By Rev. Michael Denton
We almost didn’t make it to any of the Seattle Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations last week. I don’t remember a year I haven’t attended some sort of celebration, somewhere.
MLK was my very first hero. The elementary school I attended near Cleveland, Ohio during the mid-seventies was made up of predominantly African-American students. We celebrated not just Martin Luther King Day but more like Martin Luther King Week and it was wonderful. You’d walk down the halls and hear this speech or that speech being played in different classrooms. There were child-drawn portraits of King lining the walls. Bulletin boards were filled with black and white pictures depicting some of the history of the civil rights movements up to then as well poems and essays written by children about themes like equality, justice and peace. The week would end with an assembly where drama, readings and music was shared (I knew all he words to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” before I knew the words to “The Star Spangled Banner”). Awards would be given out for good and improved behavior culminating in the most coveted award at Caledonia Elementary School: “The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Citizenship Award.” It was, essentially, an award for being kind, fair and responsible; the root values of the whole of human rights, really.
I loved those days. It wasn’t just that the celebrations themselves were wonderful but that, although we might not have had the words for it at that time, we were being handed and entrusted with a legacy. We were respected, as children, in ways that we all experienced few other places. Every day, the content of character was lifted up as much as the content of all other aspects of our education. It’s sometimes hard, now, to believe that such a place existed.
So, the fact that I almost didn’t make it to any of the MLK Day celebrations was no small thing. Well, kind of a small thing. More specifically, a small person.
Not too long ago, I really didn’t think I’d ever be married again, but meeting Lauren changed that. I never really thought I would be a parent either, but Leo, our not quite one month old child, – beautifully, insistently, and lovingly – changed that. I spent MLK morning staring in to Leo’s eyes and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do anything else.
Having a child is like unintentionally stumbling in to a time machine. Every new experience with Leo is cause for reflection on every similar past experience and also calls for reflection on how that new experience might become a part of his life. I really thought that having a child would be the end of what I thought was a more contemplative life and instead I’m surprised to find that it’s helped me discover the heart of a contemplative life. I never really understood that staring in to the eyes of your child was an experience of prayer. As I find myself trying to empathize with my son so that I can respond to his every need, I do a lot of imagining of what it must have been like to have been his age and thinking about what was going on in the world when I was his age.
I was born in 1968 and when I, like Leo, was not quite one month old, gunfire was heard in Memphis and the man who would become my hero was surrounded and held by loved ones as his life was wrenched away from him on a hotel balcony. Did I hear snippets of speeches as he was eulogized on the news? Did I hear sirens wailing as they rushed to riots and other demonstrations? Did I hear people talk in hushed voices about what had happened? Before I was five, there would be a lot more violence like this; another Kennedy would die; students would be shot at Kent State and Jackson State; wars would rage and come to an end and so, so much more.
Here was this child in my lap, now, and in that moment I wondered what stories he would know about the time around his birth. Would he hear about the shootings of children in an elementary school called Sandy Hook? Would he learn about the wars of this place and this time? Would he wonder what it was like to live in a time before gay marriage was legal nationally? Would it seem as though we had turned a blind eye to climate change? Here was this child in my lap and, as Lauren and I talked about whether or not to head downtown to the MLK march, we remembered that legacy that we had been handed and entrusted with.
The three of us bundled up, got on the light rail, and headed downtown.
Rev. Michael Denton is the Conference Minister of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ.