BY MADDIE MURPHY | February 21, 2018
On the celebration of the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I left my service site and went home to promptly read one of my favorite writings from King, the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Every time I read this letter, something new resonates with me. I have been encountering this letter somewhat regularly since I was in high school, but this was my first time reacquainting myself with King’s passionate words as a Jesuit Volunteer. This time, King’s words on extremism touched my spirit and rooted themselves deeply in my heart and mind. King had been called an extremist by those that did not understand his desire for immediate action for racial justice. They meant this label of extremist to be an insult; King chose to wear it proudly.
Extremism is usually regarded with negative connotations – we often apply it to people who hold ideologies that we deem to be dangerous or hateful. But King saw two sides to extremism. He asks in his letter, “Was not Jesus an extremist for love?” When I reflect upon this I cannot answer anything but a resounding “yes.” Jesus sought radical community – the undesirables of society were welcomed into intentional community with God, the most desirable. There is nothing moderate about that kind of love for one another, and King sought to carry on that love as justice work through a movement bent on bringing racial justice, and thus radical, loving community and unity. “So the question,” King states in his letter, “is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”
When reflecting on this passage and the idea of the radical community rooted in love that Christ carried out in the stories of the New Testament, I cannot help but think of Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest’s intention and theme for the 2017-2018 service year: “extending the table.” The act of extending the table, of inviting in and embracing the personhood and company of another, requires that one become an extremist for love. Love in and of itself is pure justice work. Injustice, rooted in hate extremism, seeks to divide us. Justice rooted in radical love seeks to tear down the barriers dividing us, bringing us as physical and spiritual entities together in a space revolutionized by love and justice. As JVs, we are told to be extremists for love, to extend the table. But what I have come to learn is that we will meet extremists for love in the most unlikely of places and, in the most surprising and blessed of ways, will have tables extended to us as well.
I have been brought into this extreme love at my placement in a myriad of ways. I serve at a harm reduction residence for adults who were previously experiencing homelessness and suffer from alcohol and/or drug addiction. They are the “have-nots,” of our society: addiction is still vilified and homelessness is still looked down upon as being dangerous and deserved, and according to society standards, as a privileged, educated, white woman, I am not supposed to share a table with my clients, just as Jesus was not supposed to share his table with tax-collectors and lepers. But he did. If the hateful sins of society had their way, I would never laugh with, cry with, joke with, or share space with my clients. But I do, and in seeking community with them I have been graced with love.
I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas Day with my clients, and in both scenarios I physically and spiritually shared tables with them over holiday meals. In many ways this may seem like I was fulfilling the ’17-18 JV intention of extending the table, but in reality I was on the receiving end of this grace and was embraced by this extreme love. I was in their home; they allowed me into their community on special days usually reserved only for the innermost circles of loved ones. I could have been turned away, or even politely ignored. But I wasn’t. Rather, I was fully embraced, and even complimented for my table decorating of white linens and candles, a simple addition honoring the specialness of the community we all shared. I felt love and justice in ways I had never encountered before, because I had been brought in by people who had encountered so much hate, but had found the resilience and powerful capacity to love fiercely and freely.
So yes, we as JVs are called to become extremists for love. We are called in this very special year to seek new ways to extend our table, to choose love and not hate, unity and not division, to seek to dismantle the racist, sexist, and economic oppressions that threaten our mission for justice rooted in love for one another. This is very much so a part of our role, but let us also not forget to hold gratitude for the moments in which the people we serve choose to serve us by extending their own table to us, embracing us with extreme, radical love.
Maddie Murphy was a volunteer with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest in 2017-2018, serving as the Community Support Coordinator at Wintonia Community Housing. She graduated from Fordham University and is from Wayzata, Minnesota.