In the year prior to his assassination, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King isolated himself in a house in Jamaica where he wrote what was to become his final book. King had been to Jamaica before, where in 1965 he delivered a sermon at the University of the West Indies in which he referenced both the incredible diversity and the durable unity on an island with the national motto “Out of many people, one people.”
Despite the national aspiration we share, he contrasted how well Jamaica had achieved it to the progress made in his native America. King said he felt at home there – “In Jamaica I feel like a human being.”
“One day, here in America” said King. “I hope that we will see this and we will become one big family of Americans.”
Nearly fifty years after King spoke those words, it is an aching American tragedy that we find ourselves where we are today – with issues of race, arguably, as emotional, divisive and consequential as in King’s time.
The culmination of King’s thinking in Jamaica ultimately became the book “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” In it he offers this stark warning: “Together we must learn to live together as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools.”
King’s words are eerily prophetic, as if he had been looking into a crystal ball and could predict our current inability to form community with anyone who isn’t just like us. Unimaginable in 1967, tectonic technological shifts in the way we communicate have enabled us to use our computers and smart phones to angrily move away from each other – settling into the likeminded feuding tribes that human beings, sadly, form far too naturally.
In 2016, our failure to “live together as brothers” has gone to seed in what increasingly – almost by the day in this presidential season – feels like the chaos King foreshadowed. But right beside his tragic premonition of our future is also his uncanny prescription of a path forward. To King the answer lays, at least in part, with community – the seemingly simple act of connecting with each other across our differences.
Since the time of our founding, our connectedness in geographic communities has provided the stabilizing ballast of American democracy. At the Village Square, we’ve long believed that the revival of American community across differences of opinion and demographics is ultimately the only thing that can save us. No matter how profound our disagreement runs, inside a hometown we’re still neighbors whose lives intersect. But to nurture this community, we’ve got to look up from our electronics and get to know each other again. We’ve got to be intentional about forming these crosscutting relationships, because if we’ve learned anything recently we’ve learned they aren’t happening naturally. We believe this is truly the most important work of our time. It’s our moon shot. And we’ve seen what’s happening around us if we don’t get it done.
So here’s the challenge made concrete: pause for a moment, take our 5 Foot Challenge, and think about some small act on your part that builds community across a divide right in your world. It could be asking a co-worker to lunch who you don’t normally hang with, inviting someone in your neighborhood over for dinner, hosting a Book Club on Race, or joining us for Race to the Movies. Build some little bridge in your life. These relationships are now – and always have been – the foundation on which a diverse vibrant democracy rests – and there is no shortcut to get there. In a country of the people, by the people and for the people, perhaps that is as it should be.
Technology has created a daunting challenge for us, but imagine the possibilities that exist for us to find each other again. We can add richness, good food and real friends to our lives. In fact, we’d challenge you to have a good time while you do it, that’s part of what makes community worth growing. Be inventive, innovate, then let us know what you learned.
While writing this, a timely quote by Chris Burkmenn popped up on my browser – apparently Chris is a self-styled motivator of aspiring country music artists: “The death of a dream is the day that you stop believing in the work it takes to get there.”
The Reverend King is not here to do the work it takes to get there. That leaves us.
— Liz Joyner, The Village Square. Contact Liz here.