King Motivated Others as Pastor, Preacher

Slain civil rights activist's philosophy mirrored Catholic social justice teaching, theologian says

Providence, R.I. -- Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s importance as a pastor and a man of faith was discussed by a Baptist preacher, a Dominican friar, and a Providence College theology professor during a program at the Center for Catholic and Dominican Studies (CCDS).

“MLK as Pastor and Preacher: A Journey of Faith, Service and Justice” was part of a series of events at PC celebrating King’s legacy. The tribute included a forum on service and vocation, an afternoon of poetry and prose, and a student visit to the Congdon Street Baptist Church in Providence.

The discussion was sponsored by the CCDS, Balfour Office for Multicultural Activities (BOMA), Office of Student Affairs, Department of Theology, and Campus Ministry.

Participating were Rev. James E. Dove, pastor of Congdon Street Baptist Church; Rev. Kenneth Letoile, O.P. ’70, prior of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., and former pastor of St. Pius V Church in Providence; and Dr. Terence McGoldrick, assistant professor of theology. 

Dove said King inspired him as a pastor-scholar. Few black clergymen in King’s time held advanced degrees, especially master’s degrees in divinity, Dove said. Because of King, Dove sought and completed a master’s degree in divinity from Virginia Union University.

Dove also cited King’s “conviction of love,” even of his enemies; his holistic ministry, in which he concerned himself not just with people’s souls, but with the physical aspects of their lives; and his expectation of encountering opposition and suffering in his ministry.

The key was perseverance, Dove said, quoting the Gospel song popular in the civil rights movement, “I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, nobody turn me around.”

Leading a “committed” life  

BOMA director Elena T. Yee played an excerpt from a King sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct,” delivered in February 1968. In it, King reflected on how he would like to be remembered at his funeral -- not for his prizes or his education, but for trying to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit prisoners, and love and serve humanity.

“I just want to leave a committed life behind,” King said.

Less than two months later, when King was assassinated, Father Letoile, then a novice “forming my own Dominican identity,” read an excerpt from that sermon in The New York Times, clipped it out and placed it in the Bible he used each day, in a page before the prophets.

The idea of a “committed life” became his model, said Father Letoile.

Father Letoile said King’s philosophy matched Catholic social teaching in four ways: in answering the call of Jesus, in the mission to serve, in the power and possibility of non-violence and forgiveness, and in the church as witness in public life.

McGoldrick noted that many Catholic leaders of King’s day distrusted the civil rights leader, considering him “an agitator and rabble-rouser.”

King sought the support of the bishop of St. Augustine, Fla., the oldest Catholic community in the United States, but never received it, McGoldrick said. But the bishop of Atlanta praised King’s courage and lent his support, and when King led the march on Selma, Ala., an estimated 15 percent of the participants were Catholic priests and nuns.

“He was not a bitter man,” said McGoldrick. “He saw tension as a creative force for change. The tension forced us to confront our own hyprocrisy.”

McGoldrick said King believed in “solidarity, that we are all one interdependent people,” and in the Catholic idea of dignity, that all people belong to one human family.

“He was a man of faith, a pastor, the son and grandson of pastors. He lived his life within the church. His movement was very much inspired by his religious beliefs,” said McGoldrick. “As St. Paul wrote, it was ‘a faith that makes us bold,’ and he was bold.”

--Vicki-Ann Downing