Anne Klaeysen's Blog
On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday as of January 20, 1986. The proclamation read, “This year marks the first observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a national holiday. It is a time for rejoicing and reflecting. We rejoice because, in his short life, Dr. King, by his preaching, his example, and his leadership, helped to move us closer to the ideals on which America was founded. . . He challenged us to make real the promise of America as a land of freedom, equality, opportunity, and brotherhood.”
Today there are myriad ways to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., including interfaith commemorations, service projects and marches. This year, I chose to join a group of young activists and community organizers who drew attention to issues of persistent racial injustice, especially in police enforcement and criminal justice. The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY, and the decision of the respective grand juries not to indict the police officers who killed them, brought together, under the banner of The Gathering for Justice (http://www.gatheringforjustice.org/), a social justice organization founded in 2005 by Harry Belafonte, a diverse task force calling themselves Justice League NYC, whose demands include passage of transparency rules called the “Right to Know Act,” an end to NYPD’s “Broken Windows” policing tactics, and juvenile justice reform.
These young civil rights activists, here in NYC and across the country, are unlike traditional leaders, having more in common with the Occupy movement than with the NAACP. While they respect Dr. King, most don’t see him – or his movement, with its oratory, top-down organization, misogyny and Christianity – as a model to be copied. The people I met, including Carmen Perez, a protégé of Belafonte’s who helped form Justice League NYC; Tamika Mallory, Community Affairs Director for local Radio 103.9; and Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of NY, inspired hundreds of people to join them on January 19 for a march from 110thStreet and Lenox Avenue to United Nations Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on East 47th Street. We were young and old, of many origins, faiths and colors; united in the hope of realizing the dream Dr. King expressed in 1963 of judging people not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The day before, at NYSEC’s annual MLK Remembrance platform, we welcomed Kira Shepherd, newly appointed Executive Director of The Black Institute, another young civil rights leader whose interview with me you can view at
According to Peniel Joseph, director of Tufts University’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, “There’s no one iconic leader now. Instead you have thousands of young people who brought other people into the street. They’re Millennials [defined as being born between 1977 and 1992]. They didn’t come through a conventional civil rights organization.” As the rapper Tef Poe put it at a St. Louis rally: “This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.” This younger generation communicates through speeches, as well as art, music and social media. They are impatient with the spotlight-grabbing of their elders, choosing to organize direct and peaceful actions that call upon diverse coalitions.
To answer “life’s most persistent and urgent question” of what I am doing for others, I stand with today’s young leaders. I support them and will give them a platform. With their inclusive and horizontal organization structure, with their creative devotion to human rights, they are inspiring not only their generation but all generations. They are our hopeful future.
As the Humanist representative at interfaith vigils, I am often called upon to speak. Sometimes I reflect upon the person or situation, but I recently found a poem by Rebecca Parker that I revised as a call and response. It affirms the responsibility to use one’s gifts to serve humanity
Social Justice Call & Response
“Choose to Bless the World” adapted from a poem Rebecca Parker
Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world.
Choose to Bless the World
The mind’s power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
Choose to Bless the World
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.
Choose to Bless the World
Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.
Choose to Bless the World
You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world is more than an act of will,
A moving forward into the world
With the intention to do good.
It is an act of recognition, a confession of surprise, a grateful acknowledgment
That in the midst of a broken world
Unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.
Choose to Bless the World
None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility waiting.
I am writing this column after attending a meeting with clergy colleagues planning a Black Friday action at a Walmart store in North Bergen, NJ. Black Friday is the name given to the day after Thanksgiving when people, having consumed vast quantities of food the day before and stockpiled leftovers to see them through the weekend, get a jump on their Christmas shopping. Prices are marked down, shoppers line up before dawn, and stores hope to make a profit, ending the day “in the black,” as opposed to “the red” of non-holiday losses.
We clergy and our members, Walmart workers and social justice activists, as well as union workers will congregate in the parking lot to hold an interfaith service with plenty of preaching and singing about the human right to earn a living wage and the responsibility of consumers to choose ethically. Deeply discounted products are important to families on tight budgets, and it’s a “hard sell” to ask them to support store owners who respect their employees, instead of those who provide information about how to get food stamps and find the nearest homeless shelter. Ours is a call to action, awakening and quickening the conscience of people who celebrate the holidays by purchasing gifts for family and friends that sometimes put them into debt. It is a consciousness-raising action about the meaning of holidays. What is it we celebrate and why do some people believe they are occasions for waging war or imagining that war is being waged against them?
I grew up celebrating Christmas. We cut down an evergreen tree from the back lot and hauled it to the house on a toboggan. It dried out and warmed up in the basement near the wood-burning stove until we took it upstairs to the living room, plunked it in the tree stand, and started the nostalgic and raucous activity of decorating. We also put out milk and cookies for Santa and attended midnight mass at St. Anne’s church where we had all been baptized. And, of course, we woke up early on Christmas Day to open the presents that had appeared under the tree overnight.
I shared this tradition with my children and, because ours is an interfaith family, we also celebrated Chanukah by lighting candles in the menorah, spinning dreidels, and eating potato latkes. At the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, we added Winter Solstice and Kwanzaa to our festivities. What a wonderful time of year with all of these diverse holidays, each with its own stories and symbols, rituals and music. We learned so much and respected those for whom these traditions held such profound meaning.
So imagine my surprise when I learned that there was a “War on Christmas.” At first I thought it was a campaign to raise awareness of rampant consumerism, of store doors being ceremoniously opened on Black Friday and people trampling over bodies in their haste to enter. I thought it was an effort to restore meaning to a Christian holiday. Instead I learned that it was invented in the early 2000s by conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly to denote what they claimed were Christmas-related controversies, the most egregious being store employees wishing customers “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” I was dumbfounded. According to them, Christmas was being censored, avoided or discouraged by retailers, schools and other public organizations. Other holidays were being recognized – and advertised. Yes, people other than Christians were celebrating winter holidays other than Christmas, and some didn’t celebrate anything at all: this was the “War on Christmas.” Conservative religious groups and media, e.g., the American Family Association and Fox News have called for boycotts of retailers that don’t explicitly use the term “Christmas” in their advertising and in-store marketing.
And this new tradition has taken hold. There are websites dedicated to it, and some people are passionate about spreading the word. I’m spreading a different word: Diversity. Let’s embrace it and celebrate it this season in all its glorious array. Let’s learn about other traditions and create new ones that emphasize compassion and generosity, community and understanding.
When I was a child, we sang a song about Christopher Columbus and his crew, who in 1492 sailed the ocean blue to open up a new trade route to India and instead “discovered” America, naming its inhabitants Indians. We celebrated with a long holiday weekend the arrival of the first immigrants. We didn’t sing about the people who were already here, who cherished the land of their ancestors, and whose lives were forever changed by the greed and aggression of European immigrants.
Years later I learned that the Haudenosaunee, whom the French called Iroquois, dwelled in the land where I grew up and formed a mighty – and peaceful – confederacy of six nations centuries before Columbus landed. Their constitution is often described as the oldest participatory democracy in the world, blending law and values; society and nature are equal partners and each plays an important role. Although the U.S. Constitution used the confederacy as a model, it included neither nature nor man’s other equal partner – woman. The Declaration of Independence referred to them as “the merciless Indian Savages.”
Songwriter Nancy Schimmel updated the song we sang as children in these verses excerpted from “1492”:
In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue,
It was a courageous thing to do
But someone was already here. . .
It isn’t like it was empty space,
Caribs met him face to face. . .
Columbus was lost, the Caribs were not;
We are all immigrants or descended from immigrants. Since humanity originated in Africa, even indigenous people migrated here, and people continue to arrive for myriad reasons. If we are to continue calling this “our” land, then we must acknowledge that reality and commit ourselves to welcoming those who wish to make our home their home, too. Embrace people from other lands who want to throw their lot in with ours to make our shared home a better place.
One way members of the NY Society can make a difference is to support the New York State Immigration Coalition (http://www.thenyic.org/), whose mission is to achieve “a fairer and more just society that values the contributions of immigrants and extends opportunity to all.”