Monday, January 17, 2011

Dr. King was here

St. Augustine has a long and often ugly page in the book of the struggle for civil rights. In fact, the circles within circles in our ancient little city have their own shameful tales to tell. During my days as a singer at the Cathedral of St. Augustine, when a beloved young priest was dying and it became more or less public knowledge that he was a victim of AIDS, the outpouring of support and affection was far from universal. The leadership of love and tolerance that came to us after his death was provided by our bishop, who gave life to it by establishing and actively supporting a ministry for those afflicted by HIV/AIDS and their loved ones. He did not just preach this message from the pulpit, but chose to lead by action with love and humility, steadfastly and bravely looking into faces of ignorance and intolerance. Had he learned from St. Thomas Aquinas, from Gandhi, from the Prophet Mohammed, from Pope John XXIII? I imagine he had. And I imagine he'd learned from Dr. King, as well.

Dr. King himself visited St. Augustine, and was greeted with outright, unapologetic hostility, peculiarly ironic in a town that had prided itself on a warm hospitality that had drawn visitors and tourists for the most recent hundred years or so of its four hundred year history. Dr. King posed an unprecedented and particular threat to and aroused deep fear among the ignorant and intolerant of the little old city. His visit has given rise to stories that try the limits of the imagination; I can't begin to provide an accurate account. One guess, at least, feels pretty safe to me: the hostility Dr. King was shown was all too familiar to the people of color who called St. Augustine home, and its bitter taste lingers even today.

Today the beaches of St. Augustine greeted the remembrance of Dr. King as they often commemorate the afternoons in late January, with cold rain and low-hanging clouds, the very air inhospitable to the sea birds who live in its arms. Here they are, huddling against the wind, waiting out the weather. They wait as Dr. King did, facing into the wind, allowing it to blow around and past, confident it would abate so that he could do his work again, or failing that, that the work could be taken up by his sisters and brothers. And so it was, and so it is. For each of us in small ways we may hardly even understand, this was a man who made changes. Dr. King was here, indeed.

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