Tomorrow the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. About a quarter million people — including members of the Georgetown community — congregated on the National Mall in 1963 for what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” Tomorrow, we will commemorate this historic moment on the Hilltop. At 3 p.m., the bells of Healy will peal, joining a chorus of church bells across the country. Shortly after, students will read King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of Healy.
Reflecting on Dr. King’s words, we can assess how far we have come in 50 years and how much more we need to do to realize the dream of racial equality, on campus and off. These are conversations particularly suitable for a Jesuit university where educating for justice is central to its animating spirit.
The most memorable part of the speech — the refrain, “I have a dream…” — was not in the prepared text. Dr. King had used that litany before, but he had not planned to sketch the dream during that hot August day on the Mall. However, in the midst of the speech, Mahalia Jackson, his favorite gospel singer, shouted from behind him on the stage, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” Dr. King continued following the text. Jackson persisted, “Tell them about the dream!” He paused, pushed the text to the side, grabbed the podium and spoke from the heart, voicing “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
Dr. King called his listeners to embrace “the fierce urgency of now,” not to postpone the dream for another day. Yet, to seize the moment, we need something to guide us, and that is where the dream comes in. Amid all of the challenges that come with making the dream a reality, the dream inspires thought, action and hope.
Once we understand the transformative power of dreams, we can more easily appreciate how, in the biblical tradition, God speaks to human beings through dreams. Far from flights of fancy, dreams can reveal the Divine. In the Jesuit tradition, dreams are central. St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, was a dreamer by nature. A Basque coming of age in Spain in the early 1500s, the passionate Ignatius was a romantic at heart. Convinced that he was meant to serve the royal court and enamored with the chivalry of the day, he threw himself into a losing battle against the French at Pamplona.
After he was hit in the legs by a cannonball, Ignatius convalesced at his family home for months. Stuck in bed, he had only two books to read: a version of the lives of the saints and a popular rendition of the life of Christ. Books in hand, Ignatius dreamed. As he imagined the courtly life he had dreamed of since his youth, he noticed that his initial excitement quickly receded. In contrast, as he imagined a life of simplicity, prayer and service, as Christ and the saints had lived, Ignatius experienced a deep interior joy that lingered. Noting the difference, he tried out the new life he dreamed about, leaving behind the family castle and his former ambitions. The road was long, but the dream kept him going. Along the way, he experienced more visions and dreams that he discerned were inspired by God. These imaginings led him to Rome, where he founded the Society of Jesus.
From his own experience, Ignatius learned that God works not simply through our thinking and remembering but also through our imagining and dreaming. In our hurried and practical age, dreaming can be too easily dismissed as a waste of time. But Dr. King, as well as St. Ignatius, teaches us about the power of dreams to bring the future not yet our own into the reach of the present.
We all have dreams of some sort. Thank God that Mahalia Jackson urged Dr. King to share the dream 50 years ago. Perhaps we too need to hear the same summons to share our dream. “Tell them about the dream!” we hear. At that moment, we face the choice of Dr. King at his podium and St. Ignatius in his sickbed: to stick to the script or to risk voicing — and then living — a dream that can transform the world.
Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., is the vice president of mission and ministry. AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT … appears every other Tuesday.