John the Baptist has always been a fascinating Biblical figure. He is often depicted as a man who truly belonged in the wilderness and proclaimed into the void. But I imagine him to have been very charismatic, given that he had a large following. He must have had a large following because of what he was preaching: the coming of the one in whom the Spirit would remain. He preached of the coming of a new nation and unending salvation. He prepared the people for the coming of Jesus Christ.
As I prepared to celebrate this Martin Luther King, Jr., day, I listened to a recording of King preaching “Beyond Vietnam” at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967. As I closed my eyes and listened to the impassioned plea and righteous fervor, I imagined King as John the Baptist. Throughout his public ministry, King preached a vision of the United States that had never been known: one where Black men and women had the right to sit at the same table to eat and to vote with White men. King and his revolutionary co-conspirators literally paved a way to voting rights on the march from Selma to Washington.
Now, at his speech at Riverside Church, King was pleading for salvation that extended beyond the borders of the United States. Critics accused King of abandoning the cause of civil rights. But he saw it differently. He saw that the two were deeply intertwined and that the soul of the nation was on the line.
King ended his speech with a call to prepare the way of the Spirit.
“Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message — of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”
Teresa Marie Cariño Petersen is an educator and activist particularly interested in racial justice and embodiment. She currently works as a campus ministry teacher at Sacred Heart Prep, Atherton where she teaches social ethics and coordinates the immersion program. She credits her faith that does justice formation to ISN and is an alum of St. Ignatius (San Francisco), the University of San Francisco, and (soon to be) Jesuit School of Theology. She also served as a Jesuit Volunteer in New York City 13’-14’ and worked at two Jesuit parishes. Teresa also serves on the board of the National Catholic Reporter.
Find her on Instagram @teresamariecarino