Listen to Austin 360 Radio

A generation finding unity as Martin Luther King dreamed it

Terry Dawson, Special to the American-Statesman
This photo was taken 10 years ago for an Epiphany performance. {Terry Dawson]

Martin Luther King Jr. Day arrived exactly two weeks after the feast of Epiphany the first month of 2020. My daughter, just before Christmas, forwarded me a 10-year-old photo taken on the one holiday. It immediately upon viewing brought to mind the other.

Dr. King is remembered for his dream —one envisioning “little black girls ... holding hands with little white boys.” The picture staring back at me from my iPhone captured the diverse members of our church youth group as they posed in elegant costumes. I'd borrowed the garments from a congregation of means on the west side of town. In minutes these teens would enter our sanctuary to perform the musical comedy I’d written — one based on the Gospel's only reference to Magi from the East.

It might have been the glare of morning or the sudden motion of the actors that produced the blur infecting the image. It appeared as if those gathered comprised a single bright organism. An aura emanated from each character to merge with their neighbor's and upon every face a broad smile broke. Yet this hardly reflected the group's mood in the days leading up to the performance.

Millennials, it's been suggested, do not as a rule “go along to get along”. To be fair, the blues and jazz ditties I'd asked these youth to sing and play were not part of their contemporary play lists. Half the jokes of this comedy they failed to get. Even when I assured them that the Boomer-rich congregation would, they remained suspicious. They mumbled and forgot their lines. Easily distracted, they missed cues, often seeking escape in their hand-held devices. Tempted to throw in the towel more than once, I half expected on the day of the play that some would pull a no-show.

Yet come Sunday, all appeared — some still complaining. Yet as they slipped into their glitzy duds, their demeanor changed. I picked up the camera my daughter thought to bring to record the moment before hastily going on with the show.

Blessedly, the Boomers laughed on cue. The actors delivered most of their lines at the right time. These teens rocked the tunes I assigned and the adults at final bow gave them a standing ovation. Still, Dr. King would have saluted their rebellion. In their resistance as well as their compliance they remained united. The fact that they came from differing backgrounds — Caribbean, Nigerian, Latino, African American and white — never entered the equation.

As I examined the snapshot of that day, I considered how those pictured represented the class we called "Journey to Adulthood." All entered college; some graduate study. One was now a doctor, one a pharmacist, three successful actors of stage and screen, two teachers, one a baker, one entered business. Two married, one now raises a child. One became a competitive cyclist and two brothers together hiked the Continental Divide. The shepherd in dreadlocks who'd played bass to my lead guitar gave his own TED Talk in time. One sadly on the very next New Years Eve would literally go up in flames. His body in the photo hauntingly fades into radiance.

We as a group, therefore, shoulder a pall of sadness we seldom mention. On rare reunions, no one ever dismisses me with a derisive “OK Boomer." I, in turn, refrain from suggesting their resemblance to "snowflakes." I rather wait to see what each will next invent in a world deeply in need of invention.

Singed by the differences of race and generation — by tragedy that unavoidably comes, we remember how an epiphany once found us. It revealed that in draping ourselves in the fabric of expectation we begin “living the dream” — the dream of one who died that we might hold hands — hands whose varied pigments matter less and less as we blur together into brilliant light.

Terry Dawson is an ordained Presbyterian minister and former adjunct faculty member of San Francisco Theological Seminary.