Over the last few days, we have been assaulted with the horrifying images of bodies being dumped into trucks, images of people not only without shelter but also without water, images of desperation and suffering beyond belief — and we have experienced that numbness that comes with helplessness.
That is not a good place to be. We ask ourselves, what can we do? How can we help? How can we understand the barriers that keep good people from reaching those in need with food and water and medicine? We feel the distance. We are bewildered by the hugeness of the suffering.
We contribute our small amounts of money to a World Vision and to so many other organizations whose feet are on the ground. We pray for the people we know who have been building schools and feeding children long before the earthquake. We watch the news carefully. After the disaster hit, we began to discover how many of our SPU graduates are serving in this desperate country. We have been praying for them. We do what we can.
All of God’s children are not flourishing. How do we teach our children about this suffering? How do we teach our students in the face of these powerful circumstances of overwhelming grief? How do we make the world a better place?
On this same weekend, we reflect on the great legacy of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. I find myself making the connections: What might Dr. King teach us about hope in the face of the hopelessness we see on the streets of Port-au-Prince? What might Dr. King say to us about helping to build and rebuild a viable society for the people of Haiti?
On August 28, 1963, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in front of 200,000 people, and outlined with such moving eloquence a narrative of hope out of the desperation of racial suffering. Dr. King’s narrative comes straight out of the biblical tradition of hope, that great prophetic tradition, where we stare into the face of injustice and despair and hatred and evil and suffering — and yet we announce hope for something better, something more. This is the Christian response to desperation.
Dr. King begins his great speech this way:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
First there is the “great beacon light of hope.” First there are the foundations of conviction that all human beings have dignity. First there are the texts of justice and equality and freedom on which we build toward a better future. First, for the people who suffer, there is a promise, that “joyous daybreak” that might “end the long night of their captivity.”
But this narrative of hope quickly reminds us that we are not out of the darkness yet. There is much work to be done.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
Indeed, the biblical narrative of suffering and hope does not turn its face from ongoing shameful degradation. The challenges remain. All of God’s children are still not flourishing.
And so what are we supposed to do? We’ve got to roll up our sleeves, whether we are addressing the deep and lingering strands of discrimination and poverty, or whether we are bringing food and shelter and healing to the wounded in Haiti.
Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
Let us roll up our sleeves and build communities of human flourishing. That’s the dream. That’s the mandate for the work yet to be done.
And then Dr. King says something so utterly aligned to the ancient biblical tradition. We have faith, he says, that someday,
we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
Dr. King expressed so powerfully the two sides of the biblical narrative of suffering and hope. “The mountain of despair” stays with us. All of our Enlightenment efforts to eradicate that mountain will fail somehow. And yet, we must go about the business every day of crafting out of that mountain a “stone of hope” on which to build a better future.
That is King’s message for us today as we seek to follow his lead toward reconciliation. And I believe that is King’s message as we come alongside our brothers and sisters in Haiti. We are seeking to build a world that is anchored by the “stone of hope.”