Rev. Yme Woensdregt
Next week will mark a couple of notable anniversaries.
On Monday, August 26, we will celebrate the birth of Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in 1910, who is better known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta or Mother Teresa. At the age of 21, she took religious vows and began teaching at a school outside Calcutta. She began to be deeply disturbed by the extreme poverty she saw all around her.
One day, riding the train, she experienced what she later called a divine summons: “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.”
She traded in her traditional habit for a simple, inexpensive white cotton sari with a blue border. Eventually, this ministry to the poor, sick, and hungry on the streets of Calcutta resulted in a group called the Missionaries of Charity. By the time she died in 1997, the Missionaries of Charity had grown to more than 4,000 workers in 133 countries, opening orphanages, homes for people with tuberculosis and leprosy, soup kitchens, hospitals, mobile health clinics, and schools.
After her death, some of Mother Teresa’s private writings were published, revealing that for long periods of her life, she was haunted by feelings of loneliness, desolation, and God’s absence, even as she persevered in her work.
In an interview, when she was asked about her practice of prayer, she said, “Mostly, I just listen.” “And what does God say?” asked the interviewer. “Mostly, God just listens,” she replied.
The other anniversary is this Wednesday, August 28, when we will mark the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Intense planning for this event had been underway for over two years, but the impetus for this march had been in the air since at least the 1940’s.
This march was an important part of the rapidly expanding Civil Rights Movement which involved demonstrations and non–violent direct action across the United States.
Thousands poured into the city from all over the country. They came by bus, train, car, and plane. Chicago and New York officially declared August 28 “Freedom Day,” and gave workers the day off. Many feared that the march would become violent; the Pentagon put 19,000 troops in the suburbs, just in case.
But there was no violence. There wasn’t even a single arrest! The marchers peacefully sang and chanted all the way to the Lincoln Memorial. We remember it today specifically because of the 16th speaker that day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He delivered what would become one of the most celebrated speeches in American history, part sermon, part rallying cry. Most of the speech revolved around the idea that America has not yet made good on the many promises it has given African Americans; the country has thus far defaulted, King declared, on that “promissory note.”
The renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson had sung “How I Got Over” just before King spoke. Earlier that summer, she had heard King deliver a speech in Detroit with the stirring refrain, “I have a dream!” As the young preacher neared the end of his remarks, Jackson called out to him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” — and King responded, extemporaneously delivering the words many Americans now know by heart. It ended with these words:
“When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
You can find the whole speech here.
We are living in a time when we need such a large vision again. We are splintering into tribes which are much too small. Conservatives and Liberals and NDP’ers seem less and less able to speak to each other. White supremacists engage in hate speech and hateful actions. More people are speaking out against immigrants. LGBTQ rights are being trampled again.
I speak often of the Christian gospel as “the dream of God”. God invites us to dream the same large dream of inclusiveness and welcome and action for the welfare of all.
Both Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated that dream. Both of them worked tirelessly to inspire others to live it out.
Even when Mother Teresa felt abandoned by God, she continued to work with and live with the poor, to let them know their value as people beloved by God.
King also spoke of a dream where we lived together in peace, seeking the welfare of all, regardless of our creed or the colour of our skin or where we have come from. As he said in his final speech just before he was assassinated, “God has allowed me to reach the mountaintop and see the Promised Land.” Then he vowed resolutely, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know, tonight, that we as a people will get to the promised land.”
Both Teresa and Martin inspire me. I too seek a larger vision of life, in which we work and live together in such a way that all may share in the wealth of the universe. I too have a dream that racism will end, that poverty will be eradicated, that first peoples and settler peoples will learn to live together in peace, and that we will seek reconciliation among all peoples.