Lisle, Illinois ~ The legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is as personal and diverse as the more than 600 people who gathered at Benedictine University on January 19, 2015, for the 20th annual breakfast that bears his name.
Calling King “A paradigm of global nonviolence, the archetypal African-American hero and perhaps greatest American of the 20th century,” keynote speaker Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core and an Oxford-educated scholar and author, remembered King as an “interfaith hero.”
Patel related the story of how in the spring of 1950 while a student at Crozer Seminary, King attended a lecture by the first black president of Howard University, Mordecai Johnson, at the Fellowship House in Philadelphia. Johnson was speaking on the topic of Christian love.
“Who does Johnson lift up in that talk as the prime example of Christian love?” Patel said. “A Hindu from India. A man that Johnson had witnessed himself from his trips to Indian – Mahatma Gandhi. You could not blame King for thinking, ‘How can somebody from a different religion live out the values of my own than a fellow Christian?
“But his mind is too large,” Patel added. “He’s interested in not narrowing but expanding his horizons. King thinks to himself, ‘What can I learn from the way that Mahatma Gandhi activates nonviolence in a social reform movement in India that releases that subcontinent from English colonial rule? What can I learn from this Hindu from India on what it means to practice Christian nonviolence?”
Patel told of how King took the lessons he learned from Gandhi and embraced them during his leadership of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, including the nonviolent bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., and the march in Selma, where blacks, whites, Baptists, Jews, Catholics and Protestants walked hand-in-hand against injustice and inequality.
“Selma was an interfaith movement,” Patel said. “America was born as a country in which people could orient around religion differently and regard each other as friends and allies to work with, not enemies to hate. This country was born as a nation where people from different religious communities look at each other and say, ‘How can we work together?’
“King leads the way on that for us,” he said.
King’s call for nonviolence is particularly meaningful for Benedictine University student Kejuan Glosson, a freshman from Milwaukee, Wis., who was a recipient of a King Scholarship.
“Dr. King’s stand on nonviolence means a lot to me,” Glosson said. “The area where I grew up in Milwaukee is getting very violent. It’s getting more dangerous. It’s important that we try to spread his word and show people you don’t have to be violent.
“In some ways we’re getting closer to his dream,” he added. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”
Benedictine University president William J. Carroll, Ph.D., who established the breakfast that commemorates King and his legacy, said that people must focus on their sameness, not their differences, and celebrate King’s message every day, not just once a year.
“We have to come together as a faith community, not communities,” he said. “It’s a task that’s never over. Celebrating his legacy on his birthday has set this opportunity up wonderfully, but it needs to be every day. We have a receptive audience out there. We need to find ways of reinforcing his message every single day.”
The message must also begin in the home, said NICOR president Beth Reese, whose company sponsors the breakfast and who introduced the keynote speaker.
“King means a lot to everybody,” Reese said. “He’s a beacon of leadership. He’s a beacon of being able to address really tough issues in a really peaceful way. He was the epitome, the embodiment of leadership, and I think have things gotten better. At least we talk about them.
“I think about the conversations that I have with my daughter versus the conversations my parents had with me,” she added. “They’re very different, and a lot of that is because of the work of King and the people who followed King.”
James Pelech, Ph.D., an associate professor at Benedictine and chairman of the Board of Specified Jurisdiction at St. Ethelreda Grammar School, a Benedictine partner on the South Side of Chicago, said King’s message of love must also be emphasized in the classroom.
“I really think it goes back to what our speaker said today … the idea of one binding thing, and that’s love,” Pelech said. “At St. Ethelreda School, whether we say its Christ’s love or King’s love, it’s just love. It’s really an open school and we talk about being open to everyone and loving everyone.”
Where the message comes from is unimportant, Pelech said.
“I think a lot of times we’re living that message without really saying who it came from,” he said. “But I think when we talk to the parents of our students, King’s and Christ’s messages get combined. It’s just one big message of love.”
Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls more than 5,000 students in 59 undergraduate and 23 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the seventh consecutive year in 2017. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (hlcommission.org). For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ben.edu.