The National Catholic Review
Ronald Landfair
On the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday several years ago, I sat on my living-room sofa fuming at the television set. My wife entered the room and patiently asked me what news story had caused me such exasperation. I had just watched the national director for the American Red Cross urge people to give blood, since the supply is always low following the Christmas and New Year holidays. “Why didn’t she think of this months ago?” I asked. “Lots of people were off work yesterday; they could have done it then!” My wife smiled at me, having learned long ago to endure my bouts of exasperation with a kindly nudge of insightful wisdom. She smiled and replied, “You mean, like you did yesterday, right?”

At the time, it had occurred to me to donate blood only because the American Red Cross facility was on my way home. I had no idea that blood supplies are low in January. It seemed like a good idea to donate on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I had always struggled with the meaning of the day. This time, it just seemed like the right thing to do. I had been only a sporadic donor throughout my life, always able to rationalize away the telephoned request to donate because of some real or manufactured reason that seemed appropriate enough at the time.

Once inside the facility, I went through the customary information-sharing portion, and before long I found myself on the table, the life-giving crimson liquid winding its way out of my arm into the collection bag to save (I hoped) someone’s life in the near future. Out of curiosity, I asked the nurse how many donors had been in thus far, and how many of them were people of color. She replied, “Well, the numbers today are about normal, and as far as nonwhite donors go, including you, one!” I later discovered that donation rates for blacks and other nonwhite groups are extremely low. “I wish we could figure out a way to do something about it,” she wistfully observed.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

In our honoring of Dr. King on his birthday, there is a hodgepodge of activities that seem fairly universal across the country. Dinners, luncheons, rallies, marches and days of reflection are the types of activities that the legal holiday seems to focus on. While these events are meaningful and needed, regrettably—33 years after his death—as a nation, we still do not know what this day is supposed to mean.

As a society, we give great meaning to our holidays. We know what we do on Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July and New Year’s Day. On these and other holidays, we have created myth and meaning, a culture of activities that are centered and rooted in the identity of the day. For Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we need to create a tradition. We need to give a significant meaning to this day lest it become just another long weekend—an excuse for our children to experience the joys of mall shopping and moviegoing, another reason to hold yet another sale of the year at local furniture stores.

The day should make a statement and do more than just honor the memory of a fallen national hero. Like Dr. King himself, it must speak to all people about what we share, about what is best in us. As with the eternal flame of President John F. Kennedy, our tribute must take on an unending presence, an unyielding vitality. It must be a statement that speaks to us beyond the silent corridors of history, into today and beyond tomorrow. It is our task to create this legacy for our children.

In his sermon “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” Dr. King noted: “Somewhere along the way, we must learn that there is nothing greater than to do something for others. And this is the way I’ve decided to go the rest of my days.” We must be more than just content to remember the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. as a historical footnote. We should invigorate this day with a “Living Memorial,” with the “Gift of Life” and, like Dr. King, “do something for others.”

As an African-American, I have long felt that the American Catholic Church struggles over how to approach Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In an effort to support it, we should maintain Dr. King’s authenticity as a Baptist minister and not impose our doctrinal beliefs upon his memory. As a theological community, we must be sure to see him in his own context. Yet even though our denominations differ, we are Christians, and in that wider context, we share a similar view toward the notions of sacrifice, self-giving and martyrdom.

The blood-sacrifice of Jesus—and his ultimate resurrection—are powerful signs and symbols of our shared Christianity. In addition, the long tradition of martyrs shedding blood for their faith is an integral part of Christian history. In keeping with this Christian symbol and tradition, a truly appropriate way to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day would be to donate our blood for others. What is important about this symbolism is that blood is the life-giving and life-sustaining entity that we all share, regardless of ethnicity, race or income. It could serve as a unique point of identity, transcending denominations, cultures and colors. Working with both our local and national Red Cross organizations to imprint this meaning upon the day would revolutionize the way we celebrate the holiday.

Can such a program succeed? Last year in the Diocese of Lansing, we organized a blood drive, called “Blood of the Martyrs,’’ to honor King’s memory. The drive—sponsored by the diocesan office of black Catholic ministry in conjunction with the American Red Cross—was scheduled at parishes and other locations throughout the mid-Michigan area on Jan. 13-15. It was the first coordinated effort of its kind in the nation, for the purpose of honoring Dr. King and other martyrs whose blood has been spilled for the cause of helping to make our nation a better place. Our local director for donor services for the American Red Cross termed our efforts “wildly successful,” and “look[s] forward to the event as an annual effort on the part of the Diocese of Lansing.” Our goal of 505 donors was surpassed with a final total of 650 donors, with a new-donor total of nearly 10 percent. The drive yielded blood products for 2,192 patients.

The Lansing program provides a model that, with the support of the local bishop, could be easily replicated in other dioceses. Every diocese in the country could work with its local Red Cross branch and develop diocesanwide blood drives to honor Dr. King. Such an effort could serve the American church for decades to come. It would link the church and its commitment to universal inclusion—regardless of race—to the life and message of Dr. King. It would, in fact, create a “Living Memorial” as a Catholic response to Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Ronald Landfair is the director of black Catholic ministry for the Diocese of Lansing, Mich.

Comments

Anna M. Seidler | 1/1/2002 - 2:15pm
Thank you, Mr. Landfair, for a thoughtful article re commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.Day by visiting a blood bank and contributing that most valuable of commodities: one"s life blood. Your thoughts may well contribute to like action.
Stephen S. Bowman | 1/26/2007 - 1:15pm
I find it unfortunate that our national leadership has so rarely invoked the name and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. since the tragedy of Sept. 11. After all, King knew firsthand the pain of terrorism, redemptive suffering and healing. Unfortunately, however, King is remembered today only as a great leader of black America and is forever frozen in our collective memory delivering his famous “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, pleading for civil rights. In doing so, we diminish his broader legacy and even his relevancy for the United States today. Properly understood, Dr. King was much more than a black leader; he was a religious leader whose mission was to transform not just race relations, but the fabric of American society (12/24/01).

To understand King, one must appreciate the soul of the man. Although it may be unfashionable to say it, especially among his liberal admirers, ultimately King was a religious man. He believed passionately in the love of his God and dedicated his life not to civil rights but to acting as an instrument of God’s will, which happened to include civil rights. As he wrote in 1958, “Religion seeks not only to integrate man with God, but men with men.”

It is in this religious context that King is best understood. King saw most churches in America “were mere social clubs with their members having more in common with sun worshipers than Christians.” It was precisely the “agnosticism and materialism” of America that allowed us to tolerate racism. He said many times that “America was sick,” but the minister in him knew the cause of the illness was not social injustice. Social injustice was merely a symptom of America’s illness.

King saw his work as an effort to revitalize religious institutions and the spiritual dimension in American life. In this regard, he was passionate. King said in 1968 before his congregation, “The great tragedy is that Christianity failed to see it had the revolutionary edge” over Communism. So in 1963, as King and his followers marched into the jaws of Bull Connor and his dogs, King saw not just an act of courageous protest but evidence of an ecumenical second “Great Awakening,” in which all faiths were welcomed. And this is why King’s centrist theme of nonviolence not only brought attention to his cause, but also exemplified a vision of living and seeing the world.

So as we stumble back to our churches, synagogues and mosques in an effort to make sense of our recent tragedy, we should listen to what Dr. King had to tell us. We should remove him from the box into which we have placed him and remember he was much more than a black civil rights leader; he should be seen as a leader or even a prophet for all us. We should be asking ourselves, “Is America still sick?” What would Dr. King have to tell us in the aftermath of Sept. 11?

Anna M. Seidler | 1/26/2007 - 12:49pm
Thanks to Ronald Landfair for a thoughtful article about observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day by visiting a blood bank and contributing that most valuable of commodities: one’s lifeblood (12/24/01). His thoughts may well contribute to like action.

Anna M. Seidler | 1/1/2002 - 2:15pm
Thank you, Mr. Landfair, for a thoughtful article re commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.Day by visiting a blood bank and contributing that most valuable of commodities: one"s life blood. Your thoughts may well contribute to like action.