Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Keynote Address

“A Prescription for Peace”

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.
Community Service Recognition Breakfast
South Bend Century Center
January 15, 2007

Good morning and thank you.

My thanks to Mayor Steve (Luecke of South Bend) for such a kind and generous introduction. Over the past year and a half that I have been in office, I have greatly appreciated the mayor’s leadership and support.

Thanks also to the Urban Enterprise Association of South Bend – Pam Meyer, the association staff and the other members of the planning committee – for the invitation to join you this morning as the guest speaker for today’s event: the 17th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Recognition Breakfast, kicking off a full day of activities celebrating Dr. King’s legacy around the theme, “A Prescription for Peace,” and looking for ways to continue his vision of peace, solidarity, and brotherhood among individuals and across communities. It is a tremendous honor for me to speak to you on an occasion honoring Dr. Martin Luther King.

The beginnings of this event’s history nearly two decades ago were quite humble – starting as a small gathering of 100 or so community members in a local South Bend church. Then, as word spread and the event grew, it moved to larger venues such as the Joyce Center and then here, at the Century Center, where I understand today we have over 600 attendees.

It speaks well of this community that this event honoring Dr. King has grown so steadily, and has grown into a day of reflection on important issues. Thanks to all who contributed to this day.

As someone said, “Small opportunities are often the beginnings of great enterprises.” Today is a day of opportunity. Dr. King was a man who believed in creating opportunity when there appeared, to most, to be none, or where the challenges seemed insurmountable. We honor his legacy and continue his work by taking today as an opportunity – an opportunity for reflection and renewed commitment.

First, today is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of peace. Peace, in one sense, is simply the absence of war. It is, as St. Augustine said, simply “the tranquility of order.” But there is an inner peace that has to do with our state of mind, our spirit. This evening, you will have the opportunity to attend a workshop with Dr. Joseph Marshall, Jr. Dr. Marshall is a peace advocate and author whose efforts focus on reducing community violence and conflict by first understanding and addressing the factors internal to an individual that may foster violence or lead to conflict.

True peace must begin with the cultivation of an inner peace. Dr. King, in his practice of non–violent resistance, saw that it required a purification of spirit by those engaging in it if it is to be truly successful. To foster a peaceful society, we must seek spiritual purification and cultivate an inner peace.

Perhaps today can be a day for all of us to renew our commitment to finding an inner peace. The first step toward peace must be an inner peace in our hearts.

Second, this is an opportunity to celebrate community. While we look at our own lives, we must look beyond to the communities of which we are a part.

When Dr. King went to Birmingham to stage non–violent protests against the segregationist laws and practices there, he was criticized as an outsider meddling in the lives and practices of others. He responded in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

This weekend, I returned from a visit to Uganda, a country in East Africa neighboring Kenya and Tanzania. The University of Notre Dame has an opportunity to participate in a Millennial Village Project, which is an effort to target villages in sub–Saharan Africa and, through providing basic health care, education, and modern agricultural methods, enable the people of these villages to move out of extreme poverty. In an ever more global world, we must teach our students about the connections among all peoples and our responsibility for the world.

After spending a few days in that country, you are very much aware that there is a good deal of suffering and hardship. It is a country that has struggled over the years for economic and political stability. There is great poverty; many people suffer from infectious diseases including HIV/AIDSand malaria; the northern country faces the blight of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group that captures children and inducts them into their terror and larceny.

But, despite any hardship, its people are remarkably warm, hospitable, and joyful. We felt immediately at home with these generous and welcoming people. We met the village with which we would work, and many people turned out to talk with us. As we left, one woman exclaimed, “Yes, let’s be family! Let’s be family!”

Dr. King realized that we are inevitably part of a network of mutuality, and, at our best, we are family. We are connected with everyone in our local community, and even in our world. On this day, we can reflect on how we are a community, connected with many communities throughout the world. And we can renew our commitment to be a family that cares about one another, and supports one another.

Third, today is an opportunity to reflect on leadership in light of the example of Dr. Martin Luther King. The people in this room are leaders and, if you are like me, you often reflect on what true leadership is.

There are great leaders who are highly intelligent and motivated, who can set great goals and achieve them, who can have a significant impact on organizations. Dr. Martin Luther King had these qualities. But his greatness, I believe, lies in the quality of his moral leadership. He called people out of their accepted customs and behaviors and confronted them with a moral ideal – a moral demand – that could not be ignored.

“I refuse to accept the idea,” said Dr. King, “that the ‘is–ness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘ought–ness’ that forever confronts him.” Dr. King, through his actions, writing, and particularly through his powerful oratory, confronted people with that “ought–ness.” And so, when he wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he acknowledged that he and those he led broke the civil law, but he insisted that the segregation laws are not just laws, and that truly just laws are grounded in the natural law and eternal law of God. That higher law is what Dr. King called us to obey.

When Dr. King proclaimed so powerfully that he had a dream, it was a dream of moral and spiritual renewal and deepening of brotherhood. Its power was not from political or military might or financial influence, but from the demand that what is good and just has on the consciences of men and women everywhere.

It is this moral leadership of the kind Dr. King showed that alone can truly transform, truly elevate. It calls us to seek and act out of a true inner peace to establish peace in our communities. It demands that we recognize that we are part of a local and global community and we are all our brother’s keeper. It is the leadership which demands that we seek true, abiding justice.

On this day, let us take the opportunity that the life of Dr. King provides to reflect on these truths. Thank you for inviting me to this event. Thank you for taking the time to listen. And thank you for honoring Dr. King.