or agency, she invited a few students to join her in distributing the food to families in need in our small town. Our visit to one half-blind elderly African-American couple is seared in my memory. They invited us into their home – a tiny one room tarpaper shack on the wrong side of the tracks. A young white middle class boy, I was embarrassed and shocked by their abject poverty, but touched by the couple’s dignity and kindness welcoming us in and accepting our gift of food. I asked myself, “Why did they have to live like this?” Four months later the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would be assassinated and six days after his death, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 would pass, including the Fair Housing Act outlawing housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin.
Sister Alphonse knew her business. Our direct encounter with a family in such deep poverty and classroom discussions of civil rights sparked both compassion and a quest for justice that has stuck with me to this very day. As we celebrate the 88th birthday of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I am struck by how much has changed and how much has stayed the same in 50 years. Segregation in schools is persistent and increasing. While fair housing laws have expanded, voting rights are being rolled back in many states, and the effects of discrimination persist in lower life expectancies, lower income and assets, lower graduation rates, and higher incarceration rates, while funding for food assistance, job development, and affordable housing continues to be at risk.
So what to do about this today?
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us that, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
We can put our quest for love and justice into action today. Made in the image and likeness of God, each human person becomes an opportunity for an encounter with the divine, for sharing compassion and justice, generosity and joy. Our community becomes an opportunity for civic engagement, for us to act for the common good of all, not just the few.
For ways to put your quest for love and justice into action go to