Let us not wallow in the valley of despair… . And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was born of pain and suffering. Yet its remarkable optimism provided much needed solace, hope and inspiration to blacks and others disenfranchised more than half a century ago and remains relevant today.
On the annual holiday honoring him, Rev. King’s dream of peace, unity and justice still resonates in a nation too often defined by what divides us rather than what unites us.
That’s why in Wilkinsburg, as elsewhere across the nation today, a prayer vigil for peace for “all faiths, all races, all ages” will be held at the Wilkinsburg Train Station at noon, sponsored by the Wilkinsburg Sanctuary Project for Peace.
For Pastor Janet Hellner-Burris of the Christian Church of Wilkinsburg, coordinator of the sanctuary project, the dream lives on even in a nation some refer to as the Divided States of America.
“Dr. King is one of the reasons I’m doing the work I’ve been called to do in the community,” she said. “For his legacy across race lines, his non-violent method, his love of America and believing in America, he is one of the major mentors in my life.
“For me, this is a very important day to reflect on his work, his words and his method of non-violence. Dr. King is one of the reasons I am in ministry, and one of the reasons I am in Wilkinsburg.”
Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.
For more than a quarter-century, Pastor Hellner-Burris has been at the forefront of fighting for peace and justice in Wilkinsburg. She was among the clergy and other Wilkinsburg community leaders who united for anti-violence marches and educational, social and athletic programs that aided in eradicating gang violence in the early 1990s.
But in 2016, violence returned to the community with 12 homicides — more than double the 2015 mark and 11.4 percent of the 105 slayings for all of Allegheny County. Pastor Hellner-Burris said “waves” of violence periodically have reappeared since the early 1990s, and she hopes and prays that 2016 may have been one of those outliers.
Included in last year’s total was the March 9 ambush/massacre of three siblings, two of their cousins and an unborn child at a backyard cookout in which three others were wounded. In April, Pastor Hellner-Burris led a blessing service at the Franklin Avenue killing field that included members of all faiths, races, ages.
“Hate won’t win. Love is the way through this tragedy,” she said at the service, echoing the philosophy of the man honored today.
With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
Pastor Hellner-Burris was 12 and living in Washington, D.C., when Rev. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968. She never will forget watching the riots and fires, the fear and hopelessness that followed.
“It had a profound impact on me as a young person. I decided I would do whatever God called me to do so cities don’t burn to the ground again,” she said. “I saw what happens when we don’t do the work. I know what the alternative is.”
To that end, she said she had “a lot of fear” of the divisive rhetoric President-elect Donald Trump and his supporters used during the presidential campaign.
“Words have great power … so I have a lot of concern. At the same time, we can’t move forward in America if those who voted for him and those who didn’t vote for him don’t work together,” she said.
“Members of my family voted for him, so I have a lot of hope America can reach across the aisle and across our differences to work together, which is what Dr. King would be doing.”
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
The day honoring Rev. King’s legacy is a perfect time to not only take stock of how we treat each other personally as individuals, but also systemically as a nation and to commit to improve both interactions, Pastor Hellner-Burris said. In essence, to keep Rev. King’s dream alive.
“What action are we going to take to promote his dream? You just can’t talk about the dream, but you need to make it happen in very concrete ways,” she said.
“Dr. King was a person of hope, and even as awful as it has been with [terrorism], the shootings, the presidential election, I’m still a person of hope and believe America will rise up and deal with what some call its original sin of slavery.
“One of the most important things we do as the sanctuary project is to keep hope in front of the community. It’s always about being an instrument of hope.
“Where would we be if we didn’t have Dr. King’s dream?”
… and 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 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!