Edith Guffey: The state of the Beloved Community (Column)

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Today, many will pause to remember the life and legacy of The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. You will hear many references to his “I Have a Dream” speech, but given the context of the country and of Lawrence, Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community is what I can’t get out of my head. 

Not exactly sure what that is? The King Center defines it as this:

“Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”

I wonder how Dr. King would think we are doing on his vision of the Beloved Community. Nationally, this might be the one thing we can agree on — if it was possible to get something lower than a failing grade, we would get it! 

But how are we doing right here at home? It’s probably more comfortable to go back and talk about his “I Have a Dream” speech, as it is easy to point to the “progress” since 1963. But honestly, the Beloved Community is having a tough time here, too.

The poverty rate in Lawrence is 20.7%; that is higher than the national average of 12.3%. The legacy of white supremacy is evident in health disparities, college graduation rates, the number of persons who are homeless, the number of persons in our jail and the wealth gap.

For the first time since 1912, Lawrence has Black leaders on the City Commission. What does it say about progress toward becoming a Beloved Community? Yes, I celebrate that this election has happened, but what does it say about the fabric of this city that it has taken 109 years for Black children to see leadership that looks like them in the highest level of city government? 

I wonder if anyone, or anyone white, even noticed, and if so, when it became acceptable. And of course, that just makes me wonder what other things have gone “unnoticed.” How and when will we decide to speak the truth about what has perhaps until now been unspoken?

On occasion I think the Beloved Community is really impossible. I watched the Douglas County Commission meeting last week and wondered if we are even on the same planet, let alone on the road to becoming a Beloved Community. 

The topic: Renewing the emergency mask mandate. It’s not new information. Since omicron, the numbers are soaring; health care workers are stressed and exhausted; area hospitals don’t have room to take referrals for procedures that LMH usually refers out; signs around town, staffing shortages everywhere; huge numbers of absences of teachers and students because of COVID. 

Our community is frayed. And yet, person after person spoke in opposition to wearing a mask. Those objecting stated their reasons; some were respectful, many were not. But the thing that really caught my attention was what appeared to be an attitude of total disregard for others; disregard for the experience of health care workers, teachers, frontline workers; disregard for the community as a whole.

Everyone really is entitled to make their own choices except when those choices impact others. I’m not entitled to run a red light when it means I might plow into your car and kill you. At both a surface and deeper level, Dr. King knew that. It’s what he meant when he wrote:

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be … This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

I suspect we will never fully BE the Beloved Community, but we can do better. We MUST do better, here in Lawrence and beyond. Let’s check in next year. 

— Edith Guffey recently retired from a 30-year career with the United Church of Christ. After serving at the national offices located in Cleveland, Ohio, Edith and her husband Jerry returned to Lawrence and Edith served as the Conference Minister of the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference until she retired at the end of 2021. You will find her at home in Lawrence trying to understand what it actually means to be retired and trying to figure out the complexities of the pandemic so she and Jerry can travel for fun instead of work. Read more of Edith’s work for the Times at this link.

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