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Reflections of Marthin Luther King, Jr\'s Dream--Winston Nguyen

Reflections of Marthin Luther King, Jr's Dream

February 24, 2004

Winston Nguyen, Episcopal High School in Bellaire, TX


I love three-day weekends. This past Monday was dedicated to the observance of the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King said, "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?" and in this respect Episcopal traditionally sponsors a school-wide service day on our holiday from school.

On Monday, a group of Episcopal students and I boarded our school bus, lovingly referred to as the Episco-bus, and drove out to Glendale Park Apartments. Glendale is where many of Houston's newly arrived refugees are resettled: Afghanis, Liberians, Somalis?all juxtaposed within the expanse of the complex. This was the day we were going to take the most recently arrived refugees to the zoo. We invited them to spend the day with us and they resoundingly said, "Yes!" We filled our bus and headed for the zoo.

The bus was packed, but remarkably, the ride there couldn't have been better. All the kids were reasonably quiet and we arrived at the zoo without a hitch. We proceeded to search for the lions and the tigers and the bears. The most remarkable thing was that no one got lost from his or her group.

The problem came on the ride back. When they had first boarded the bus to depart for the zoo, they sat in the order that they had gotten on the bus. But when they boarded the bus to depart from the zoo, things changed. The Somalis, the Liberians?the refugees from Africa all sat in one half; the Afghanis, the Pakistanis?the Middle Eastern refugees all sat in the other.

Halfway back to Glendale, Zebulah, a blind boy from Afghanistan, got up from his seat and started yelling. The kids in the back were being loud?too loud for him?and he wanted them to "shut up."

Do you remember the last time you were on a school bus? No one was going to be anything but loud.

The bus was crowded, and you could almost feel the tension. The African refugees didn't like how the Middle Eastern refugees were different from them. The Middle Eastern refugees didn't like how the African refugees were different from them.

It wasn't long until a fight broke out right in the middle of the bus.

With such a full load, I was the only volunteer on the bus aside from the driver. Not knowing what else to do, I climbed over the smallest of the kids at the front of the bus and I just placed myself in the middle of the aisle, on what could be called an imaginary border between Africa and the Middle East, right between the fighting. Quite luckily for me, they all quieted down and some semblance of order was returned for the remainder of the trip home.

After we had dropped everyone off, the ride back to school was quiet. I laid down across the seats and I had a chance to think. Refugees come to America to escape persecution; refugees come to America with the promise of its being the land of the free; free from discrimination, free from prejudice. America is supposed to be the great melting pot?or to be more politically correct, a great big tossed salad, where everyone maintains their unique identity. But does the reality meet the refugee's dream?

These refugees have just fled from countries where racial and religious discrimination had put their very lives in danger, and here they were in the Land of the Free doing the same thing to others.

Or speaking of dreams, what about Dr. King's? His dream that, "[his] four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

The question is not whether this day has come. Clearly, it hasn't?not entirely. Not if a black student wanders the cafeteria without a place to sit because no one is willing to let them pull up a chair; not if people still laugh at jokes about Jewish people; not if coaches threaten their baseball players by calling them girls; not if high schoolers say to each other, "that's retarded" or "that's so gay." No, the question isn't whether this day has come, the question is "What can we do to hasten the advent of this new day?"

It's not enough to say, "Oh, the refugees don't get along, we need to fix them." It's not enough to think, "Oh, all the black kids separate themselves from everyone at lunch, we need to fix them."

While I was at the Student Diversity Leadership Conference in Hawai'i, I had the privilege of hearing Lani Guinier speak about diversity. Ms. Guinier is the first black female law professor at Harvard University, and when she spoke to us in Honolulu, she presented the Miner's Canary analogy.

When miners are working in deep tunnels, they bring a canary with them. If the atmosphere is bad, they can see it because the canary gets sick. If we look at this problem the same way many people look at problems with diversity, the answer would just be to fix the canary. Give it a little respirator. But it's not the canary that needs to be fixed; it's the atmosphere. It's not that the refugees or the minority students at our schools need to be fixed. Something about the way we approach diversity needs to be changed. I can't tell you exactly what it is or how exactly to fix it, but I can tell you what I've seen it do.

Now here's the metaphor. We have chapel every day at Episcopal, and every good homily has a metaphor.

We are all refugees. Each one of us is seeking freedom from oppression, freedom from prejudices. We want to be judged by our character, not by our appearance.

We are all riding on the same bus. In this respect, we all have the same goals. We all have to cohabit the same world.

But what do we do when we see injustice? What do we do when we witness hatred, injury, discord, doubt, despair, darkness, sadness?

Re-place yourself. Re-place yourself in the middle of the bus aisle. Re-place yourself as the instrument of peace. Re-place yourself as the person willing to say "pull up a chair," or "that's not funny." Dr. King said, "I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him."

Re-place yourself. It's safer to ride a bus if you're sitting in a seat, but sometimes, you have to be able to stand in the aisle for what you believe in. Humanity as a race should strive for what it ought to be, not settle for what it is.