A foundation of spiritual practice is the truth that we can hold two opposing feelings all at once. We can feel joyful as we grieve, we can experience hope in our despair, we can be certain in our uncertainty and, if we are wise, always be uncertain in our certainty. The weeks leading up to, and following the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday were both incredibly simple and infinitely complex.
Simple was the joy we felt both welcoming and being welcomed by St. James African Methodist Episcopal Congregation over the weekend prior to Dr. King’s birthday. Our choirs seemed to blend effortlessly to offer devotional song in both houses of worship. Both Reverend Edwards and I had a chance to speak to our congregations as we joined in Sabbath prayer on Friday and Sunday. Some of our youth children went to church and some of their youth came to temple. In my experience nothing felt forced, people met the unknown with openness and everyone came away moved, wondering whether reaching out across social, racial and religious lines to find friendship, healing and reconciliation can be as simple as that was.
Concurrently, during those same weeks I was part of a group of Jewish and African American leaders who were preparing for the very high-profile visit of Tamika Mallory, activist and leader of the National Women’s March, who was invited to speak at UNCA to honor Dr. King’s legacy. The event drew national coverage as it came to light later that Mallory’s relations with the Jewish community became strained over anti-Jewish remarks she allegedly made as well as her refusal to distance herself from ties to Louis Farrakhan, who is known not only for his organizing and support of vulnerable African American communities but also for his extreme hate speech against Jews. Whether or not the allegations against Mallory were true, the layers of identity politics that required navigating that were instigated by her visit were anything but simple. People who are not friends of the Jews often point a finger at us for our privilege and our economic and political power. When members of the Jewish community were insisting that nothing short of Chancellor Cable rescinding Mallory’s invitation to speak would suffice, that unfortunately played right into that harmful stereotype. And yet, in the current climate of division and hostility against Jews, how could the Jewish community turn a blind eye?
As I write this, we are still preparing for that visit. But here’s what I know ahead of it all. I know that the truth is complicated and people are complicated. Some things are easy for us to agree on, and some actions are easy to take. Others are difficult and the way forward isn’t clear. But I do believe that right now, people sitting down together, in dialogue or in prayer, gets us closer to where we hope to be. In the words of Kohelet, “There is a time for everything under the sun.”