This Great World House
In the visitor’s center at the King Center in Atlanta there is a statue of marchers on the highway from Selma to Montgomery. Visitors are invited to join the marchers on the road, to imagine what it was like, or remember. I was standing on that highway, and heard quiet voice behind me ask "Is it OK for me to be here?" I turned and saw an African American girl, about 9 or 10 years old. I was brought up short silent, looking at her. I finally mustered my voice back to audible and said yes, it’s fine. Perhaps her question was the kind a child asks of an adult when the rules of the place are not clear, or seem to offer the chance to do something that "normally" is not allowed . . . no matter. . . .her question reduced me to tears. Is it OK for me to be here? Do I belong? Do I have a place?
Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? is the last book Dr. King wrote. In it he challenges us to answer the question that young girl ask me with a clear and simple yes. In every word, in every way, Dr. King was pointing us away from chaos and toward community. He wrote, "We have inherited a large house, a great "world house" in which we have to live together black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because, we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace. . . All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors."
There are many differences among the folks in our great world house, including differences in faith in Dr. King’s words "Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu." For Dr. King, faith was not a barrier to living the dream. It was a bridge. He hoped that in the great world house we inherited, it would be the same. In his lifetime, Dr. King crossed that bridge many times.
While still a student for ministry, King learned of Indian Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi, and his philosophy of the satyagraha, the love force, from his mentor, the Rev. Howard Thurman, Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. Connecting this with his own understandings of Christianity, satyagraha would later provide Dr. King with strategy and tactics for the civil rights movement. Boycotts. Marches. Accepting jail time. King said of Gandhi, he is "the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force."
There was the Rabbi who shared King’s love of the Hebrew Prophets and with whom King formed a friendship. When the time came for the march from Selma to Montgomery, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel joined Dr. King on the front line, literally on the front line. In photos of the march, Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel are arm in arm. Heschel later wrote, "Our march was worship. I felt like my legs were praying."
There was Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk whose friendship was an inspiration to Dr. King in one of his most controversial and courageous acts publicly opposing the Viet Nam War. In his letter nominating Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, King called him "a holy man" whose ideas for peace "would build a monument to ecumenism. . . "
Dr. King wrote more about this great world house. Its stability, he said, depends on a "revolution of values" in which our loyalties are to humankind as a whole. "This call for worldwide fellowship . . . lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation." It is "a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all. . . This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality" is that love is the "supreme unifying principle of life."
Whether we turn to his personal spiritual journey, his prophetic leadership, his vision for this nation and the world, Dr. King viewed faith as a bridge not a barrier, as an inspiration to serve and connect, believing that we are better together, living in this one great world house. Together we can create community as the answer to the question "where do we go from here?" Together we can the answer the question "is it OK for me to be here?" with a yes filled with love.