On the surface, providing access to education for boys and girls in places like India, Tanzania and Guatemala has little to do with the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that we celebrate today.

While Dr. King was famously inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent approach to social change (even traveling to India in 1959), he was also laser focused on using that nonviolent resistance to end racism and white supremacy within the United States.

But, aside from the connections to India, (or the fact that Lutheran churches are the whitest in the nation) what does that have to do with the particular mission before us?

Over the weekend, I preached at Bethlehem Lutheran Church-Twin Cities on a Bible passage that helps draw a connection.

Mark 2:1-5

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

(New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.)

What I was struck by in this Gospel passage is how powerful a community of people working together toward a common purpose can be.

The Myth of Rugged Individualism

Here in the West (especially in dominant-culture America) see ourselves primarily as individuals. Each and every one of us is – or is supposed to be – a rugged individual.

That story we’ve been telling ourselves for more than 200 years about our own rugged individualism is reinforced by the stories we tell each other: about legends like Davy Crockett or Paul Bunyan, or heroes of history like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt or Martin Luther King Jr.

Those are larger-than-life figures who — in our telling — singlehandedly changed the course of history with their strength of character, resolve of will and unending wisdom. (They’re also usually men, and usually white.)

We tell ourselves those stories because we think they’ll inspire us to greatness. We think they’ll inspire our own strength of character, resolve and unending wisdom.

We’re usually let down.

The Power of Community

Mark 2 shows the power of a group of people whose names have been lost to history, working together for the good of another, whose collective faith brought healing.

The people in the Gospel today who brought this paralyzed man to Jesus were persistent. Crowds got in their way, everyone wanting their own spot near this special rabbi and healer who traveled the country. They wanted a chance to hear his word, to touch him and be touched, but there were so many people there that they filled the house and out the door.

But the friends were on a mission. They knew exactly what the goal was, but had to push, had to fight, had to improvise to accomplish that mission. They weren’t getting in the door, so they dug through the roof and lowered their friend down.

One well-meaning friend wouldn’t have been able to accomplish it, but the community did it together. They push forward in faith.

We love telling stories of individual heroes, but the real truth is that they’re rarely working alone.

Heroes rarely work alone

Rosa Parks is good example. The story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that I grew up hearing was of a tired black woman, who one day simply had enough of the segregated buses and bravely refused to stand up, sparking a powerful boycott that paved the way for the end of segregation.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned the fuller truth: that Rosa Parks, secretary of the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP, was part of a much bigger community of women — in particular, of black women. These women and their male allies planned and organized a nonviolent resistance for months and years, working on a plan to boycott the segregated buses.

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted in February 1956 by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey following her arrest on December 1, 1955. (Associated Press; restored by Adam Cuerden)

She was part of a community of women who were reacting to the repeated harassment and assaults they had endured on those buses. She was part of a community that included Gertrude Perkins, Recy Taylor and Claudette Colvin: women whose stories are rarely told, but whose lives influence so many others. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus, she did so in full knowledge that a community of women were there to support her.

I think about the Rev. Jane Anitha, a Dalit (or “Untouchable”) woman who has been called to be the caretaker for 700 school-aged girls at the Siloam Boarding Home in Tamil Nadu, India. She is remarkable, powerful, faithful and wise. But the wisdom and love that she has to give to those girls is not hers alone. It’s part of a broader community of support among the Dalit-led Arcot Lutheran Church, and a community that reaches all the way back to you.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere

Which brings us back to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King knew the power of a community who worked together for good.

After he was arrested and jailed for nonviolent civil disobedience in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. King wrote an open letter in response to criticism he had received from prominent local clergy.

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men [sic] willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail. April 16, 1963

Let us be inspired by Dr. King and say, “We cannot sit idly by in Minnesota, North Dakota, or Illinois, and not be concerned about what happens in India, or Guatemala, or Central Africa.”

Let us join together as a community through tireless efforts and persistent work, co-working with God to create a hopeful future for students, empowering them with knowledge and wisdom, in the name of the one who was, who is and who is to come.

Author Dan Ruth

Dan Ruth is the executive director of LPGM and an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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