A weather-shortened week of celebrations at Creighton University marking what would have been the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 88th birthday was enlivened and enriched Jan. 18 during the University's annual Unity Prayer Luncheon at the Harper Center.
In welcoming the community to the luncheon, Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, noted the University's efforts to create and maintain a dialogue on campus. In October, Creighton hosted a Presidential Panel on Race Relations, beginning a candid and discerning look at some of the underpinnings of equality that face the nation.
"Today, in 2017, there is no disputing that race is still an issue in our nation and world but we must address the underlying social issues that disproportionately affect communities of color," Fr. Hendrickson said. "Factors such as poverty, health and economic disparities, the criminal justice system, education, and skills attainment are all critical to removing the barriers that fuel inequality and exclusion, that prevent some of our citizens from reaching the promised land."
The Rev. Dr. Martin L. Williams, lead pastor at Ambassadors Worship Center in Omaha, delivered the luncheon's keynote address, revisiting themes Dr. King enumerated in a little-known speech delivered in 1967, just months before his assassination. The speech was called "The Three Evils of Society," and in it, King outlined a coming crisis for the United States if it failed to address the persistent rot of inequality and hate eating at the nation's core.
"It's my favorite because you can hear in his voice the pain of 12 years of beating his head against the wall," said Williams, who noted that his full name is Martin Luther Williams and he was born in Mississippi six years before Dr. King was killed in 1968. "And he's giving the speech because he had been booed at a pious event because his audience felt nothing was happening. So he spoke about a new political mood."
The three evils King identifies - racism, excessive materialism and militarism - still dog us today, Williams said. "His sobering words," Williams said, still speak to an America struggling to bring to fruition a radical revolution of values.
That revolution, Williams said, could be possible if the nation might take its consideration of humanity all the way back to the dawn of time described in the very first chapter of Genesis: "Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."
"It's the original and only idea that will work," Williams said. "It's God's idea when he made man."
In an echo of King's speech, Williams laid out a three-part approach to a values revolution: that we consider ourselves only human beings and that we consider everyone we meet only human beings - stripping away race, creed, religion, ethnic background, sex - and that we "take human beings off of your list of things that can be dominated, subjugated and ruled," since human beings do not appear anywhere on the list of things over which God said humanity could have dominion.
"If we come to this conclusion that all men are human beings and we take human beings off the list of beings we can dominate, we wouldn't need an army, we wouldn't need police on our streets, we wouldn't need welfare," Williams said, bringing waves of applause from the audience.
The luncheon is a traditional highlight of the week during which the University bestows its Drum Major Award, given to an individual working and advocating for social justice.
This year's award was bestowed upon the Rev. Portia A. Cavitt, pastor at the Clair Memorial United Methodist Church in Omaha. Cavitt is also an active member of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the Empowerment Network, the Mayor's Faith and Community Taskforce and the Creighton University Medical Center Patient and Family Advisory Council.
In accepting the award, Cavitt said she was honored and humbled to be in a large room full of people dedicated to continuing the pursuit of Dr. King's dream.
"The dream is still alive within each and every one of us," she said. "Dr. King said the day life ends is the day you decide something important to you doesn't matter anymore. I see that we are all still fighting for something important. What you want to see, it begins with you."
This year's luncheon also paid homage to the late Rev. John P. Schlegel, SJ, with a celebratory video commemorating the former Creighton president's zealous work to promote diversity and social justice issues on the University's campus and in the wider Omaha area. Fr. Schlegel was instrumental in helping bring about Creighton's weeklong celebration of Dr. King.