On this day that we celebrate the fierce love of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am thinking of my uncle Benedict and my sister Mary. Two people who, as King did, chose love.
In a virtual memorial last January, I said goodbye to my uncle, Benedict Taylor. He lived 88 wondrous years and served all of his life in Harlem, on Malcolm X Boulevard. He was the 10th Black American to be ordained a priest in the history of the Catholic Church of the USA.
He once told me about his work in the ’60s. He had resisted the idea of joining King’s marches. He said, “I fought with the idea of joining Martin Luther King’s marches, but Dr. King came to Harlem.” That was when the Secular Franciscan Order awarded King a Peace Medal in New York City. “I participated at that award dinner,” my uncle said, “and expressed my regret to Dr. King that I hadn’t taken part in his work. He responded by saying, ‘The work of peace and justice must also be done within the community. This way, it will last.’ ”
When it was time for me to go to college my freshman year, my uncle called. He wanted to assure me and my mother that I would be safe and cared for if I left California for the Pacific Northwest. He told me there were people who were unfriendly, but that they were far outnumbered by those who are loving. “Stay close to those who choose love,” he advised.
Come winter break, when the Spokane cold set in and the Gonzaga University campus closed for winter break, I couldn’t afford to go home. As a Black student at a predominantly white college, I didn’t feel comfortable telling anyone that. I had no idea that all facilities would close, including the residence halls, so I found a house on campus to stow away in for a few days until campus opened again. The students who ordinarily lived in the house were away for the break, so I made my way in through an unlocked window. I was alone until Christmas morning, when a man entered the house and found me there. I later learned that he had a practice of bringing doughnuts on Christmas morning to whoever remained on campus. It was Stan Fairhurst who found me there alone and took notice. I spent every holiday thereafter with his family.
I eventually met Mary, Stan’s daughter, who lived in the home I had hidden in that Christmas. Though we are different colors and came from vastly different backgrounds, both with siblings of our own, she soon referred to me as her brother. Mary was a prelaw student then, but she became a Washington state Supreme Court Chief Justice.
Two notable cases came before the court when Mary was a Supreme Court Justice. In a challenge to the death penalty in Washington state, Mary wrote the majority opinion overturning capital punishment. The second case concerned gay marriage. She dissented from the majority, which voted to uphold the gay-marriage ban. As other legal experts, including the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, had done, she reasoned that the equal protection clause of the Constitution requires that same-sex couples have the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples, including the right to marry.
In a recent interview about those decisions, Mary said, “Why not put out loving and caring and gratitude? You have a choice, you get to decide — every day, every moment — how you’re going to show up in the world. How you show up makes a difference for good or for bad. I choose good.”
On Dec. 28, Mary died. In her final days, Mary let me know that she wanted her brother there. More than 40 years after stowing away in her house, I visited her home in Olympia. We spoke of her father and my mother. Both had passed. We discussed our love of chocolate and basketball. I hugged my sister Mary, thanked her for choosing love and said goodbye.
When I was lost, I stowed away in Mary’s house, then stayed “close to those who choose love,” as my uncle had advised — and that changed my life.
As a child I said goodbye to Martin Luther King Jr. but held on to his belief that “Love is the greatest force in the universe … the heartbeat of the moral cosmos.” On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it seems I am again and again saying goodbye to people I love, as so many of us have had to do during this hard time. I understand now that I have little time to fight about what we as a people do or do not have in common. I choose to embrace the mystery, wonder and wisdom of those who choose to love well.