LaThelma C. Armstrong ’09 was the featured speaker at this year’s Martin Luther King Day celebration on Monday, January 18. She is the minister of Worship and Music at the NextGen Church, West Windsor, N.J. Armstrong is also studying for her Master of Divinity/Master of Arts in Christian Education at the Princeton Theological Seminary, a special four-year program designed to give graduate students a special emphasis on teaching and young adult ministries. Here is her speech:
I remember sitting in your seat, eagerly awaiting the start of the MLK (Martin Luther King) Day ceremony. I was excited about MLK Day because I knew that it would be the one time that my experience, my history, the Black experience would be shared publically at Culver.
Year after year, I was disappointed. My friends and I sat around and talked about how our struggle was minimized. We heard about forgiveness, community and the human race. But no one wanted to talk about the hard stuff. The evil, the pain, and the hatred that made it so necessary for Dr. King to sacrifice his life for justice to begin with.
My perpetual disappointment was a consequence of a society that likes to see itself as post-racial and colorblind but still requires us to check a box to identify our race or ethnicity. My perpetual disappointment was the result of a society that does not want to admit that it is sick with many diseases called patriarchy, racism, homophobia, classism, and neo-colonialism. I was disappointed because no one wanted to admit that there was a problem.
I will confess, I was very nervous about coming back to speak on MLK Day because I was afraid that my truth might be misinterpreted or misunderstood. However, I am reminded of the audacious words of Dr. King in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize speech. He stated, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word IN reality.” So I have come here today with unarmed truth and unconditional love. I speak my truth today because I want the institution that I love so much, the world that I live in to be remembered for what it has overcome rather than what it has avoided.
Dr. King is one of the most prolific and courageous leaders known to humankind. I will even dare to say that he is also the most convenient. His words make us feel good. His words give us hope. Who does not like to hear declarations about truth and love? Well, to be honest, I am tired of hearing these empty, “feel good” declarations. Many of us born into the age of technology believe that love isn’t really official unless its Facebook official or love is worthless unless it is paired with a hashtag and twelve heart emoji’s.
As black feminist writer Bell Hooks reminds us, “if love stood in front of us, most of us would not be able to recognize it. In our world, we cannot recognize love because we are not used to seeing it. In the world that we live in, lovelessness is more common than love. So much so that many of us are not even sure what we mean when we talk of love or how to express it. Our society has mystified love to this abstract intangible thing that no one can define and only a few of us can experience.”
In Diane Ackerman’s book A Natural History of Love, she states “Everyone admits that love is wonderful and necessary, yet no one can agree on what it is. We use the word love in such a sloppy way that it can mean almost nothing or absolutely everything.”
Do not get me started on truth. When we talk about truth. Whose truth are we speaking of? Your truth or my truth? Truth is, you won’t REALLY understand the value of truth until someone lies to you. You cannot really understand the true significance of honesty until you are betrayed. Despite the ambiguity of these all too familiar terms, we can all conclude that we cannot have one without the other. Without truth there is no love. Without love there can be no truth.
We have gathered here today to celebrate advocates for action focusing on the way Dr. King gathered “allies” around the globe to promote justice. I believe that Dr. King’s success can be contributed to his ability to speak to the “soul” of humanity. Despite your social class, race or ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation, Dr. King understood that from the moment we are alive, we are bound to be concerned about love. As Christian existentialists Thomas Merton tells us, “love is not something that just happens to us, it is a certain special way of being alive.”
Dr. King’s dream is a clarion call for love. We do not need more advocates. We need more lovers. Many people become advocates because it rids them of guilt or they are looking for more meaning in their lives. However, “the meaning of our life is a secret that can only be revealed to us in love by those that we love.” We should clothe ourselves in love because it binds us together in perfect unity. Love does not allow us to look upon our differences as causes for separation and suspicion. But love demands that we take our differences and make them strengths and forces of change. Be a lover rather than simply an advocate.
Dr. King believed in love because he knew that love demanded community. Without community there is no liberation. He knew that we could not fully become human until we give ourselves to each other in love. Love will not allow us to be apathetic and remain in our bubble when Black and Brown girls and boys our age are being criminalized and murdered because of the color of their skin. Love will not allow us to remain silent when our histories and stories are not represented in our school’s core curriculum. Love requires us to hold our school accountable when it prides itself of being a diverse campus bringing students from all over the globe but neglects to bring that same diversity to its faculty and staff.
What most people do not understand about love is that love starts with you. Genuine love is a personal revolution. Genuine love is what shapes our truth. Love does not allow us to hold truths that do not lead to the flourishing of all of humanity. ‘Love takes our ideas, our desires, and our actions and welds them together in one experience and one living reality which is a new us.’
Your journey as a lover can begin today. When you matriculated through Logansport Gate, you made a commitment to become a servant leader. You made a commitment to receive an education that has more to do with it than conventional learning. Culver provided me an education that offered no degree. Culver taught me how to save my own ‘soul’, Culver taught me how to be a lover. It is the leadership training at Culver that I received seven years ago that fuels my courage to challenge our tendency to be problem and conflict avoidant.
Look around you. Look at the person next you. There are Black lives that need to know that they matter right here. There are LGBTQ lives that need to know that they matter right here. I know that there are people here who feel invisible that need to hear that they matter and that they are seen. Be that person to tell them that they matter. Be the person to ask them their truth. Be the person to love them. Only then will we truly understand the power and necessity of unarmed truth and unconditional love.
The above tribute video was produced by the Culver’s Diversity Council.