Building the Beloved Community

“Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In the early part of the 20th century a philosopher and theologian named Josiah Royce first coined the term, “The Beloved Community.” It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who developed that term often and gave it a much deeper meaning. Dr. King’s “Beloved Community” is a global vision in which all people can share the wealth of the earth. It is a community where violence, racism, poverty, hunger and homelessness; where all the ills that currently exist in our society will no longer be tolerated.

In the “Beloved Community” hatred and prejudice of all kinds will be replaced with a willingness to transcend whatever are our differences and work together in a spirit of cooperation. In the Beloved Community we are inspired to be curious about and accepting of the differences among us rather than looking at each other with suspicion and fear.

The foundation of the beloved community is love; not the emotional, filial or erotic kind of love that we most often think of, but agape, a spiritual love written of in the Bible, a love that approaches the other with dignity and respect, while continuing to stand strong to one’s principles and ideals. It is a love that will carry on no matter what happens.

Dr. King spoke often about withstanding all manner of violence with love. That might seem weak or sappy, and appear that we are giving in to oppression. But he is clear, that agape is the most powerful expression of our faithfulness to our religious calling, to creating the “Beloved Community,” the world that we dream of.

He writes, “It is a love in which the individual seeks not his/her own good, but the good of the neighbor. Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all.”

Agape stands up to violence and oppression by lifting up a mirror so that all can see the brutality and cruelty. Agape, over time will wear down even the greatest hostility with its powerful presence as it gives the world a new vision of peace, understanding and compassion.

When a friend, Mark, was in college he worked as a parking lot attendant at a Los Angeles beach. The job entailed sitting in one of those little booths taking in money and he often had to make bank deposits late at night. It was a situation that didn’t always feel comfortable. The people that checked in with him, helped break his isolation and made him feel safe were the homeless folks who knew the people and the area well. One of them, Annie, was known to sometimes break into cars parked on the street to sleep. She was also one of those incredibly kind souls who would come by to chat and make sure he was doing OK.

One evening Annie came up to him looking like she was messed up and asked whether she could borrow some money to get something to eat. He gave her five dollars without any expectation that she would be able to pay him back. He was happy to help her out, feeling good that he had been able to repay some of the kindness that she had showed him. One day, some months later, Annie showed up and gave him whole bag full of change. He realized that she had put aside money from her panhandling to pay him back the five dollars that he had given her.

We all know stories of people who give something of themselves to a stranger or friend, people who do not pass by someone in need. Maybe the stories are about us and the extra little bit we do for someone else. We might do it out of our convictions and ideals. We might do it as a spiritual practice, a discipline that keeps us from being too self-focused. Whatever our reasons, we soon realize that we are doing it for ourselves as much as for the other person, that the benefit we derive from that connection offers us incredible blessings that carry us through our own times of struggle.

The story of Annie and Mark may seem less important when we see some of the horrendous issues that sometimes face our lives. Living the agape of the Beloved Community, though, begins with the small ways that we go beyond ourselves to open our hearts to others. Annie and Mark built a bond that transcended the barriers of race, class and gender, a bond based on mutual respect and understanding. All life would be blessed if we could do the same.

Rev. Arthur Lavoie is the minister at First Parish Church in Dorchester.