MLK Day: Celebrating the connection between spirituality and the work for the Common Good
"Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love."
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a time to celebrate not only the life and work of Dr. King, but also to recommit ourselves to the struggle for which he gave his life - the recognition in practice and in law that Black people, and indeed all people, in the United States must have their God-given dignity respected.
In recognition of his life, the holiday is also a National Day of Service, when each of us is called to give something of our own lives to create justice in our communities, our nation, and our world, to put our recommitment to Dr. King’s work into concrete practice.
Marquette Park Beach on the shore of Lake Michigan; Gary, IN (photo by Dan Robinson)
“A soul generated by love”
Dr. King was motivated by “a soul generated by love,” and that love came from his Christian faith in God:
"So I say to you, seek God, and discover Him and make Him a power in your life. Without Him all of our efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest nights. Without Him, life is a meaningless drama with the decisive scenes missing. But with him we are able to rise from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope. With Him we are able to rise from the midnight of desperation to the daybreak of Joy. St. Augustine was right--we were made for God and we will be restless until we find rest in Him."
-from King’s “The Measure of a Man”
That connection between King’s faith and his work for justice, between spirituality and service to the wider world and the common good, can be found not only in his life but in the lives of many people who see themselves as spiritual or religious.
Spirituality and the work for the common good
The Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, MI, an organization whose mission is “helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world,” recently released a report from their project, “What Does Spirituality Mean to Us? A Study of Spirituality in the United States.” The study included interviews, focus groups, and a survey with over 3,600 responses from a demographic sampling that reflected the population distribution in the U.S of “age, race/Hispanic ethnicity, education and gender.”
The study includes a great deal of helpful information, more than I can cover here, and I would encourage you to read the report. However, here are a few key findings that the study highlights:
“Most people consider themselves spiritual to some extent, and say that spirituality is important in their lives.”
“For many, spirituality also represents the type of person they want to be: People are becoming more spiritual over their own lives, see being spiritual as an aspiration to strive for, and describe spiritual people in positive terms.”
“Spirituality is connected with an engaged civic life: People who identify as highly spiritual are more likely to say it is important to make a difference in their communities and contribute to greater good in the world. They are also more likely to be politically engaged.”
“The study surfaced two bridges that connect spirituality and prosocial action: a strong sense of connection to humanity, and a sense of accountability to a higher power.”
While the study’s key findings section highlights the importance of “a strong sense of connection to humanity,” the study’s results also show that a connection to nature is very important. The study’s report identified that connection to nature as one of the consistent themes that came from the focus group discussions. In fact, two-thirds of the focus group participants said they were “touched by the beauty of creation,” with the highest percentages coming from people who identified in some way as religious and/or spiritual.
“I like to be by the ocean, the woods, or hiking and being … (where) my higher power created.”
Very Spiritual / moderately Religious (Catholic)
Like all studies, this project has its limitations. And certainly, not all spiritual or religious people are working for a shared sense of the common good. But overall, I think this is an important and very helpful project that powerfully reinforces the understanding that Dr. King had - one’s faith and spirituality strongly motivate, inform and support actions on behalf of justice and the common good.
Continuing King’s work today in the Great Lakes Basin
King focused his work initially on the inalienable human rights of Black people in white America, but his work also included the fights against poverty and the Vietnam War, and more. As he said,
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere… Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
-From King’s ”Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
It’s easy to believe that if he were alive today, King’s work would have included the fight against environmental injustice affecting frontline communities and for environmental equity for Blacks, Indigenous and People of Color. Because of his faith and his commitment to fighting “injustice anywhere,” I believe he would be helping lead the movement to secure clean, healthy drinking water in communities like Flint and Benton Harbor, MI; to mitigate and stop the effects of climate change, especially on the most vulnerable communities; and to address many other issues of justice and equity in the Great Lakes region.
This connection between spirituality and the work for the Common Good lies at the heart of the Great Lakes Spirituality Project, the understanding that our personal spirituality and our communal religious practices provide the motivation, support, and vision we need to care for the Great Lakes Basin and all who depend on these ecosystems.
Dr. King drew that same connection just months before he was killed, during his Christmas Eve sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. At a moment in time when Christians are celebrating their faith in the active love of God, King preached about the interdependence of all life:
“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.”