As a young man with no smartphone and poor map reading skills, I naturally got lost the first time I drove to see the school at which I would teach in Mobile, AL. Everything and everywhere was new, and I had no idea how to get around. Then I saw it…Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. I knew my school was the last historically black Catholic school in the Archdiocese, and I knew it played a role in the city’s civil rights movements, particularly in the ‘60s. With only that information, I headed toward the street sign and took the turn in faith; sure enough, I eventually stumbled upon the beautiful old school I would be blessed enough to call home for the next two years.
That was certainly not the last time that Dr. King led me in my work as a Catholic school educator. As a preacher and teacher himself, Dr. King proved time and again to be a powerful addition to the Scriptures, saints, and loved ones who shaped the way I would view the awesome responsibility of teaching, and, more specifically, working with and for students who inherently share many of the same systemic and structural hurdles as Dr. King himself.
Of course, the celebration of MLK day will fill our screens and social media feeds with folks’ thoughts on dreaming and Dr. King’s words of true peace and justice in our nation. His reflection on this dream was certainly a guide, but he had two additional messages that deeply resonated with me as I grew in my understanding of the purpose of Catholic schools.
The first of these messages is in his book Why We Can’t Wait. His writing is a response to those who told him to be thankful and satisfied with the progress that had already been made in advancing civil rights. Dr. King illustrates a lesson in pushing for change that brings me to pose “Challenge #1” for his day of remembrance: continually seek to live in the tension of a sense of urgency and patience. When I think about this challenge in relation to Catholic schools, I recognize the need for gratitude for the great work accomplished through Catholic schools, which realize the dream of true peace and justice in many ways. I’m also filled with a sense of restlessness, to never let go of the urgency for the work to be done, and that the race is long from finished.
Dr. King’s next challenge was one that I discussed with my middle school students at the beginning of each semester. In what I would call one of his most underrated statements, he declared, “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the true goal of education. The complete education gives one not only the power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”
Take a minute to look at your school’s mission statement. It may say the goals of the school are for your students to strive for college and Heaven, it may say that students will be formed to be student leaders, or it may reference the call to be men and women for others. Whether you are a student, a teacher, a parent, or just someone who cares in general, my second challenge to you is simply to remember that we are called to give and receive the gift of a great education with eyes and hearts toward passing on that gift in a powerful and loving way; this will continually build momentum toward the actualization of the dream. Teachers: help your students discover today the tools within them to build up the Kingdom; students: prepare to do the same for the next generation, to build on the foundation that you are making each day.
I’ll be forever thankful for the guiding role that Dr. King has played in shaping my understanding of the task before all of us united in the mission of Catholic education: to advance the vision of Dr. King’s dream of a Christ-like society, built on true peace and justice — from his messages preached to his namesake avenue. Which brings me to my last challenge to you for the day…
You may not even know it, but odds are that your city or town has a street named after Dr. King. Take the turn. I’m not suggesting a touristy exploration as if you’re sightseeing. I’m suggesting that you see the schools, churches, stores, funeral homes, parks, and houses that may line that street. Ideally, go meet the people who work and live there. Again, I’m not asking you to go do and see something novel. Instead, I’m challenging you to go meet fellow members of your human race, and you’ll receive the gift of Christ’s light in people you may otherwise not have met, seeing that your similarities and differences are both integral to your understanding of each other as fellow members of the Body of Christ. It seems to me that would be a worthwhile turn to take, and a worthy objective upon which to concentrate.