The Courage to Dream: 
Celebrating the Vision of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“The forces that threaten to negate life must be challenged by courage, which is the power of life to affirm itself in spite of life’s ambiguities.  This requires the exercise of a creative will that enables us to hew out a stone of hope from a mountain of despair.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today marks the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech which was delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.  Interestingly enough, the speech he gave was not the speech he had prepared to give.  Part of the lore surrounding this iconic speech is that Dr. King extemporaneously delved into the dream portion of the speech after his friend, Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, shouted, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” He followed this prompting despite the fact that some of his advisors felt strongly he should not talk about that “dream stuff”, going so far as to call it “trite” and “cliché.”

I am awed by this.  I can’t imagine the kind of courage it must have taken to go “off script” and ignore one’s handlers while speaking to 250,000 people who were hot, tired, and already starting to wander away from the rally. Not to mention the fact that it was an historic event that was being televised around the world!  But that was not only one kind of courage in evidence on that day.

Dreaming in the Dark
It takes courage to dream dreams and cast vision for something that others are not quite able to see yet.  It takes courage to stand for something that other well-meaning folks—including other Christians and fellow clergy—think is wrong.

It takes courage to “go public” with a dream that has been born in places as tender and private as the dream that, “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character.”

It takes courage to allow a vision to incubate in the depths of one’s own soul—that place where God’s Spirit witnesses with our spirits about things that are true—and then to offer it up as light for the world when it feels like darkness is closing in.

It takes courage to know what you know and to act on it, regardless of the fact that you may well lose your life in service of this dream. It takes courage to dream anyway, knowing that to stop dreaming would be a different kind of death.

Celebrating the Dream
Today, let us celebrate the courage it takes to dream. Let us commemorate a dream that is as powerful and needed today as it was in 1963.  Today—in the midst of alarming racial tensions, tragic loss of life, and violent unrest between nations and peoples—we celebrate a minister of the Gospel who, in spite of fear and reluctance, rose to the occasion on a sweltering August day. With strength of soul and the courage of his convictions, he preached the good news of human dignity and equality for all God’s children in words and images so real and compelling we could all see it together.

If we are honest, we must acknowledge (painfully) that the dream Dr. King and so many others have dreamed has not yet been fully accomplished; we are still in the throes of learning what makes for peace across lines of race, gender, socioeconomic status and religious differences. But it is also true that we are farther along than if he had not dared to dream.

As we continue to grieve recent tragedies and experience profound disillusionment, may his courage give us courage to keep dreaming and praying yes, but also working for respect, forbearance and equality among all people. Dr. King’s voice rings as needed and true today as it did over fifty years ago, “So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream!”

©Ruth Haley Barton. 2014. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Top image: By Unknown? [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest (Oct 2022).
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Beautiful piece Ruth and thank you. Sometimes the dream creeps forward in such baby steps that we want to question the validity and if we are really aligned with Abba’s purpose. As Proverbs so readily expresses – trust in the Lord with all your heart … lean not on your own understanding …. Acknowledge Him in all our ways and He will make our paths straight. When doubt has crept into our thinking, we need some fresh grace and to trust and obey. Easily stated but not so easy to do. I’m hoping to see some mountains moved soon both in my personal visions and across the Kingdom.

So true! And thank you…another Proverb I love is “Where there is no vision the people perish.” I take that quite literally!

As I read this, the words jumped off the screen, as if you [and God!] were speaking just to me. It does take courage to speak truth, even when others don’t see it yet. Thank you for posting this!

It also requires a special kind of courage to take steps that will bring persecution on others (those close to you and others you don’t even know)… it wasn’t just his own life he was risking when asking people to take a stand with him! A true test of leadership. And King led by example, not just preaching.

I agree. One of the things that is so stirring about King’s life and witness is that he (by his own admission) was not a naturally courageous person. He experienced real fear, as any of us would in his situation. It was one thing for him to risk everything for the dream; it was quite another to ask others to do the same and watch them suffer. Because his relationship with God was so real, he was able to be strengthened by God in the midst of fear and threat. This is one of the things that inspires me most about his life…

It always takes courage to stand up for the oppressed and marginalized! We are standing against the mainstream and threatening status quo of the powers at hand. It is risky and daring; but we know we have God with us. God always stands with the oppressed, the downtrodden, the marginalized. This is His heart. If we want to live His dream for His Church, we have to stand with Him, at all costs! God is faithful!

Yes, one of the ways we can know that Christ is being formed in us-for real–is when we are willing stand with those he loves, even when it costs us. May God give us the wisdom to discern what that means for each of us in our own settings.

Let’s remember and dream for the future. Preach it, sister!

I love the question, but I am discouraged that I don’t have any answers. Please share you ideas.

Find an African American Pastor to reach out to. Tell him that you have felt like God is speaking to you about this (if he truly is). Then offer to let him to teach you about the African American Church and the African American Community in your context. Be humble, be sincere, be willing to learn and join together with all God’s children in the advance of the Kingdom of God. God Bless you, Fr. Terry+

Amen to this piece, thank you! The Lord has planted some dreams of “doing pastoral ministry differently” in my heart for a long while, and I feel like a smoldering wick, almost put out, as many things scream against it. I will take courage to keep dreaming with my eyes on the Kingdom of Jesus, the world that Dr. King must have had his eyes on, a world without Jew, Greek, white or black.

And may all of God’s people say, “Amen!” Great tribute; thank you.

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