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Still called to the Dream

As joyful events bring people close together, grief also draws families, friends and neighbors to one another.

At 3 p.m. Aug. 24, the parish hall at St. Therese Little Flower Catholic Church in Kansas City bustled with nearly 200 mourners arriving from Samir Clark’s memorial service at Zion Grove Missionary Baptist Church. A week earlier, the 19-year-old college student’s life was shortened by a bullet as he and his cousin responded to a woman’s cry to help hide her kids from a gunman. Samir’s mother, grandmother, aunt and uncle are members of St. Therese Little Flower, the reason the church hosted the luncheon to comfort the grieving families and friends.

Samir was Kansas City’s 70th homicide this year, one of several on the east side of the town within weeks. Kansas City’s 63rd homicide of 2011 occurred on Aug. 3 across the street from the church. A year earlier, two men exchanged shots in broad daylight a few yards away from the church; one of them died.

The news saddened me because in late 1960s, I was a young mom raising my firstborn near Swope Park. My family album is full of photos of my younger self with my infant daughter, who’s now 42. Also, the Landing at 63rd Street and Troost Avenue had been a convenient neighborhood shopping center with Macy’s Department Store, Woolworth, restaurants and the brightly colored Noah’s Ark fountain in the open court, which attracted children of all ages.

The atmosphere at the luncheon for Samir was memorable, although the heat was oppressive in the hall, which didn’t have central air conditioning, A few white ladies ushered black guests to tables and served them drinks, too. The pastor, a white priest, was busily moving about, greeting guests with handshakes or hugs, making sure fans were working properly and delivering paper fans to the guests when the heat was unbearable. A few black children and white children in their Sunday best were chasing one another, giggling as well. Black guests and white guests were sharing the same tables, talking about the young man they had loved dearly.

Countless hugs were exchanged between black and white mourners. Tears of grief and sorrow were shed from blue, green and brown eyes. Words of condolence were expressed over and over by everyone.

I couldn’t help but think of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had changed the world with his “I have a dream” speech nearly a half century earlier:

I have a dream; that one day the sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be together at the table of brotherhood…; I have a dream; that one day little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.… We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites only…”

Kansas City has come a long way since King spoke those powerful words. Nowhere in Kansas City do we see a sign that reads, “Whites only.” Like in this parish hall, white and black people are together at the table of brotherhood at the roadside café or even at McDonald’s. Children of white, black, yellow and copper skin play innocently together at public parks.

But why isn’t the world better? Everyone in that parish hall seemed to be asking that: Why so many senseless killings? How long must we live in fear? Who will be next?

A black lady in her mid-50s who sat next to me blamed parents of teens for the ongoing crimes in the area. She said, “People don’t care about their kids anymore... Kids can do whatever they want... See that lady over there? She was a schoolteacher but she quit because kids don’t respect anyone.”

I see another side of the coin. The parents might not have learned to respect themselves or others when they were kids, perhaps due to bitterness and hatred that had been passed on from earlier generations. Also, once a child reaches puberty, he or she looks for higher authority than that of their parents.

This is when a man like King can step into their lives and lift their spirits with his powerful lines, “We must conduct our struggle on the higher plane of dignity and discipline…We must not abuse the freedom… Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights…Now is the time!”

The Rev. Martin Luther King has not died, not really. He’s still calling Americans — young and old, white and black, rich and poor — from the recently installed Stone of Hope in Washington D.C., to march with him to the Promised Land.