Since 1986, the third Monday of January has been reserved to commemorate the birthday, life and legacy of one of the nation’s greatest leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King—a Baptist preacher, scholar, and arguably the greatest leader of the Civil Rights Movement, selflessly fought for the equal rights of not only African Americans, but all people.
In a time when Jim Crow and legal segregation were the law of the land, Dr. King became the face of a movement that sought to dismantle the institution of racial injustice. He advocated for persons in poverty, spoke against the Vietnam war, and worked to ensure that all Americans had equal rights and protections under the law. Nearly 50 years after Dr. King’s assassination, his legacy lives on.
Although MLK Day is a national holiday, the ways in which people choose to celebrate—or not—are endless. Many schools and organizations across the nation will have the day off and/or host an MLK Day program, while others may participate in a community service project or attend city-wide marches and rallies.
In Chicago, the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago will lead volunteers in organizing food for distribution to the Senior Food and Nutrition Program in partnership with Catholic Charities. In Kansas City, Missouri, Turn the Page KC will host a book give-away at Southeast Community Center. Atlanta, the hometown of Dr. King, will have many volunteer opportunities including the 7th Annual Street Team for Energy Efficiency and Climate Resilience, hosted by the Center for Sustainable Communities.
“I will be giving 15 keynote presentations at MLK events over the next two weeks.” says Erin Jones, a 25-year educator, public speaker, and former State Superintendent candidate of Washington State. “[However,] I would like to think I celebrate his birthday every single day by living my life devoted to equality and opportunity for all, especially those who are most vulnerable in our communities.”
Just Another Day Off?
As our nation continues to fight issues of social injustice and racial tension, many question whether or not the ideals memorialized on MLK Day—a day of peace and tolerance—hold true throughout the year.
“We need to understand as a country that what [Dr. King] fought for still needs to be fought for today,” says Thomas McElroy, long-time musician from Seattle Washington. “The path towards a country united under the principals he laid down for all of us still need to be worked on.”
So, the question becomes, does MLK Day hold any true meaning in present-day society? Or, has it been reduced to a day off from work and school?
According to Erin Jones, “We have turned the day into an opportunity to rehearse the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
“I can honestly say that, personally, I have never celebrated the holiday and have taken it as a vacation day,” says Elisabeth Scott, a recent college graduate of Western Washington University. “It wasn’t until going to my current church, that I participated in an MLK service. Had I not sung [during service], I probably wouldn’t have attended.”
However, Sergeant First Class Derek White, a 16-year member of the armed forces still sees the value in MLK Day, and what it means to the future of our society.
“I think that MLK being observed most definitely holds weight for both older and the younger generations. One way to ensure that our past does not repeat itself is by honoring people like Dr. King and his legacy and what he fought for and stood for.”
The Importance of Generational Knowledge
As an educator, Erin Jones argues that celebrating MLK Day does not have the same significance for young people today.
“Students have no context to understand the gravity of what Dr. King and his peers accomplished,” the educator says. “That being said, I believe it is our responsibility to communicate the value of this holiday, which is why I agreed to speak at so many schools.”
As a professional mentor to students, Jessica Crenshaw believes in giving back to the community, but admits that she does not celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day—for much different reasons.
“I do not celebrate MLK day as a holiday because I feel the significance of the day has been diminished,” Jessica says. “I feel it has been cheapened down for a “get-off-of-work-free card”.
For Jessica, authentic celebration of MLK Day should include not only service to the community, rallies, and celebration events, but should serve as a day to reflect and organize for long-term change.
“I feel as if people should really take time to reflect over what Dr. King was trying to accomplish, and actually sit down and have planning meetings to plan out actions to make sure that his dream gets fulfilled,” she says. “Concerts and protests are good, but if you don’t continue to do this work after January 16th then you’re not doing it for a real reason.”
by Fredrick Nzwili
(RNS) A retired Anglican bishop in northern Uganda is agitating for restorative justice – which emphasizes forgiveness and truth-telling over punishment – in a region where the wounds of a brutal war unleashed by the Lord’s Resistance Army persist.
Bishop Macleord Baker Ochola II, 84, has been responding to community concerns that the modern court system may not deliver justice for the people who suffered in the complex conflict.
In 1980s and ’90s, the LRA rebels, led by Joseph Kony, terrorized civilians in northern Uganda, abducting children and forcefully recruiting boys as soldiers and girls as sex slaves.
Kony turned child soldiers into killing machines against their own community.
By 2005, the LRA had abducted over 60,000 children and killed more than 100,000 people, while displacing 2.5 million people.
Ochola buried the dead, walked with returning child soldiers and at one point was forced into exile.
The conflict took a toll on his family. His wife died in 1997 after a land mine blast hit a car she was traveling in. Ten years earlier, his daughter committed suicide after being gang-raped by the rebels.
But Ochola has refused to remain bitter, choosing to promote peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation among his people.
“If there is no process of reconciliation, there is no healing, and if there is no healing there is no restoration and justice,” said Ochola, who served the Diocese of Kitgum. “Healing and restoration brings transformation of life for those affected.”
The International Criminal Court in The Hague indicted five top leaders of the rebel group in 2005.
Last month, it put on trial Dominic Ongwen, a 41-year-old former rebel commander who was abducted at age 10. He faces 70 charges, including murder, attempted murder, rape, torture, sexual slavery and forced marriage. He is the first former child soldier to appear before court.
“In the name of God, I deny all these charges,” Ongwen said in court.
Dominic Ongwen, center, a senior commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army, sits in the courtroom of the International Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on Dec. 6, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Peter Dejong/Pool
Ochola has been urging the court to carefully reconsider the circumstances under which children-turned-commanders were trapped in LRA captivity.
While he does not deny the court’s charges, he fears the court may not offer restorative justice but is seeking punishment or retribution. He is also concerned it will divide the community, which is in dire need of unity in the aftermath of LRA atrocities.
Like many other cultural and religious leaders in Uganda, he stresses a traditional justice system known as “Mato Oput,” which he thinks is more holistic.
Centered on forgiveness, it involves truth telling, compensation and a ritual in which food is shared and the accused drinks bitter herbs.
“It brings restoration to broken human relationships, transforms lives and heals the hearts of those involved,” said Ochola. “The court system, which is retributive, promotes polarization, alienating both sides.”
Mato Oput mirrors many of the forgiveness and reconciliation efforts central to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa and the Gacaca courts used in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.
Mato Oput is the justice system of the Acholi people of northern Uganda, the community most affected by the LRA conflict.
The LRA left northern Uganda in 2005 and is now believed to operate along the border region of the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“The LRA is still at large and they are still fighting … so we must continue with the work,” said Ochola.
In 1997, Ochola was one of the founders of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, an interfaith organization led by cultural and religious leaders that sought to peacefully end the LRA insurgency. ARLPI has been facilitating grass-roots and intercommunal reconciliation and peaceful coexistence.
One aspect of that is trying to help the government and LRA go through a process of truth telling.
“This would involve accepting full responsibility and making public acknowledgment of what one has done,” said Ochola.
One problem, he said, is the government’s lack of political will to dismantle the LRA.
In the case of Ongwen, Ochola had hoped the former rebel would be brought to the community for truth telling. Since that did not happen, Ongwen will likely refuse to accept responsibility.
“As a victim, he continues to be punished twice,” said Ochola.
Sheikh Musa Khalil, a northern Uganda Muslim leader and the ARLPI vice chairman, backs Ochola, saying that with Ongwen, the traditional system could have achieved more.
“It mirrors what is in the Quran and Bible,” said Khalil. “It’s based on forgiveness. We feel he should have been brought to us.”
The bishop believes a change is needed in the general wordview that when a child is abducted — as in the case of northern Uganda — he or she must take full responsibility in adulthood for any crimes committed while a captive.
“For northern Uganda,” he said, “this is wrong because the children had their humanity destroyed.”
(Fredrick Nzwili is a reporter based in Nairobi)
When spring semester begins at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Jewell Jones will be like most college seniors, finishing up credits and looking forward to graduation, with one exception: Jones recently made history when he became the youngest state representative ever elected in the state of Michigan.
While serving in your state legislature isn’t a common extracurricular activity for most undergraduates, Jones is not new to politics. He first made national headlines after becoming the youngest person elected to the city council in Inkster, MI. Now, at only 21 years old, the political science and business double major is making history again before crossing the stage.
Jones ran for the seat after the passing of Rep. Julie Plawecki, D-11, whom Jones knew personally and describes as “a very passionate and community-driven individual; someone, simply, with a warm heart.”
Jones first became engaged in community organizing and politics at a young age by attending events with his family and church. “I’ve been extremely active in my church, traveling all over the nation to visit our different Temples, and for as long as I can remember, being about service to the people,” Jones says. “[I went from] a drummer, to an usher, a nurse to a Junior Deacon, to now, a Senior Deacon. I’ve learned to offer a helping hand where it was needed, and ensure my brothers and sisters are taken care of!”
Juggling a budding political career with schoolwork can be hard, but Jones says he takes it all in stride, knowing he can’t be everywhere and focusing instead on where he can be. Outside of his political responsibilities, he’s also deeply involved in his school’s Black Student Union and Army ROTC. Despite the pressures, Jones says most have been supportive of his work, and one of his biggest keys to success is having a strong support system. Jones believes that “having someone in your corner” makes a world of difference.
“A robust and formidable support system allows one to navigate through life, much more rapidly,” he says, “and on a greater level as the team continues to grow.”
Known as the “Neighborhood Hope Dealer” to many, Jones hopes to bring more people—especially youth—into their communities to make a difference. It’s something he’s been passionate about since attending a Congressional Black Caucus conference in the nation’s capital a few years ago.
“There are plenty of opportunities [to be involved]—one can become a precinct delegate, or just a concerned citizen/community organizer with some sort of community organization, or simply behind an issue that they’re passionate about,” Jones explains. “Really, all it takes is getting off the sidelines. Start talking to people, and the door will be opened.”
This attitude toward community change has propelled Jones into the national spotlight and leadership roles in his community, where he intends to promote “the classic approach, through grassroots organizing and educating and expanding the electorate.” All of this comes at a time when politics in America couldn’t be more divisive, with tensions high across the nation, including Michigan. When asked about his advice on bridging gaps in the local community, Jones is optimistic and direct.
“Everyone’s experiencing the same issues,” Jones says. “We need to begin working together, lay it all out on the table, and bring the diversity of opinion and ideas to the forefront to make sure we are truly working for the betterment of society. We need to have more conversations, listening to understand, rather than listening to respond.”
Already, Jones has the mindset of a seasoned leader, and true to his new service position in state government, the representative-elect is most excited to meet new people, bring resources to his neighbors, and see the greater community succeed.
“In the future, I am looking forward to seeing the fruition of the movement that’s going on—young people are making huge strides.”
by Fredrick Nzwili
NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) Some Kenyan churches are demanding premarital HIV testing before weddings, a trend activists warn is infringing on the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS.
For some, it’s a quiet matter, with the couples privately told to check with a doctor or a clinic, but for others an HIV test is a mandatory requirement before the couples are joined in marriage.
Recently, some Pentecostal and evangelical groups have demanded strict adherence to the requirement, while Roman Catholic and most mainline Protestant churches tend to be less strict.
“The practice has become entrenched in many churches,” said Jane Ng’ang’a, coordinator of the Kenyan chapter of an international network of religious leaders living with HIV/AIDS. “While it is agreeable to advise a couple to take the test, our concern is the demand for a disclosure of the status is against the law. The challenge is that most church leaders do not know the law.”
During the past decade, new HIV infections in the largely Christian country have risen faster than in any other in sub-Saharan country, according to a study by the Global Burden of Disease collaborative.
Last year, over 1.8 million Kenyans were living with the HIV virus, which, if left untreated, can lead to AIDS. Nearly 39 percent of those were using life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs, a rate below the regional average rate of 43 percent.
Ten years ago, the country passed a law banning HIV tests as a precondition for marriage. The law warns against breaching confidentiality and disclosing individual statuses without consent.
But Ng’ang’a said the network was recently alarmed after it found out that some churches were breaching confidentiality after receiving the tests.
“Some tests were kept in open files that could easily be scrutinized by anyone,” she said. “We see this as a new form of stigma and discrimination for those with HIV and AIDS.”
The clergy who demand the HIV tests say they are driven by a desire to protect their members from HIV and AIDS. They say the church needs to help nurture healthy families and prevent divorce, disease and death.
“A HIV test is mandatory for any couple planning to wed in our church,” said the Rev. Solomon Mwalili of the Free Pentecostal Fellowship in Kenya. “I think it’s for general good — for the two involved and the family they plan to raise.”
Pentecostal pastor James Kyalo of the Machakos region, 40 miles from the capital Nairobi, said his church demands two HIV tests: the first when the couple seeks to start the wedding process; then six months later.
He said the church members have never protested or complained about the requirement.
Some pastors say couples should know the test results if they plan to rear children. Once they know they are infected, for example, they can seek advice from doctors on how to care for themselves and how to live in the community.
The Rev. Patrick Lihanda, superintendent of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, said that when one of the couples is HIV-positive, they do not ask the couple to split, but instead advise them how to live together.
“HIV is a reality and we cannot bury our heads in the sand,” said Lihanda. “When we find out that one of couple is infected, we counsel them and marry them. I think that’s the best thing to do, since they are in love.”
The Rev. Wellington Mutiso, an official with the Baptist Convention of Kenya, said many Baptist churches do not demand the test, since most couples have already engaged in premarital sex before the church wedding.
Like Baptists, mainline churches find the demand for the test discriminatory and an obstacle in the fight against the epidemic.
“A certificate or a test is not important for us, since anyone can contract HIV,” said Anglican Bishop Julius Kalu of the Mombasa Diocese. “The virus does not also mean one cannot live a full life. Even in cases of HIV, the couple can still live together.”
(Fredrick Nzwili is an RNS correspondent based in Nairobi)