Martin Luther King had a dream.
I also have a dream.
I am not at all like Dr. King — I am not the eloquent and powerful speaker that he was; my voice doesn’t have the same reach — he spoke to a nation — I speak to a much smaller, but very special community. My words won’t ring out for the rest of history, nor will they be memorized by anyone. I haven’t had his experiences and, I just don’t look like him.
But, I still have a dream.
I can’t speak to his specific reality — the denial of freedom and justice to an entire race of people. But, my reality grows out of his. What I can, and will address, is what I see from my vantage point on the corner of Washington and Lawrence streets.
My experiences revolve around people — individuals and families — out on the edges of our society. Many are without homes, employment or support. My experiences are with people who seem to struggle with so much, yet with so little gain — struggles that often remain unseen to others.
Several years ago I had a conversation with an expert in social services. We were talking about ways to teach financial literacy. This person said, “I wonder why those people aren’t preparing for retirement.”
What I think the expert was really saying, “why aren’t those people ” like me.
We tend, for a variety of reasons, to gather together with our flock and largely remain within our own bubble; a bubble that distorts how we experience almost everything outside. We see those others differently, we think about them differently and we tend to judge the differences.
And, we give them labels.
Think, for just a moment: how many parts of this large society, in which we live, are “labeled” by those from some other part, from another bubble.
Race, creed, color, gender — we know all of those specific labels:
• Addictions: those drunks, crack heads,
• Homelessness: loitering, littering bums,
• Employment: they don’t want to work, just a free lunch.
And the list goes on.
Now, think for another moment: How often do we also affix labels to those who might be different than we are, perhaps without even thinking. Almost certainly, without even knowing a single thing about those who wear those labels.
“Those people ” was a label for some who struggled with finances: basic stuff — how do I pay my rent, how do I put food on my table, how can I find a place where I can even consider having a table, how do I survive?
Another label, still fresh in my mind, is this: “The young homeless guy in a wheelchair.”
I have written about this man who died behind our building not long ago. There were those who thought that my use of life details was inappropriate. I appreciate that perspective, and, yet, I am unrepentant. I have met and talked with members of his family and had known him for 9 years. I was not about to let his humanity be hidden behind this label.
Yes, he was all of those things, a young male, without a home, and moving around town in a wheelchair. And, he was so much more. He was a mixture of some truly wonderful and delightful things, and also some significant challenges--just like all of us.
He was a human being, created in the image of God, with gifts and challenges, successes and failures, just like us. Perhaps, it is that some of us are able to hide our challenges better than others do or recover from adversity more quickly and completely.
And, if it is, I wonder why?
We make judgments about people without knowing where they were on the field, without knowing what barriers they encountered, what basic resources they lacked. We judge people based on how different they look and, often, where they are positioned on the field of life.
It’s not easy to get to know people outside of our own bubbles; it forces us to move beyond the judgments that we “bubble dwellers” make and hold. And, the closer we get, the greater the risk of learning things that might make us uncomfortable, perhaps mostly about ourselves.
So, where are we: we have bubbles, judgments and labels. And, we still have people--individuals and families--failing in the race for life.
We can also stand here in Charles Town and remind all dwellers in all the other bubbles that, only a block away, at the corner of Washington and Lawrence, are people yearning for and needing to be invited back into the race of life.
And, we, all of us, can stand together and remind our neighbors that we have an obligation, that comes from the God of us all, to help all those whom we meet get back into the race of life, with housing, employment, improved health and stability and a strong sense of belonging to something permanent and really matters.
Dr. King spoke of the “fierce urgency of now.” But, how do we use the “Now” to address the needs of our children, right here in our community, who may not know where their next meal will come from or where they will sleep that night. Children who may not feel, or be safe in their living situation, whatever that might be.
How do we use the “Now” to help our children get a better chance in that race of life so they don’t have to bounce around from shelter to shelter, street corner to alley way, being ignored, scorned, judged and labeled for that which they did not get when they were children.
That is our challenge for this moment of “Now!”
To borrow from many who have gone before me: If not now, when? If not us, who?
— This column was compiled from excerpts from Shefner’s speech at the Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Trail March on Sunday. Shefner is the executive director of Jefferson County Community Ministries.