“You can do it! You can do it!” The encouragement pulsed through the crowd as a young woman pulled herself up onto a signpost above the heaving throngs. Successful, she reached into her knapsack and removed a black camera from within. Flushed with her acrobatic effort she carefully wedged herself up against the pole and pointed her camera at the exuberant crowd and snapped picture after picture. Later when she reviewed the pictures she no doubt saw a multicolored crowd made up of hundreds of thousands of smiling, cheering, diverse marchers – all making up the mosaic of the Women’s March in Washington DC.
The vibrancy and exuberance of the Women’s March stands in sharp contrast to the day prior’s Inauguration. My partner, also a current LVC volunteer, and I were privileged enough to attend both. The Inauguration was marked by rampant partisanship evident in the raucous celebration of President Trump by his supporters and their booing of Democratic lawmakers. I had attended hoping to support the United States’ storied history of peaceful transitions between presidents. I left the Inauguration scared of the people who sat around me and more so the multitudes of people who stood in the open area on the Mall. My own fear fueled the mounting concern that I had had about the state of our democratic institutions in the year leading up to our election in November.
Anyone who attended the Women’s March in DC will tell you that it was a peaceful event full of loud affirmations for multiple identities that are traditionally (and contemporaneously) marginalized within our society.
I was invited by my partner to march with her and together we marched with some of my family members, friends, and my partner’s LVC placement, which is a clinic that mostly serves those who often find it difficult to afford the expanding costs of healthcare. Our chants and cheers signaled our support for women, immigrants, refugees, and many others. Marching that Saturday, it was unfathomable to recall that less than twenty-four hours earlier an entirely different group of individuals had supported the Inauguration in the exact same place.
The juxtaposition of the two events has made me think increasingly of the dissimilarity between our present reality and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s beloved community. That community is often touted as the hallmark of what a spiritual community could look like, and yet I think its portrayal as picture-perfect erodes many of the most important facets of King’s message. This misrepresentation has led us to at least two fallacies about communities.
The first fallacy is that we all have to agree on everything to be a community. The increased polarization of our political realm has filtered down to each of us. Politics and the structure of our democratic system suggest that when we disagree there is no room for relationship, thereby permanently severing community. In contrast, King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail makes plain that the structure of a vibrant and healthy community is rooted in its ability to promote relationship even when significant disagreement arises. King’s very attempt to air his disagreements with and frustration of white clergy reveals his model for community. And, animating that model was a firm belief that our disagreements need not be the end of community, but instead serve to enrich and bolster the community.
The second fallacy that we accept in our current social climate stems from the first, namely, we think that when we are in community we cannot challenge systems and individuals who contribute to oppression within and outside of our community. We don’t think that there is room in our modern community’s to “speak truth” about something. Again, King demonstrates otherwise. His criticism of the moderate white clergy serves to challenge their complicity in the oppression of people of color.
As I reflect on King’s vision of a beloved community I recognize how little we encourage similar communities in our own world. I am increasingly sensitive to how I have surrounded myself with friends, coworkers and family who agree almost exclusively with the views that I hold as my own. Encouraged by King I have committed myself to trying to build community across the lines of difference.
I do not have to look far to find lines of difference. After all, I am participating in LVC this year. In my house, at work, and in my placement city disagreement can take place over the most significant to some of the pettiest things. Seeds of disagreement can poison a garden. Yet, I see King’s model of the beloved community exposing those seeds and perhaps transplanting them to new soil where they can more readily grow.
The Women’s March and the Inauguration have taught me the importance of building communities that are comfortable with disagreement and honesty. And my year with LVC provides me the perfect opportunity to try and live out those commitments as I try to live into the beloved community of King. One last lesson from King – the beloved community doesn’t start tomorrow or the next day instead honestly living into the beloved community means changing this very moment.