(Editor’s note: Amy Novak, president of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, wrote this reflection for the campus community on Jan. 17.)
Today, as we pause to recognize the pivotal work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I would like to share how this person’s commitment to a better world still stirs my heart, and I believe all of us, to be more welcoming, less afraid, and more committed to making the world a better place.
The fruits of the Holy Spirit — generosity, gratitude, goodness, patience, joy, faith, charity, kindness, hope — create the perfect list for how we might want people to remember us once we have passed from this world to our next leg of the journey. Today as we remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we could apply that list to him in a plethora of words, each of them falling short of capturing the impact of his life and actions on our world today. Moreover, what may be an even more powerful tribute to Dr. King is a recognition of the fruitful lives he has inspired in multiple generations, each embodying a spectrum of diverse cultures, ethnicities, and talents.
On a day that lifts a champion for all people like Dr. King, we are reminded how our hearts cannot remain fallow, forgotten, compact, and depleted of the dream. Any attempt of mine to come close to a comprehensive list of those whose hearts were fertile soil for the fruitful seeds planted by Dr. King will fall woefully short. Allow me, however, to mention a few. Many of those of Dr. King’s generation have had their voices re-amplified. John Lewis’ recent departure from us allowed us to remember the hard work of carrying Dr. King’s torch of justice through the many turbulent decades following his early death.
The poetic vision and voices of — Baldwin, Black Elk, Brooks, Angelou, bell hooks, Morrison, Giovanni — blend in fresh ways with so many artists, scholars, and storytellers who continue to enter our personal and national consciousness. On the one hand, we remember Dr. King as a “historical person,” and yet our 2022 holy-day is a “living remembrance” because his life continues to nourish Eboo Patel, Amanda Gorman, Ta-Nehsi Coates, Bryan Stevenson, Michelle Alexander, Father Greg Boyle, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, me, and you.
I understand the truth that there is still so much to do on the front of human dignity for all, especially in this country. We face the reality that we must continue to work on a range of issues that uphold the dignity of each person. I would say that the work of ensuring each of our sisters and brothers have dignity, opportunity, sincere friendship, and a mutual trust in the good will of each other is a work that will continue from generation to generation. What inspires me is the tilling of the soul’s soil. We have voices, ideas, and words in our own daily encounters that continue to cultivate the soil for the seeds of Dr. King’s dream. We live in a time of tension, but tension means growth. Let us shun indifference. The words of Martin Luther King Jr. should penetrate the very marrow of our being:
“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’”
As a university with a long history of commitment to issues of racism and social justice (and the first Catholic university in America to have a chapter of the NAACP), let us not waste a day when in our personal lives we intersect that moment when healing can occur; when extra kindness and consideration are called forth; when we know we are outside of our comfort zone yet called to act with generosity; when someone stops you and tells you how terrible the world is and no one will ever see eye-to-eye and you tell them about hope, about a faith in something bigger than us. Let us not waste a day, when we don’t consider how our classes, conversations, and acts of kindness might inspire introspection on what it means to love our neighbor. Perhaps we discover a courage to find our neighbor where we have never looked for him before. Let us realize that my sister’s pain is my pain and any story I tell myself that I am insulated from a world of injustice by adhering to the lie that “this people” have “those problems” and “I have mine” is part of the problem not the solution. I don’t want to end my life looking God in the eye and saying, “I never saw you hungry, lonely, in prison, or thirsty.” The work of human dignity is the work of our lives.
I am inspired by Dr. King because truly his dream was God’s dream, and that dream will never go away. In whatever way we may have arrived in this time and space, we are part of a community called Ambrosians, and in the legacy of that name we take action to make our neighbor know that she or he or they are welcomed and loved. May our cumulative generosity of spirit unravel the suspicions that weave a web of prejudice, and step by step may we move forward to a day when all know that their dignity is a sincere shared concern. May we as a community embrace the fullness of our calling to live out our commitment to human dignity for all.