Teaching Justice

There are certain types of reverence that we inherit from our family members.  Whether it be religion, family traditions, or certain other practices, when we grow up watching those we love respect certain parts of life, we mimic those behaviors.  For many of my friends Sunday mornings are their familial reverence.  Their families taught them to show awe and respect at the altar of God and his teachings.  For each group it is different, but we find ways to honor the things that we collectively care for and respect.

In my family we were taught to honor justice, as bizarre as that sounds.  We watched my father celebrate the life of Dr. King every year.  My mother passionately spoke about education and food inequality each time we forgot our own privilege. We watched my grandmother preach the plight of the Jews on Passover. Instead of learning our lessons from the Good Book, my brother and I were taught the parameters of morality from the pages of history.

My dad loves Martin Luther King Jr.  For him, MLK is the pinnacle of non-violent, strong willed, charismatic, and effective social change.  Back in the day, my dad was a community organizer in a majority black neighborhood in Boston.  He also ran for city council under the slogan “Jim Walsh in the Neighborhood.”  As a result of these two activities a MLK day tradition was born.  Long before I was alive, he would organize MLK day parties where him and his likeminded social justice friends would get together and celebrate the life and teachings of Dr. King.  The highlight of the day, was when my dad would take out his old record of Dr. King’s speeches and everyone would listened in rapt silence to crackling sounds and deep voice as they bellowed out of the turntable.

In the following years, as my brother and I came on the scene, these gatherings stopped, but the lessons did not.  My first memory of Dr. King, is not from school, but hearing his voice vibrate through our living room shouting “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I have been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.”  I remember my parents telling me where they were when King was killed and how that felt.  And I remember that every year on MLK Day, my friends would have free time to run around and play.  Instead my brother and I would sit in the church of Dr King, gathered around that same turntable, listening to same speeches. Then we would discuss and dissect those messages with my father.

At the time my brother and I lamented the activity and complained.  Even though we were given most of the afternoon to play, we couldn’t understand why we had to pay homage to the altar of King and remember his work.  At the time it didn’t make sense.

Since then the lessons of King keep coming back to me.  I have a respect for this day that has been engrained in me since birth.  Its not just a national holiday, a day for supersales at department stores, or rehashing favorite quotes.  Today is a day of reflection and tradition, where I like to look at the world and look at what my family has taught me to value.  I reflect on how I am fulfilling and disappointing these expectations.  I remind myself how I can do better.

Perhaps the most important thing for me about Martin Luther King Day is how it is a catalyst for memories. I remember the story my mother used to tell me, from when she worked in the development office at a food bank, and how every month they would receive a $5 check from an elderly woman on welfare.  The large checks from families who could afford to be charitable, were also important, but this was different.  This woman, even though she could not afford it, knew she had more than others, so she kept giving.

I remember, although were not very religious, hearing my grandmother talk about the Jews fleeing Egypt.  Every year she holds my grandfathers hand with conviction as she tells us about the suffering and the pain of our people.  How we went forth to the promise land in search of safety and freedom.  As she discusses the Seder plate, each item has its own meaning.  When she speaks of the bitter herbs, which we dip in salt water to remind ourselves of our ancestors tears, she is not just talking about “our people.”  My grandmother uses her place as the matriarch of the family to propagate the importance of justice and equality for all groups- not just our own.

My family has a long list of our own sayings and growing up I used to hear two phrases on repeat.  1. People are people, and thats all that matters. 2. Help each other we can do it.  The doctrine of our family is to protect and support each other, to talk through problems peacefully, and to speak loudly when we see things that are wrong.  I am so grateful for Dr. King, his impact on society, and on my upbringing.  His words continue to echo in my conscience as I try to decide what to do with my life.  And today I am reminded of that unwavering voice coming through the speaker and saying “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

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