I stood outside Main Building just before midnight this past Sunday, shivering in the frigid snow, waiting for my candle to be lit. A classmate shared a light; I hurried through the door. A huge gust of below-freezing wind immediately blew out the flame.
The candles were re-lit inside. My hands and face began to thaw as ushers shuffled us up the stairs. Soon the voices of some 1,000 students and faculty echoed through the Rotunda, where candles twinkled. I found a perch along the third-floor balcony.
Then it turned midnight. Everyone fell quiet. And Father John Jenkins’s voice resounded from the second floor:
“Lord God, you led your chosen people from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. We ask that you lead us, the Notre Dame community, from any enslavement that hatred, ignorance, fear, racism, injustice or anything else that prevents us from being the community of love and respect that you want us to be.”
Why were all these people bracing dangerous wind-chill and inches of snow to hear the University president lead us in prayer?
The candlelight service initiated Notre Dame’s Walk the Walk Week in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Through a series of events and community-building dialogues, this campus-wide observance of the annual holiday encourages students, faculty and staff to reflect on the values central to King’s legacy and to the mission of Notre Dame.
Father Jenkins continued: “We remember with gratitude today the witness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and we ask that we have the courage and determination to follow his example of battling injustice and living the gospel of the Lord. Help us, Lord, to make us evermore the community you want us to be.”
A Notre Dame student took the microphone to share inspiration from “The Drum Major Instinct,” the last sermon the Alabama Baptist preached before his assassination in 1968, a reflection on service and love.
Then as if we were part of Dr. King’s congregation, a student soloist from the Voices of Faith Gospel Choir began to sing, repeating “We shall not / We shall not be moved” until all three floors sang in tune together. “Like a tree planted by the water / We shall not be moved.”
We paused a moment in silence, all one thousand of us, then turned our attention to Eric Love, the University’s director of staff diversity and inclusion, who left us with the real challenge. “What will you do to walk the walk?” Love asked. “What will be said about the student body, staff, administrators, faculty of Notre Dame who grace the campus of 2016?”
We can’t just talk the talk. We have to walk the walk.
Then, in silence, we processed out the Main Building to the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue. Shielding our candles from the high winds along the route, we left them glowing at the foot of the statue.
Those 20 minutes were more powerful, more magical that I anticipated. I attended the service to honor MLK and his incredible work for racial and social justice. Today our society still struggles with the issues for which he dedicated his life to fight.
Recently people have turned to violence in protest. But this candlelight prayer service showed me how, as members of the Notre Dame community, we might peacefully encourage others to embrace King’s and continue his journey.
Drawing inspiration from two of great leaders who relied on their power in faith, peace and humility – Dr. King and Father Theodore Hesburgh – we came together as a work of healing, to heal a human community hurt by racism, repression and ignorance. We came together in prayer and that prayer strengthened us. I was reminded why Notre Dame is such a special place.
The midnight prayer was a call to action to march forward in love. That’s what it means to walk the walk.